Let’s face it: putting together a program can be exhausting. Coming up with a good idea, getting buy-in from key partners, developing learning outcomes, ordering food, marketing, etc. It’s understandable how the accessibility of an event for students with disabilities can sometimes fall by the wayside. However, not catching these accessibility issues can create barriers for those students. It’s important for us to figure out how to avoid these barriers slipping through the cracks.
To me, it’s similar to spelling errors: unintentional, but easy to miss. But before you submit an assignment, print a flyer, or send out a mass email, you probably use a spell-checking tool to catch any mistakes that you might have easily missed the first time around.
I invite you to use the same spell-checking mindset to catch accessibility barriers in your events, using a technique that I like to call “S.P.E.L.L. check!” S.P.E.L.L. stands for Senses, Participation, Environment, Learning, and Language. Run this S.P.E.L.L. check while putting together your next event and I promise you a more accessible experience for everyone.
Students need to be able to sense, or take in, the information you’ll be presenting. As you design your program, consider how information is communicated, and consider ways to ensure the most amount of people will be able to receive this information. A good rule of thumb is “If it’s visual, make it auditory. If it’s auditory, make it visual.” A few examples:
- Always use captioned videos. If the source of the video does not provide a captioned version, consider making captions yourself using a DIY technique.
- Provide handouts in multiple formats (e.g. both standard print and screen-reader accessible PDFs).
- Provide verbal descriptions of relevant images or videos in a presentation, with enough description to understand its meaning.
- Use large, color-contrasting fonts on slides for easier reading.
It’s important to make sure that the ways in which we’re asking for participation are inclusive of the differences in students. For example:
- If you have a movement-based activity, consider alternative ways individuals who are unable to do that specific movement could still participate. For example, instead of instructing students to “stand up when I say something that is true for you”, invite students to “stand, raise your hand, nod, or whatever feels comfortable for you”.
- If your event involves traveling, such as a campus tour, consider having everyone use the accessible routes, instead of requiring the disabled individuals to break off and reunite from the group during the inaccessible parts of the journey.
- For time-limited activities such as quizzes, consider how someone who typically needs extended time for exams might fair with the time allotted. Could you simply wait until everyone is finished? Could you arrange the schedule so that those who might need extra time can get it seamlessly?
- Invite students to stretch, eat a snack, use the restroom, take a break, etc. This allows for students whose minds and bodies have different needs to take care of themselves without being “disruptive.”
All programs take place in an environment. Consider these tips to ensure that your space will work:
- Make sure you are aware of the locations for the accessible entrances and restrooms in the building, and that signage indicates this clearly.
- Ensure that a person with a mobility impairment can reach all of the necessary areas of the room. Some older buildings have rooms with stadium-style seating that do not have accessible paths to certain sections of the room.
- Ensure that service desks, computer desks, and other furniture that students using wheelchairs may interact with are at an accessible height.
We all have different learning styles. Allowing opportunities for students to learn in their own style strengthens their learning outcomes. Try out these strategies:
- Use varied teaching techniques (lecture, discussion, reflection, role-play, etc.)
- For an information-dense presentation, provide guided notes so that students can focus less of their attention on taking notes, and more attention on learning the material.
- Create opportunities for those comfortable with the material to assist students struggling with a concept, which allows both individuals to deepen their understanding.
- Consider incorporating elements of Universal Design of Instruction (UDI).
How do you talk about disability? Students will pick up on the nuances in your language. Even if they would benefit from an accommodation, some students may hesitate to request them for fear of being stigmatized. Consider these ideas:
- Include an accommodations statement in all of your marketing materials with clear instructions on how to request accommodations for an event.
- Include “disability” in your department’s diversity/inclusion language.
- Take a moment at the beginning of your event to reiterate your commitment to creating an accessible experience for everyone, and invite individuals to communicate their accommodation requests.
- Remember that an individual with a disability is an expert in their own needs and abilities. Do not assume or insist that a student needs help with a task. Ask, listen, and trust their judgment.
Remember that just as a spell check won’t catch every error in a document; neither will S.P.E.L.L. check catch every barrier with your events. Some things still might slip under the radar, and that’s ok! Work to handle those impromptu situations as best you can. Provide accommodations whenever possible, and try to make note of the experience for future events.