Building in Accessibility from the Beginning

When History master’s student Hannah Facknitz was preparing for her first term as a teaching assistant, she realized that disability was mentioned in the description for just one of the online teaching webinars that she saw on offer: “Accessibility in Online Learning.”

Facknitz was concerned that disabled students were considered for online learning during the pandemic only after everyone else was first attended to.  She sent out a tweet asking fellow disabled instructors and academics what their experience had been in terms of accessible learning during the pandemic.

A graduate student at the University of Alberta, Danielle Lorenz, responded with a suggestion that they create a resource specifically for instructors to learn how to develop more inclusive classrooms.  So that’s what they did.

Facknitz points out that “online teaching can pose issues for disabled students that face-to-face teaching may not.”

“The history of higher ed as producing knowledge that continues to marginalize disabled people is an important one. We thought, disabled students are going to be left behind unless we think proactively about how to accommodate them,” says Facknitz.  “It was a collaborative project. We built it knowing we don’t know everything. We’re not experts in building course design. We’re just two disabled graduate students who thought, we can’t leave our peers behind, and we don’t want to be left behind either. We went into it saying we’re not experts, we want community support, and people responded.”

There is a lot to consider in accessible virtual learning environments, says Facknitz, including learning how to caption lectures, the ethics of asking people to have their cameras on, the needs of those with sensory processing issues, and how to create an environment that doesn’t cause harm.

“We have to create an environment for disabled people to flourish. For example, academic rigour is an ableist concept. It is based on the notion that certain thoughts are valued and worthy of academic recognition. It’s based in sexism and white supremacy, where disabled knowledge is certainly not prioritized,” says Facknitz. “People seem to think the process for accommodations is reasonable if they’ve never gone through it.”

Classes that are more than two hours long in lecture, Facknitz says, require students to be physically able to endure the duration of the lectures, meaning that students who are abled are more able to compete in the classroom. Facknitz calls the idea of competition “problematic.”

She and Lorenz urge instructors to “build in accessibility from the beginning” and essentially design courses with accessibility in mind for disabled students so there is less reliance on “the ad hoc system of individual accommodation.”

“What would be beautiful is that we are not a surprise as disabled people, that we are expected and welcomed in classrooms,” says Facknitz.