Classroom Barriers

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Summary: Various barriers to information are the primary reasons for inaccessible classroom situations. Evaluate your courses to identify places where materials are improperly formatted, inconsistent or disorganized, and that time based activities that are clearly explained and defined.

As an instructor, you will not be able to predict every single barrier that might arise in your course. However, it’s often more useful to learn about barriers than about specific disabilities as a way of creating a more inclusive classroom.

Major types of barriers

This article discusses nine major types of barriers and some ways to modify your activities to mitigate each one:

Information presented in multiple modalities

Not all students access information with the same senses, so it’s important to present information in multiple modalities. That is, make sure students can both read and listen to the information.

When you include an uncaptioned or inaccurately captioned video (for example, if you rely on YouTube’s automatic captions without taking the time to correct them), some of your students won’t have access to the same information that their peers are getting. Same thing when you include an image on a Moodle page that doesn’t have a caption or alt text, or when you don’t verbally describe the content of a PowerPoint slide, assuming that everyone in the class both sees and interprets the slide the same way you do. 

Strive to provide information in multiple modalities. Make sure to:

  • caption all video content
  • caption or write alt text for all images in documents and slide decks
  • verbally describe (or ask a student to describe) images, diagrams, etc. that are referenced in class
  • Properly format text-based documents so that students can use adaptive technologies to listen to or read them (see below)

Inaccessible file formats

Some students utilize technology, such as screen readers, text-to-speech programs, or screen magnifiers. Adaptive technologies like these can’t read documents that have been saved as images or that are only available in hardcopy format.
Poor document quality (such as a photocopy that has been recopied or scanned repeatedly) also can affect the extent to which a student can access the material.

Include only accessible documents in your courses. Be sure to:

  • accessify PDFs by running optical character recognition on them)
  • link to articles from Libraries’ databases, ejournals, digital books, and accessible websites instead of your personal photocopies of course readings. The Libraries will find library-licensed versions of articles and readings for you and place them on an eReserves webpage specific to your course.
  • make documents available in large print or in a word processing document format

The Libraries and Disability Resource Center both are available to help you with document conversion tasks.

Where you require students to purchase materials and textbooks, send your syllabus to to them before the semester starts so that they can arrange document conversion in advance. (In general, sending students your syllabus before the semester begins can be an inclusive practice to allow them to better prepare for your course.)

Improperly formatted or disorganized text-based materials

Cluttered, disorganized, and lengthy documents or course pages that haven’t been properly formatted can make it difficult for students to scan and efficiently find the information they’re looking for. Students may therefore miss important details or deadlines. Incomplete, unclear or inconsistent information can prevent students from being able to focus on the content of your course.

For these reasons, you should get in the habit of accessibly formatting your course materials. Use descriptive headings, bullets, and section breaks to differentiate content in your syllabus, course documents, and course web pages.

Unclear deadlines and inconsistent information

When you teach the same course semester after semester, or when you inherit the teaching of a course you didn’t design, it’s easy to accidentally expose information left over from a previous semester, such as old due dates or incomplete assignment instructions. Assignment-related information is a particular barrier for students that can lead to confusion, demotivation, and lower grades.

To reduce or eliminate information-related barriers in your syllabus, course website, and related documents:

  • List all assignments and exact due dates in both the syllabus and on the course website (even if you mentioned them in class, this information should also be on the course website). Double check to make sure you are consistent.
  • For assignments with multiple steps, clearly list the steps for assignments and exact due dates for each step 
  • List exact due dates instead of the day of the week (i.e., write “due February 25”, not just “due Monday”)
  • Ensure you always refer to an assignment by the same name (e.g., always refer to it as “final report” rather than variations of "final report", “final research project”, and “final assignment”)
  • For downloadable documents, make sure the filename (final report.docx) is the same name as what you refer to it as on the course website (so students can find the downloaded document again on their desktop)
  • When you make a significant change to the syllabus, such as changing an assignment deadline, let students know by using your course website's announcements or messaging feature.

Inaccessible online applications or features

Not all applications are accessible for students who use assistive technology like screen readers, text-to-speech programs, or who navigate their computer using voice commands and/or a keyboard (instead of a mouse). Consider this fact when your classroom activities require students to use a tool like Flipgrid or VoiceThread. For example, you should be prepared to offer an alternative choice to a Flipgrid assignment, either writing a text response or using the discussion tool in Moodle or Canvas.
Even accessible applications like Moodle and Canvas may have features that are not accessible, such as Moodle’s drag-and-drop quiz question type.

Consult with if you’re unsure whether an application or feature you’d like to use is accessible.

Inaccessible or inactive hyperlinks

Hyperlinks are accessible only when they are actually active and lead to the intended page. Ensure that all the links in your course website and materials are descriptive, active and working properly.

Timed responses or single-format responses

Audience response technologies like clickers can create barriers due to the dexterity required to use them and to the time constraint. Some students may need more time to read and process the questions, and tight time windows for responses can cause unnecessary stress.

To modify a clicker activity:

  • give options for participation points so that students who are unable to participate in a specific way (such as with a clicker) can still earn full points. 
  • provide opportunities to submit responses via either the clicker device or the Moodle site. 
  • consider whether time is essential in the activity, and whether it is possible to remove or extend it (if you’re imposing a time limit)

Modify the activity for the entire class so that it doesn’t feel like you’re singling out an individual student.

Light sources

Flashing, strobing, or flickering light on video or slides you show in class can trigger disability symptoms for some students. Please avoid adding flashing, strobing or flickering effects on your slides. If a video clip you’re going to show includes these effects, let students know in advance.

Students may experience barriers related to the combination of ambient lighting and color contrast, such as with the contrast of PowerPoint slide text against background in a dimly lit room.

Gather feedback from your students about classroom lighting, adjusting accordingly. In a single classroom you may have differing access needs, so you may need to problem solve with your students to find a workable solution. The Office of Classroom Management can be a resource to help you find a room that meets students’ needs.

Inaccessible color

Some colors and color combinations are also not visually accessible to all students so may cause comprehension issues if you are trying to differentiate information. Take a look at the color and contrast article to learn more about use of color for instructional materials like slides and documents.

Reflect and modify

The work of accessibility means asking questions, trying new strategies, making mistakes, adjusting, evaluating your changes, seeking feedback, and tapping into new resources, such as those on this site

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