Over the last 30 years, federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) opened the door for more students with disabilities to enroll in college. While statistics show that the 2015-2016 academic year ushered in an increasing number of students with disabilities in higher education, countless students do not inform their university about their disability. Surprisingly, only one-third of students with disabilities reported it to their institution (NCES, 2022). Considering these numbers, perhaps more students would report their disability if they felt assured professors would support them academically. Although technological advancements have provided faculty tools for helping accommodate students with disabilities, there are a few strategies faculty could find useful when designing their courses. Implementing these strategies are not only beneficial for teachers, but they also have the power to ease additional challenges for students pursuing a post-secondary degree with a disability.
Most common accommodations by students with disabilities
- Extended time on exams (double time or time and a half)
- Use of laptops for tests and exams requiring lengthy essays
- Use of calculators for math-related tests and exams
- Permission to record lectures
- Reduced course load — could affect financial aid
- Early access to course registration
- Faculty-provided copies of lecture notes by note-takers
- Use of e-books or audiobooks
- Access to voice recognition software
- Access to text-to-speech programs
It is important to consider that each student may require specific accommodations depending on their disability, major, or class setting (i.e., in-person, online, or hybrid).
Accommodations for in-person classes
For faculty, providing accommodations to students in face-to-face classes can be an ongoing process, depending on each student’s needs. It is essential for faculty to maintain a student’s privacy. If a student wants to discuss accommodations, try to do so during office hours or via email. For example, if a student requests a note-taker, it is important professors reach out to students interested in note-taking via email rather than making an announcement aloud during class to ensure the student’s privacy. Additionally, students may request other accommodations during in-person classes due to the interactive nature of this learning setting. For instance, when assigned to work in groups during class, students who may have trouble focusing or even hearing the discussion due to the noise level may ask the professor for permission to work in the library or outside.
Additional recommendations for faculty during in-person lectures involve small group interactions and calling upon students to create an atmosphere of engagement and dialogue.
- Permit students to select group members they wish to work with and do not change groups
- To reduce students’ social anxiety in small-group formations, faculty can prearrange groups
- Allow students to work in one-on-one collaborative teams
- Offer the possibility of having students interact with groupmates virtually via Zoom or Teams
- Assign a student to serve as a captionist or scribe in the student’s group to take notes during group sessions
- Allow group work to occur in the hallway or outside the classroom
- Seek the provision of accessible tables, chairs, and other furniture that are available for students to get comfortable and actively participate
- If possible, give students the option to submit the assignment solo or provide an assignment with the same objectives
Cold or random call
- If students will be called upon, provide students a signal or advanced notice
- Call upon students if and when their hand is raised
- Give the student the option pass if called upon
- Allow students to answer in written form
Accommodations for online courses
For students with disabilities, access to information in an online or hybrid class setting could alter the course of their post-secondary experience. Faculty must consider accommodations regarding how students interact with the content and how it is designed.
Accommodations for students to interact with course content
- Faculty can ensure all videos have captions or replace them with videos that do have captions available, and consider providing students with a transcript of the video
- Students can work with a reader/scribe to read and input answers
- Faculty should take the initiative to consider accessibility when selecting third-party content or software and make alternative arrangements, if necessary
- Incorporate 3D models into online information so students can retain the information in the format that best works for them
- Make sure a screen reader is compatible with any online platform you require students to use
Accommodations to course content design
- Present content using consistent layouts and organization schemes
- Implement a text-based format and structure content using headings and lists, with style and formatting features within the Learning Management System (LMS) utilized by your institution, along with content creation software (i.e., Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Acrobat) to apply built-in page layouts
- Tables do not work well with screen readers, so consider alternative organizational elements
- Use descriptive wording for hyperlink text rather than “click here”
- Post most instructor-created content within LMS content pages (i.e., in HTML) and link to it only as a secondary source of information if a PDF is desired
- Provide concise text descriptions of the content presented within images (text descriptions of web resource)
- Use large, bold, sans-serif fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds
- Implement color combinations that have a high contrast so students with color blindness can decipher the information
- Try to limit the number of technology products, unless they are related to the course topic
- Use asynchronous tools
- Ensure technology can be utilized with a keyboard alone or take accessible design practices into consideration
Faculty should consider implementing these strategies during the design phase of their curriculum and syllabus. Once a course is already in progress, implementing these strategies could be a daunting task, so it is worthwhile to make them a part of your courses as early as possible.
Hawa Allarakhia has a masters in education from the University of South Florida (USF) and is currently a doctoral candidate at USF. She is studying program development with a research interest in disability services. She holds the position of graduate assistant in the Office of Research.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (n.d.). FAST FACTS Students with disabilities. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2020, April 26). A Majority of College Students with Disabilities Do Not Inform School, New NCES Data Show. https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/press_releases/4_26_2022.asp