A picture of the padmap interface, stating "find free menstrual products near you". Labeled text boxes explain that the user can (1) select a start location (2) select restroom types, such as all gender and ADA accessible (3) select accessmaps parameters such as avoid raised curbs, streets, and hill steepness (4) get directions and lastly reset

When Accessibility and Learning Are Given Equal Weight

Last year, I wrote about my efforts to design an accessibility course that centers disabled voices. This fall was the first offering of that course at the undergraduate level. Every decision we made about the course was made with accessibility as the most important priority, on equal footing with the goal of educating students.

The result was an absolute joy to teach, and in the process, we refined our emphasis on competency-based grading and the importance of intersectionality in disability-based work. The course also has a service learning component — we take suggestion and requests from the broader community for websites and apps that they want assessed for accessibility concerns, and the students learn about how to use common accessibility technologies and automated tools to test for accessibility violations, and how to communicate those back.

The final projects that the students developed deeply reflect the impact of these teaching decisions. They pushed the boundaries of what is typically published in the field of accessibility to include topics such as content warnings (project 1 and project 2) and food restrictions. Other projects dove deeply into high expertise concerns such as scientific alt text and matplotlib accessibility. And projects demonstrated deep consideration of intersectionality, such as Complexion Cupid, an accessible solution for foundation colormatching for people with a variety of skin colors; and PadMap, an accessible map for finding menstrual products.

The quotes below are from students who were asked to describe how the class embodies one or more of the ten principles of disability justice that we studied, during week two of the quarter.

Inclusive Language and Content

Throughout the class, we worked to emphasize that disability is something that can be present in any identity group and that we should consider the disability experience in all the same places and spaces that it exists, as well as the unique concepts that disability culture brings to those experiences.

  • “by recognizing and acknowledging the diverse experiences of the participants, [the class] creates an inclusive environment that respects and values various aspects of identity, such as race, class, sexuality, age, and more.”
  • “Often, people and curriculums unintentionally forget to do this. The way they describe situations and the systems around us sometimes makes it seem like they aren’t addressing the wholeness of people with disabilities (again unintentionally). The way sentences are phrased makes it seem like they’re ‘different.’ But this class does a really good job of making sure we’re using the right terminology and viewing the world from the perspective of everyone.

Competency-based Grading

The class grade is primarily based on four competencies each, in three categories: disability justice, accessibility compliance assessment, and creation of accessible documents and media. The course syllabus describes this in more depth, but in brief, competency-based grading separates out how you learn a skill from whether you know it. Many of these competencies are assessed repeatedly. It doesn’t matter whether students get them wrong at first, as long as they eventually learn them.

  • “The grading system is designed around sustainability and anti-capitalistic principles. [it] allows students to pace their learning and create a deeper sense of understanding and mastery. […] It removes the urgency of understanding accessibility right on the first attempt, and instead teaches us that we are all slowly moving towards a shared goal. It provides a space for collaboration over competition where students learn from each others’ success.”
  • “competency-based grading […] rewards students based on their ability to be able to learn and apply the content and skills taught in the class instead of rewarding students based on ‘normative’ levels of productivity. I feel that competency-based grading also promotes the principle of sustainability, as it prioritizes someone’s ability to learn a skill throughout the entirety of the class, and not just immediately after it is taught.”
  • “Typical grading techniques focus on a person’s ability to produce a certain quantity of work of a certain quality in a certain amount of time, and evaluate this productivity. Curve-based grading encourages competition. […] In contrast, in this class, we have multiple chances to demonstrate competency (placing less of an emphasis on productivity) and grading is not competitive.”

Discuss, summarize, and post

In-class discussions are designed to include remote and asynchronous learners. This is done through a share, pair, and post method: All discussions are summarized by a student involved and posted to the class discussion board at the end of the pair time. All students, even those who can not attend a class in person or synchronously, are expected to post as well.

  • “[Interdependence] is emphasized a lot in class because we are all expected to participate in discussions and share ideas with one another. Since everyone has different backgrounds and perspectives, group discussion makes up a big part of what we learn in this class. We are, in a way, responsible for each other’s learning. Respect is also very important, as we are able to work better when we feel comfortable sharing our ideas. Everyone has the responsibility of creating a respectful environment for group discussions. We are often able to learn better from firsthand experiences as they tell us specific details that could be missed by others. Students have a wide variety of experiences that can be beneficial for learning new perspectives. If we skip class without a good reason, we could deprive someone else of a valuable learning opportunity.”

Online access to lectures

Lectures are recorded and made available to students asynchronously. As mentioned, students still are asked to participate in discussions through posting; additionally, asynchronous remote students are asked to summarize a reading to help ensure engagement in the material.

  • “[the class] addresses collective liberation [through the] ability to participate online, providing students an opportunity to structure their work and participation in a flexible way.”
  • “Recognizing wholeness is a big part of the class, it’s also like a theme for the course, we respect all kinds of circumstances, and we choose to understand. Such as […] options to attend the class. It makes everyone feel welcomed and included.”
  • “This class has different ways to attend and participate, such as attending synchronously in person or virtually and doing make-up work asynchronously. I think having these options helps students to pace themselves and to learn collectively for the long term. As it allows students to catch up in case they can’t make it to class, this component creates flexibility as well.”

Flexible Due Dates & Regrades

We allow students up to two days of “late turn in” with no penalty on every assignment and also allow unlimited regrades for the competencies.

  • “Sustainability is present in several formats such as the given late days [2 for every single assignment] and other things which prioritize our mental health and ability to continue.”
  • “collective liberation has to do with ‘a vision that leaves no bodymind behind.’ By integrating free late days into every assignment, students who are late in submitting assignments can still proceed along with the rest of the group. No one, including those with and those without disabilities, gets left behind.”
  • “With the flexible late-submission policy, students facing diverse challenges that interfere with timely submissions are still given the opportunity to turn in their work. This ensures that all students, regardless of disability status, are not disadvantaged by rigid deadlines, which highlights the principle that you should leave no one behind.”

Everything accessible by default

The class is designed, if at all possible, to be “accessible by default” meaning that anyone, whether they have accommodations or not, will find that their needs are met. Some examples of what we did are mentioned in the quotes below.

  • “There are lots of accommodations in this class in order to make sure that everyone in the class is moving along together. By allowing for remote participation, students who are unable to attend in-person classes due to their own circumstances will still be able to participate and learn from the class. This class also provides closed captioning, which helps students with hearing impairments, students whose first language is not English and may need more help understanding the lecture, students with attention deficit disorders, and many more.”
  • “In class, our slides always have alt text for images and we also went over how to present in a more accessible way. The fact that this class even addresses these things shows that the class is trying to come from the perspective of people who are impacted negatively by the systems around us”
  • “There are many opportunities for students to share with the staff any access needs they may need to get the most out of this class. Additionally, there are accessibility tools and methods that are used in class every day, like captioning, recording, and visual descriptions when needed.”
  • “[…] by handing out masks at the beginning of the class, in order to protect those around us who are more vulnerable to falling ill, we’re ensuring collective access.”