Accessibility 101 by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

Today I’d like to talk to you about Accessibility, as defined by the quality of being easy to obtain or use, understood or appreciated. It’s only right, as July 27th was the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For 30 years, the law has been the low bar our society has set for attempting to legislate equal access for those citizens who live with disabilities. So ramps, automatic doors, wider doorways, special bathroom stalls became the way going forward.

But we can do better. Much better. We can improve our inclusive practices.

While I was gathering materials for this video, I searched the GED web site, looking for their statement on accessibility. Here it is:

“Accessibility in the sense considered here refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments so as to be usable by people with disabilities…. Accessibility can be viewed as the “ability to access” and benefit from some system or entity.”

This sounds great, but I’m flashing on my 15 years as an English teacher in a community college setting. Each semester on the first day of classes, there would be 1, 2, maybe 3 students in each class who would come up to me after my opening day introduction and syllabus review and hand me a blue sheet of paper from Access Services indicating that they had a need for some kind of accommodation. Some were easy—extra time on tests, copies of my lecture notes, a seat in the front row. Some were less so—the student was visually impaired or fully blind. The student had hearing impairment and would have a signer in the class with them. Some had learning disabilities that made it difficult for them to recognize linguistic syntax. And by the next time I saw these students (2 days from now), I should have a plan in place to make my course content accessible. I remember feeling overwhelmed, under-prepared, and like I needed a PhD in Special Education and also to quickly master the science of cloning so I could be all things to all students. That not being a legitimate option, I set about tackling the challenge. I reacted to the situation, rather than being proactive, and I don’t recommend that as a strategy to reduce your stress. My blundering about did bring about some workable solutions, and it prompted me to re-imagine what my classroom would be, what my actual role would be. My experience-chastened advice would be that you do this BEFORE the first day.

I have had students from every category on the list. You may have, too. The Centers for Disease Control report on their web site that 1 in 5 adults reports having some kind of mobility disability. 1 in 5! That means you either know someone or are someone who is affected.
Cognitive Disabilities are slightly more difficult to track, since not everyone who has one reports it. I know I had several students who had clear learning disabilities but no history with access services. Their parents hadn’t wanted them to be stigmatized with labels, and so they arrived in my class without the necessary infrastructure for navigating the system successfully.

Those who are in the lower income brackets are more likely to report disabilities, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are more prevalent in this group. They are just more likely to ask for help.

What does all this mean to you? It means it’s time to talk about Universal Design. Universal Design in education actually springs out of the idea of Universal Design in architecture originating with Ronald Mace, an architect who coined the phrase in his work on designing spaces for people with different disabilities in the 1990’s. Educators cannibalized the idea, as they do, and appropriated it with the following definition:

“Universal design calls for “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (“About UD: Universal Design Principles’).

The idea behind universal design is NOT compromise. It is that in designing a space to be inclusive of people of all abilities, we actually create an environment that is better for everyone.

In my experience, this is true. I found that by taking simple steps, I actually improved outcomes for ALL of my students, not just those with diagnosed disabilities. For instance, I recorded short stories, assignment descriptions, and video lectures for those students with visual impairment. This made it possible for those with crazy schedules or ADD to listen over and over, as many times as necessary. I worked with our faculty resource center to caption my videos for those with hearing impairment, but this also helped those whose first language was not English; I worked on adding graphics that improved understanding for those who are more visual learners and employed peer groups for writing assignments so students had more than just the teacher to look at their work before it came in to be graded. I re-evaluated the readings, looking for stories and examples of writing assignments that made sense given my current population. I investigated dictation software candidates for those who had problems with typing because of injuries or digital impairment or visual impairment. The adaptations made such a difference in student engagement that I kept them in my courses long after the students had moved on to other classes.

These are the 7 principles of Universal Design. Use this lens to look at your classes:

The Seven Principles of Universal Design

  • PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use.
  • PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use.
  • PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use.
  • PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information.
  • PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error.
  • PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort.
  • PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use.

They are general so you can adapt them to your own needs, which is kind of the point.

I would even engage the students in this process—create a questionnaire that teases out what they feel would help them. No need to guess here! Find out from your administrators what is possible, once you have your list of possibilities from your learners. Technology is really big in universal design, but it’s not everything. The will to make substantive changes comes from you because equally substantive changes will occur in student outcomes.

Vow to do what’s possible, not just what’s required. Use your new eyes to look at your classroom as the portal to learning it should be for ALL who enter there. What untapped potential can be unlocked when we stop limiting our learners based on diagnoses or deficits—or worse yet, our own inability to adapt?

I look forward to continuing this conversation with you in my Mentor Mondays, which I hold every other Monday. Check our i-Pathways Learning Lab web site for registration information.

Works Cited

“About UD: Universal Design Principles”. The Center for Universal Design. 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-05-13.)

Hall, Tracey E., Anne Meyer, David H. Rose. Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications. Guilford Press. August 24, 2012.

Further Reading

Providing New Access to the General Curriculum: Universal Design for Learning

Deafness and Hearing Loss


Learning Disabilities and Difficulties

Mental Health Difficulties

Visual Impairments

Getting Started with Accessibility and Inclusion

Boals T., Castro M., Shafer Willner L. (2018) Moving Beyond Assumptions of Cultural Neutrality to Improve Accessibility and Opportunity to Learn for English Language Learners. In: Elliott S., Kettler R., Beddow P., Kurz A. (eds) Handbook of Accessible Instruction and Testing Practices. Springer, Champer.

Gilbert, Emily N. (2019) Designing Inclusive Physical Education with Universal Design for LearningJournal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 90:7, pages 15-21.

Frederic Fovet. 2020. Using Universal Design for Learning to Optimize Flexibility in Assessment and Class Activities While Maximizing Alignment With Course Objectives. Optimizing Higher Education Learning Through Activities and Assessments, pages 115-138.

I A Nugroho, Z K Prasetyo. (2019) How to make slow learners learn science. Journal of Physics: Conference Series 1321, pages 032092.

Mey A. van Munster, Laureen J. Lieberman, Michelle A. Grenier. (2019) Universal Design for Learning and Differentiated Instruction in Physical Education. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, pages 359-377.

Sa, Carla and Florax, Raymond J.G.M. and Rietveld, Piet, Does Accessibility to Higher Education Matter? Choice Behavior of High School Graduates in the Netherlands (June 2004). Tinbergen Institute Discussion Paper No. 04-061/3, Available at SSRN: or

U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Ensuring English learner students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs. Washington, DC: Author. Available: Scholar

Winston Kennedy, Joonkoo Yun. (2019) Universal Design for Learning as a Curriculum Development Tool in Physical EducationJournal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 90:6, pages 25-31.