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Accessible Learning Environments

There are estimated to be 50 million people with disabilities in the U.S. today. Disabilities may be temporary, relapsing or remitting, or long-term. Although there are hundreds of distinct kinds of disabilities, we may group them into the following categories: physical disabilities, mental disabilities, and sensory disabilities. Disabilities are complex; they may be a source of stigma or shame and may also be a cherished part of a person’s identity and the basis for meaningful community.

Although Vermont State University encourages all students with disabilities who desire reasonable accommodations to seek services through the Academic Support office, faculty have an essential role to play in making courses accessible and creating a climate of equity and inclusion. While individual needs are difficult to anticipate, there are many things professors can do to create inclusive and accessible environments for a wide diversity of learners.

Most of the strategies highlighted in the sections below reflect the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is an educational framework that emphasizes the use of flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments in order to provide effective instruction to a diversity of learners. Rather than approaching accessibility as an afterthought or only on a case-by-case basis, UDL principles help instructors to design courses that address the needs of diverse learners from the start so that all students may benefit. For example, a note-taker is a common accommodation given to students with disabilities, however, in note-heavy classes, this may be beneficial to many students. Some instructors rotate the role of note-taker throughout the class as a way of creating a shared set of notes that all students can access.

Communication with Students

Creating open lines of communication with your students is essential. There are a variety of ways instructors can build a foundation for open communication:

  • Consider adding an “Inclusive Learning Statement” to your syllabus. Tulane University’s Accessible Syllabus website offers the following example: “Your success in this class is important to me. We will all need accommodations because we all learn differently. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or exclude you, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies to meet both your needs and the requirements of the course. I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services to determine how you could improve your learning as well. If you need official accommodations, you have a right to have these met. There are also a range of resources on campus, including the Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Academic Advising Center.” Reiterate your desire to help all students succeed by communicating a version of this statement aloud in the first week of class.
    • Note, the Accessible Syllabus website has many other helpful recommendations to create an accessible syllabus, including information on formatting, text, images, rhetoric, and other course policies.
  • When you receive notification from your campus disability services office that a student has requested accommodations in your course, reach out to the student individually, in private, to discuss how accommodations may work best for them. A student’s disclosure of a disability is always voluntary and some students may feel nervous to disclose sensitive medical information to an instructor. Whether or not a student discloses details of their disability, you can discuss appropriate accommodations. In some cases, accommodations may be straight forward – such as providing an alternative testing location. Other situations may require ongoing brainstorming between the instructor and student. It can be helpful for an instructor to describe upcoming activities or assignments (particularly those not fully described in the syllabus) and ask the student what, if any, additional accommodations may be needed. As the course proceeds, it is helpful to check in with the student periodically. Not all needs can be anticipated in advance, and given the nature of some disabilities, needs may change over the course of a term. Ask the student, “How are the accommodations we have implemented working for you? Is there anything we should consider changing?”
  • When you make announcements in class, for example regarding changes in due dates or room locations, make sure to always send them in an email or online announcement as well.
  • Consider your course policies in the interest of creating an inclusive classroom environment. For example, do you have a no laptop policy in your classroom? If so, how might that negatively impact students with disabilities?
Physical Learning Spaces

Ensuring physical accessibility includes consideration of the building location, the classroom location (within a building), as well as the layout of the classroom, and classroom technologies (i.e. lighting, tables, seating, projection, white boards). When considering the physical accessibility of your class, keep in mind:

  • Changes in weather or campus activities can disproportionately impact students with mobility impairments. For example, sidewalks may be impassable due to snow or ice, piles of yard debris during landscaping, or equipment in place for a campus event. These may delay students or may present such a barrier that a student may need to participate remotely. As a best practice, if you notice an area that is inaccessible on campus (which also includes inoperable lifts, elevators, or audible crossings at crosswalks), let the plant operations department know immediately.
  • To the greatest extent possible, set up your classroom so that students with wheelchairs or service dogs have room to navigate into and around the class. For example, if the classroom is set up with workstations, consider leaving an open spot—without a chair—at multiple tables.
  • Engage your students in thinking about accessibility in your classroom. Some rooms may not have any moveable furniture, but present options in terms of lighting, sound, or size of text on presentation materials. Other rooms may be highly adaptable.
  • Moving classes at the last minute and changing classroom layouts can cause difficulty for a range of students, including those with mobility, sight, or hearing impairments, as well as people with anxiety. For example, students using guide dogs may spend up to a month before classes begin training their guide dog to navigate them to class, and to a particular seat within the class. Whenever possible, alert students in advance as to changes of location or room set up.
Course Materials

Ensuring accessibility of course materials includes consideration of 1) the course management system (i.e. Canvas); 2) assigned reading materials, handouts, and presentations; and 3) audio or video used in class. Creating accessible materials takes time. It can necessitate learning new technologies and being creative when considering alternative ways to share information, and/or allow students to participate in class.

Course Management System

Many course management systems have built in accessibility features, such as screen reader accessibility features, keyboard-online navigation features, screen magnifiers, and design features to assist both students and instructors. To learn how to make your content more accessible please check with Canvas Support or the CTLI. Ultimately, it is an instructor’s responsibility to get to know the accessibility features and limitations of their institution’s course management system, and to take advantage of the tools that will allow their students to fully participate.

Course reading, handouts and presentation materials

It is important to make your syllabus and course materials available to students as soon as possible, so students who may need more time can begin accessing materials. The most common strategy for increasing accessibility of course texts (which include any assigned readings, presentations, and handouts) is providing versions that are readable, especially by screen readers. Most computers come equipped with a screen reader technology, which essentially converts printed text into auditory words to which the user can listen. For this technology to work, reading materials must be saved in a text file, such as a Word Document or Rich Text Format (RTF). Converting materials from PDF or PPT to readable text increases accessibility to a wide variety of learners, including people with learning disabilities, literacy difficulties, visual impairments, or people who multitask. You may find some readable text versions of your course materials are already available. In other cases, you may need to prepare them.

Importantly, text-reading-technology does have limitations. If there are graphics that are critical to the course materials (i.e. tables, graphs, or other images), you will need to find another way to share these with students who have sight impairments, for example by explaining figures in prose form, transferring the graphic onto a tactile surface, or creating a 3-D model of the figure.

Audio & Video

Instructors increasingly utilize audio and video materials in class. Captions and descriptions are required by law to support students with disabilities, though as described below may benefit a wide range of learners. There are two types of technologies to increase accessibility to audio and video.

Converting audio (or audio portions of video) to text (e.g., closed captioning) can be done through computer-assisted-programs. Captioning video increases accessibility to a wide variety of learners, including people with learning disabilities, literacy difficulties, hearing impairments, or second language learners.

Creating audio descriptions of visual images is typically needs to be done by a person in real-time, or through use of a pre-recorded narrative. Audio descriptions of video increases accessibility to a wide variety of learners, including people with learning disabilities, literacy difficulties, and visual impairments.

The primary software packages used by Vermont State for web-based conferencing and video recording are Zoom and YuJa. To learn how to make your content developed in these systems more accessible please check with IT Support Services.

Classroom Climate

Students learn best when they feel respected, included, and that instructors are invested in their development. Students with disabilities can experience stigma, marginalization, and negative stereotypes from their peers and instructors. In Barbara Davis’s Tools for Teaching, she explains that it is important for instructors to “become aware of any biases and stereotypes [they] may have absorbed…Your attitudes and values not only influence the attitudes and values of your students, but they can affect the way you teach, particularly your assumptions about students…which can lead to unequal learning outcomes for those in your classes” (2010, p. 58).

Strategies for creating an inclusive and welcoming classroom climate include:

  • Pay attention to your engagement with students. In courses where teacher/student ratio allows, endeavor to learn and use students’ names. Use classroom engagement strategies that allow students to contribute in a variety of ways, for example, through online discussion boards, in-class discussions, and individual assignments.
  • Pay attention to and enable group interactions in the classroom. Use peer-to-peer engagement strategies that facilitate relationship-building, trust, and the creation of a learning community within the class.
  • Respond to microaggressions in the classroom. People with disabilities experience a multitude of everyday comments and behaviors that, while not intended to be hurtful, nonetheless can be stigmatizing, marginalizing, and/ or dehumanizing. Microaggressions ultimately communicate implicit assumptions and prejudices that can injure the targeted group, alienating them from their peers and the learning community faculty attempt to create. It is important for instructors to be attentive to microaggressions in the classroom, to normalize inclusive and appropriate language, and to consider effective strategies for turning difficult dialogues into teachable moments.
Out of Class Activities

Not all learning happens in the classroom. Does your course integrate lab work, field work, practicum placements, internships, service learning, or presentations in community based or academic settings? If so, it will be important to think about accessibility within these spaces as well. The Ohio State University’s Composing Access website offers helpful guidelines for creating accessible events.

Note, the strategies suggested in this guide are not exhaustive. For more recommendations, review this Checklist for Course Accessibility.

Citation: Thurber, A., &  Bandy, J. (2018). Creating Accessible Learning Environments. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved May 2, 2023 from


This teaching guide, which has been modified from its original form, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.