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Preliminary thoughts on accessibility in the classroom

A sketchier-than-normal essay written in preparation for the Monday Chairs’ Meeting, which will include a conversation about a report from The Disability and Accessibility Task Force. You could see some of their recommendations if they hadn’t chosen to put them on GrinCo. (More on that choice, which I consider immoral, in a later essay.) I also need to write an essay about the other report we’re looking at in that meeting, from the Residential Learning Task Force, but it’s late at night and I think this one will take less time.

I look forward with some trepidation to the upcoming conversation about accessibility in the monthly Chairs’ Meeting. Why? Because I’ve heard rumors that a previous conversation with faculty about accessibility went poorly. So let’s start with the obvious things.

First, making things accessible to our students makes moral sense. Our goal is to help students learn. We should try to support our students, even if they require somewhat different approaches.

Second, it’s the law. Even if we don’t want to, we have to.

Third, we’re fortunate. We have folks on campus who are committed to supporting us as we make our classes accessible, and we have the resources to do so. I know at least one staff member who has been sitting in multiple classes, supporting remote communication for students who could not be there in person. I know that they spend huge numbers of hours putting written works into a variety of accessible formats.

We’re also fortunate that accessibility is a clear topic of discussion on our campus. I’ve seen candidates for senior administrative positions who are clearly clueless about these issues. (And no, we don’t generally hire such folks.)

So, what’s the problem? Primarily it’s that it takes effort on our part to make our classes accessible, and it can change how we act. It means that we can’t do as many ad-libbed, last minute assignments or readings or whatever as we’d like. (As someone who ad-libs a lot, I’ll admit that I sometimes find that frustrating.) It means that we need to consider the implications of the media choices we make. If we have video in class, it needs to be captioned (and, ideally, narrated). If we use software, we need to make sure that it’s accessible, or that we provide an appropriate alternative. That’s scary, particularly for those who don’t know what makes software accessible or not so accessible.

One thing that may be frustrating folks is that we are often called upon to do this work proactively. Particularly in the case of digital media (video, software, etc.), we are not waiting until we need to make accommodations for particular students. Instead, we are being asked to be inclusive from the start. We will need to consider accessibility when we ask for new software for our classes (or, more precisely, we will need to work with folks to make sure that the software is either accessible or that we can find an appropriate alternative). When designing Web pages, we should be thinking about navigation and ease of use. (But we should be doing that anyway.) And we need to caption. (And narrate.) It’s extra work, and it’s extra work for faculty who are often at their limits. Doing so without a clear audience can be frustrating.

I will admit that I worry about our introductory classes in computer science, classes which focus very much on the visual (making images in CSC 151, making robots move in CSC 161). If we have a visually impaired student join those classes, what will we do? The courses are successful in many ways. Do we give that up for accessibility? And how do we build something new? As my colleague, Henry Walker, is fond of noting, it took us months of full-time work to write the readings and labs for those courses. How will we find that time?

Questions like this make me panic a bit, and I’m sure that they make others panic, too. But I remember that other faculty have found ways to accommodate, and I’m hopeful that I can, too. Certainly, we’ve had visually impaired students succeed in statistics and econ, and those are very visual fields. We just need the appropriate support. It may mean that we use some devices that provide physical representation of images. (We may have to do less with color; that will require some work.) It may mean returning to the pre-image version of the class, at least for one section. It will require some creative thought. And, I should remember, that thinking creatively about teaching is one of the things that I love.

So, what does this all mean for Monday’s meeting? I’m not sure. I should be sympathetic to my colleagues who are worried about what the new policies and practices will mean. I should prepare myself for rethinking some of the ways that I teach. I should support the folks making the presentation.

Primarily, I’ll go to the meeting and listen. I hope that it goes well. In any case, maybe it will be an opportunity for another essay.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-08.