At UNLV, there is no such thing as a “typical” student, or person, for that matter. I learned that my freshman year in 1998.
I have cerebral palsy and limited motor skills. So, when I arrived on campus, I was using a manual wheelchair for locomotion. I spent a lot of time jerry-rigging ways to get myself, physically, through the day. I went on to become a classroom instructor, and now, administrative faculty member. With these experiences in mind, I want to make certain accessibility needs enter the diversity conversation on campus.
UNLV’s values include diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values extend to accessibility in the classroom, whether that’s physical space or virtual setting. So, the office of accessibility resources is working with faculty and instructors, and with UNLV web & digital strategy to ensure all materials posted online — including syllabi — are accessible. This not only helps students, but helps the university conform with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and with NSHE and UNLV policies.
As a student, I took syllabi as “marching orders,” whether hard copy, as nearly all were, or web based. I was less concerned with what the syllabus in any given course looked like than I was with what the instructor expected me to do to succeed. Things like color contrast and font choice hardly crossed my mind. When any of the aforementioned troubled me, I blamed myself. After all, was I not an adult who was the first in my family to go to college?
While teaching English as a UNLV graduate assistant, and later, a part-time instructor, I focused on not screwing up assigned syllabi templates. I strived to express all course expectations and instructions in the clearest language I could. I figured that, coupled with direct dialogue with students, would ensure students clearly understood expectations. I shudder at how many accessibility issues I unintentionally caused for lack of the sort of Accessible Syllabus Training our office will offer beginning in June.
My ideas about accessibility have evolved since joining the accessibility resources office in fall 2018 as an accessibility resources support technologist. I have learned that accessibility is for everyone. The tools we use in assisting faculty and staff to produce accessible materials also have evolved. For example, I use speech recognition software virtually every day, both for work and personal projects. Moreover, I use screen readers and text-to-speech tools, mostly when testing for accessibility.
I have use of my hands, however, my muscles tire easily and I’m prone to unpredictable, often painful spasms especially when fatigued. Voice-operated technology helps alleviate the problem, but only when documents, websites, graphics or other digital content is correctly formatted for accessibility. For instance, when it comes to syllabi, it does no good to command an assistive technology device to “skip to heading” or “read list” or “read table cell” if the device cannot distinguish one from another.
Thankfully, designing for accessibility does not need to be a daunting experience. All it takes is some know-how, and just as importantly, some forethought.
For example, bulleted lists (which do not imply ranking/importance) and numbered lists (which do) accomplish fundamentally different things, and assistive technology devices treat them differently in terms of reading them aloud and in terms of navigating them. Once you go through our training, you’ll know how to do both and when to use either one.
Creating an Accessible Syllabus
By Jerra Strong, accessibility resources support technologist
The syllabus is the front door of your course. It’s the first impression students will get of what to expect from the semester. Greeting students with an accessible and well-organized syllabus can set the tone right away. It shows that the door is open to any student who is willing to participate, regardless of assistive technology needs or disability status, and it can make the student feel their presence is valued. My hope is that the skills you apply to your syllabus will find their way into every document, Canvas page, and other course content.
My best advice for an accessible syllabus, as for any document, is first to make sure it is well organized.
Headings are the foundation of a document. They should form an outline of the content and show which sections are where. Sometimes we use headings by making a line of text bigger and bolder, but in Microsoft Word or Canvas, using the official “heading” settings will ensure those headings are recognized by assistive technologies.
I have seen instructors use the table settings in order to put a box around some content or to create columns. Tables might be appropriate for a grading scale or a course schedule, but the whole syllabus should not be a table, nor should tables be used in place of other layout tools.
Instead of pasting a URL into a document or using generic text such as “click here,” use a meaningful phrase for a link, for example, “Buy your textbook” or “Register your account.”
Format and Various Devices
Content often displays better on a phone or tablet through a Canvas page especially when there is nothing extra to download and open in a separate program. Word and PDF documents do not have these benefits.