How Educators Can Support Accessibility
Even When Their Schools Don’t
All three of my degrees — a BA in sociology, an MA in English and literature, and an MFA in fiction writing — were earned online, from the same university. Having had lupus since the age of four, traditional school has always been inaccessible to me and because of this, I didn’t begin college until I was 32. I simply cannot sit in a lecture hall or lab for hours on end and come out of it having retained anything. It’s just too painful to force myself to sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time. Online classes served my needs perfectly well.
In the summer of 2018, I became sick with West Nile Meningitis and lost a significant amount of my hearing. I was fortunate that my partner of ten years was a Deaf woman and I quickly and easily adapted to this new disability. I was already fairly proficient at lip reading and asking nicely for accommodations for her. Because most of my communication with people was either in ASL or typed on social media, conversing with people remained easy and I was unprepared for how many barriers I was about to face as I began my MFA program.
The online MFA I was enrolled in was entirely video based. Through video discussion posts and videos from our professors, we would essentially simulate the traditional MFA cohort. This brilliant method stands to open earning an MFA to people, like me, whose lives don’t accommodate the traditional on-campus, put your whole life on hold and abandon your job approach most MFA programs require. It opens up the ability to earn an MFA to everyone but disabled people. Specifically, those who are Deaf, hard of hearing, or blind or low-vision.
Now, you may be thinking the mere existence of the ADA would require a school provide an accessible experience to all students, no matter their disability, and you’re right, but only to an extent. The ADA, in my estimation, does not exist to serve or protect disabled people so much as it serves as a cover-your-ass band-aid for companies and schools. You see, the ADA only requires accommodations for students who qualify for it. How do you qualify? Well, you have to prove that you’re disabled enough, prove that you have a “special” need, and have that need approved by the university. The burden of access is entirely on the student. Now let me ask you, if you were paying thousands of dollars for a class but still had to spend even more money to prove you should be able to access that class, would you be likely to continue? Probably not.
My process for securing accommodations that would have made my classes accessible to me looked like this:
- Contact the accessibility office.
- Wait for a response.
- Find out what I needed to do to request accommodations.
- Fill out forms.
- Spend hundreds of dollars on doctors appointments to prove what I already knew — that I couldn’t hear.
- Send that medical proof to the accessibility office.
- Wait for them to review it.
- If they chose to approve it, wait for them to find a solution for me.
- All the while, miss the education that I was paying the same price as everyone else for and miss the camaraderie of my MFA cohort.
All this for an entirely online program in which they could have simply implemented captions from the start.
I chose to not go through this process and instead, call on my social media accessibility community to force the school into action. It took over a year and a half, but finally, the school saw how ridiculous their policies were and said they would begin requiring transcripts or captions for all video posts. But not until the term after I graduated.
I was very lucky to have had a couple professors who were glad to provide me with whatever accommodations they could, even though they weren’t required to because I didn’t go through the process. Unfortunately, the majority of my professors simply repeated the company line, “Talk to the accessibility office,” and carried on as usual. A couple of my professors were even somewhat hostile when I had the nerve to ask that they slightly alter how they conducted class (ask any disabled person and you will find hostility aimed at us is very common).
My point in all this is, the burden of access is always on disabled people. Always.
So, what can you, as an educator, do to support disabled students when your school isn’t doing enough?
*Note that while each of these points are aimed at online education, they can easily be adapted and applied to in-person education.
- Assume that you have disabled students, even if they haven’t disclosed this. Many don’t feel safe or comfortable disclosing a disability and many more may not even know that they would learn better if material was presented in an accessible manner. 3Play Media noted in their ACCESS At Home conference that students retain information better through videos that have captions on. So teach as if all of your students require accommodations and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
- Deliver all lectures with captions. If your school’s LMS doesn’t provide this as an option, you can record or stream your lectures via OBS and use Web Captioner to provide students with live auto-captions. (If you’re teaching in-person, wear a mic connected to a computer and you can still use this method.)
- Take the time after recording or streaming your lecture to copy edit your transcript and provide your students with this as well. Not only will it help Deaf/hoh students and those with auditory processing issues, it’ll be a wonderful resource for students to study from as well.
- Practice speaking accessibly. What on earth does that mean? I work as a captionist and can very confidently tell you, my job is 100% easier when captioning scripted talks and videos as opposed to livestreams or conversational videos. If you speak as though you’re giving a talk to an audience instead of just chatting with your students, auto-captions will be significantly more accurate (less copy editing for you!) and students will retain the information better, if for no other reason than you’ll likely eliminate all the fillers, “umm” “uhh” “you know” and “like,” from your speech.
- If your school is anything like the one I attended, they love presenting information in PDF form with pretty graphics and charts and memorable cartoons. While that’s all well and good, do you know who is failed by this presentation of information? Blind and low-vision students. When giving students information via PDF or infographic, always, always, always make sure you provide a text-only version of the information as well.
- Provide students with a safe space in which they can privately discuss their accessibility needs with you. And never make them justify or qualify those needs. Being disabled is a constant exercise in having to justify your needs and qualify your existence as worthy to abled society. We have to “sell” ourselves, extole our skills and virtues to be seen as valid and valuable by our abled peers. Don’t make us do that in the classroom.
- Educate students on ableist language and abstain from using it yourself, whether you have disabled students in your class or not.
- Lastly, take on the job of pushing your school towards better accessibility and inclusion. Advocate for it, educate other teachers on the topic, work with disabled student groups to learn precisely what they need and help them get it.
Online education stands a real chance to level the playing field for disabled people when it comes to access to education, but only if schools don’t insist on applying their strict (and quite often absurd) traditional education accommodation policies to online programs.