Asynchronous Accommodations

At the beginning of the semester, it’s routine for me to receive several letters from our office of disability services requesting accommodations for students. These letters are form letters where they just drop in a list of accommodations from a fairly standard list of options, such as time and a half on exams and quizzes, or flexible attendance, or access to outlines or slides for lectures. It’s a decent system because it doesn’t force students to ask directly or to disclose their disabilities if they don’t want to, and I read each one carefully.

Photo of a notebook, laptop, cell phone, and coffee
Multiple points of entry

My favorite feeling is when I read these letters and I can smugly think to myself “That’s already built into my course design.” Because I’m consciously trying to make inclusive, accessible designs in my policies, it always feels like a confirmation that I’m doing something right, and in teaching, those confirmations are few and far between. It also means less labor for myself and the students who need the accommodations, because I don’t have to remember which students get the accommodations and they don’t have to arrange for them for every instance. Accessible design is really a win-win like that.

This semester I’m getting the same letters, of course. And I’m experiencing the same smug satisfaction when I see most of them are either irrelevant to my course or already built in. But, of course, because this semester I’m teaching asynchronously online (something I’ve generally only done over the summer before, with fewer sections), the places it’s built in are different, and the items that get checked off as “already did it” are a little different too.

For instance, flexible attendance? Not really an issue in an asynchronous course. It was an issue for in-person classes, because I also had to accommodate a program-wide attendance standard. That was one of the ones that I didn’t already have built in, but now it is.

Extra time on exams and quizzes? That was a minor issue in in-person classes, although I seldom used in-class exams; it did mean making sure the students had safe places to take the exam if they needed the accommodations, either by arranging it through the disability office (for uninterrupted time) or having them take their work to my office to finish up (depending on the students’ preference, of course). But in an asynchronous class, it’s a pretty easy accommodation to make happen, if it even needs to be accommodated at all. Canvas, my institution’s LMS, allows me to assign time limits to specific students to override the class-wide time limit. However, that’s not a feature I’m worried about, because my dedication to flexibility and not using surveillance strategies in my class this semester means that my reading quizzes aren’t timed to start with and students can retake them.

Access to transcripts, notes, slides, or a note-taker for lectures? Already granted by the design of the course because that’s literally the design of the course. That’s basically their main point of contact for the course content. And, since I make sure all my videos have either captions or transcripts (or both), it’s doubly baked into the course.

There are, of course, some things that are more difficult to accommodate for in asynchronous coursework. Some disabilities might do better with face-to-face office hours, for instance, where they can better read body language or where I can look over their shoulder while they do an exercise and help them through it and provide them a space to work in my office. But overall, I’m finding that it’s a net gain for accessible design.

Photo of three apples
So, what can we take away from this?

So, what are some things to think about while you work on your asynchronous course for accessible design?

  • Provide text options that are screen-reader friendly; make sure images have alt-text or are marked as decorative if they are, and offer transcriptions of images that include text (such as memes or PDFs)
  • Caption and/or transcribe videos. This works easier if you write the script first rather than improvise videos, because writing scripts takes less time than transcribing improvised audio
  • Offer multiple points of entry; this can be allowing students to watch a video or read a webpage, or it might simply be making sure that your content is equally accessible on a mobile device as it is on a monitor.
  • If you have accessibility checker tools, as Canvas offers, use them often to check for things you might not notice because of your specific abilities. You might also download the student-version of the app for your LMS and occasionally look at your content from there to make sure it looks right.
  • Consider your use of color. Color has a lot of different ways it can interact with disabilities from the obvious case of color-blindness making it difficult to distinguish certain common color pairs (green-red is the most common, but blue-yellow or red-blue are also common) to the less obvious case of certain learning disabilities making bright, loud color schemes distracting or overwhelming. Here’s a helpful thread of design tips for visual design.

Here is a useful set of guidelines addressing specific needs that can help you with inclusive, accessible design:

Remember that inclusive design benefits everyone. It’s not extra labor; it’s just want it takes to do things right. And if you do inclusive design right, you save yourself the labor elsewhere when you will inevitably get requests to make something more accessible. I’d rather design it right from the ground up and make my course accessible to a than have to remember which five students out of a hundred need specific accommodations.

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