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Accessible teaching strategies

“Accessibility is about recognizing that access is a complex, relational configuration as people move and share space together. Accessible teaching requires us to be in conversation with and responsive to our students.”

Stephanie Kerschbaum, UW professor and disability studies scholar

As Kerschbaum suggests, accessibility is a mindset and an ongoing process of planning, designing, and adapting our teaching around the needs of our students. While designing accessible, inclusive learning environments is essential for meeting the needs of students with disabilities, doing so will ultimately help all of our students learn and succeed.

Integrating accessible, inclusive strategies into your teaching practice takes effort. However, investing in accessible teaching can reduce last-minute scrambling, takes less time than remediating inaccessible materials, and may reduce the number of accommodation requests you receive.

The guidance and strategies below were created in conversation with members of an Accessible Teaching Working Group* convened by the Center for Teaching and Learning.

General strategies

General strategies

  • On the first day and in your syllabus, acknowledge that creating accessible spaces and experiences is an ongoing process and indicate your willingness to learn and be flexible. 
  • Encourage all members of the classroom community to participate in the project of advancing accessibility. Consider working with students to co-create community agreements or grading criteria that address accessibility.
  • Prompt students to explore accessible formats for sharing information. Consider sharing the UW Accessible Technologies “Documents” Checklist with students so that they can develop documents and files that are more accessible.

  • Try to plan your course well in advance of the beginning of the term. This will minimize your need to add things at the last minute, which can create accessibility challenges for some students.
  • Include a statement in your syllabus explaining that students with disabilities who need accommodations should connect with the Disability Resources for Students office.
  • Reflect on what questions students had in the past and develop accessible resources you can deploy when these issues arise in subsequent classes.

  • Keep things simple. Reflect on whether the value of a technology tool outweighs the additional complexity, reliability issues, and accessibility challenges it might bring.
  • Technology is not automatically accessible and many free technologies available through the web are not accessible. Connect with UW Learning Technologies to explore what UW-supported technologies might fit your needs.

  • Having information in advance can help students plan and prepare. Consider what information you can share in your syllabus, rubrics, and assignment instructions.
  • Respond promptly to requests from the Disability Resources for Students office. 
  • Develop a library of reusable, well-captioned video lectures on core content.
  • Consider placing materials for in-class activities (e.g., discussion questions, handouts, group work instructions) in Canvas, so that students have a digital version and so that they can see materials in advance.
  • If your course has timed exams, let students know in your syllabus and encourage those who need additional time to contact Disability Resources for Students as soon as possible.

  • Consider how the principles of Universal Design for Learning might help your students. Designing assignments that allow students a degree of choice in how to engage and demonstrate understanding can help students with accessibility needs succeed.
  • When integrating flexibility into your course and assignment design, clearly articulate your expectations. For example, you might decide that students need to complete late assignments before being able to begin the next assignment. Take time in your syllabus or on the first day to review this information.

Strategies for specific classroom situations

Strategies for specific situations

  • Have a plan for how to follow up on impromptu class activities or discussions. For example:
    • Use UW’s templates, which are designed for screen readers
    • Allow students to contribute to in-class discussions by posting comments in a Canvas Discussion forum or shared Google document
    • Post Announcements in Canvas that summarize impromptu class conversations.
  • If student feedback points to a need to adjust, give yourself time to respond in an accessible way. Implement your adjustment or follow-up instruction in a subsequent class session.
  • Post any new content or materials you develop on Canvas. Use Announcements in Canvas to preview changes so that students can think ahead.
  • Anticipate the need to offer make-up exams and set up clear expectations and processes ahead of time.
  • Consider offering an alternative assignment, smaller quizzes, and/or take home exams to provide students greater flexibility and agency.

  • Consider including information about mental health support in your syllabus and/or on your Canvas site.
  • Destigmatize anxiety by talking about it the first day. Acknowledge anxiety as a disability, note that you have adopted strategies to reduce classroom anxiety, and that the UW provides services for students struggling with anxiety.
  • Give students advance notice that a course or class session may include content or ideas they find upsetting.
  • Consider building flexibility into due dates (e.g., due date windows) so that students who experience an episode on a given day have an opportunity to complete work without having to seek an extension.
  • Allow students a “no-questions-asked” leave pass, where students can get up and leave without having to ask to do so. A lot of student anxiety is related to not being able to get out.
  • Provide discussion questions in advance – ideally before class – as often as possible.
  • Use warm-calling (e.g., give students a chance to think about the question, jot down some ideas, and/or discuss it with a peer before you begin calling on them). Also, consider allowing students to “pass” when called on.
  • Provide opportunities for students to respond to questions in writing (e.g., turn in an exit slip or use an online forum).

  • Establish or co-create community agreements to ensure that interaction is respectful and inclusive.
  • During group work, clearly define roles in the group and let students choose roles. Consider allowing students to suggest additional roles.
  • Encourage groups to use a shared doc to allow people to communicate in writing if they prefer.
  • When sharing out, call on the group, not an individual; ask: “What did your group talk about?” instead of “What is the answer?”
  • For peer review:
    • Make sure that students have enough time to complete the review. Consider having students review each other’s work as a homework assignment, and use class time for discussion of the review.
    • Require students to check their work for basic accessibility before exchanging it with a peer. Consider having them use the UW Accessible Technologies “Documents” checklist as a guide.

  • Make accessibility a criterion for shared materials (including peer-review submissions) and design assignments in a way that gives students time to make their materials accessible. Consider including the UW Accessible Technologies “Documents” Checklist with your assignment instructions so that they can develop documents and files that are more accessible.
  • Help students make informed, purposeful decisions on the type of media they use and provide them with access to tutorials on creating accessible content in various formats (e.g., video, audio, text, visuals).
  • Create accessible templates for students to use to share information.

  • Ask students about their needs. Create ways for students to share what they need in order to engage and participate in the experience and how you as the instructor could support them (e.g., anonymous survey, 1×1 meeting). 
  • Allow learners to develop ideas for their own experiential learning – for example, using resources, sites, and people in their own communities – to meet your experiential learning objectives. Provide choices or examples of ways they can engage.
  • When planning an out-of-classroom experience, take time to ensure that sites and facilities are accessible.
  • Video-record lab/field visits and use those to create alternative assignments for students to use in the event that they cannot attend.

*We would like to thank the following faculty and staff members for sharing their experiences and expertise, and contributing to the guidance and strategies above.

  • Lauren Graham, assistant teaching professor, Psychology
  • José Guzmán, assistant teaching professor, Aquatic & Fisheries Sciences
  • Stephanie Kerschbaum, associate professor, director, Program in Writing and Rhetoric, English
  • Britta Ossim, instructional designer, College of Education
  • Adiam Tesfay, director, Disability Resources for Students
  • Ken Yasuhara, director, Office for the Advancement of Engineering Teaching & Learning

For more information on state and federal accessibility requirements, visit the faculty and staff guidelines provided by the Disability Resources for Students Office.