Instructional Resources

Guidelines for Instructors: Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

Barbara Zunder - Director, Student Disability Access Center
Lori Kressin - Coordinator of Academic Accessibility

Instructors play a pivotal role in the shaping of the learning environment. In addition to creating courses that fulfill the learning objectives of the department and school, there is an added requirement of creating a course that is not only accessible to students with disabilities, but also incorporate pedagogy that is inclusive to students regardless of background, experiences, and customs.

Creating an inclusive environment in your classroom goes beyond lecture. It is being mindful of your digital environment, assignments, laboratory structure, and field trips (to name just a few). Below we have suggestions for you to consider as you design or structure your course.

Inclusive Classroom Practices

There are several practices which can be incorporated in your course experience and will provide an inclusive environment to benefit all participants, not just those with disabilities. Borrowing from the work done at the University of Washington by Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, below are general guidelines to consider:

  • Class climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
  • Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Assign group work for which learners must support each other and that places a high value on different skills and roles.
  • Physical environments and products. Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Example: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users. Encourage students to refrain from using scented products which may exacerbate symptoms for those who are sensitive to environmental triggers.
  • Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Use multiple modes to deliver content; when possible allow students to choose from multiple options for learning; and motivate and engage students-consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, educational software, field work, and so forth.
  • Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students. Example: Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the course begins. Allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books in audio format.
  • Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Example: Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due.
  • Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Assess group and cooperative performance, as well as individual achievement.
  • Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. Example: Know campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, rescheduling classroom locations, and arranging for other accommodations for students with disabilities
  • Recording. Recording the lecture via lecture capture technologies can benefit all students, as it is a powerful learning tool that allows students to revisit the lecture after class. University policy prohibits recording of lectures by students without instructor permission, unless the student receives recording as an accommodation. However, many students benefit from class recordings. Consider allowing all your students to record for personal use, granting this permission in your syllabus. Participants in the class should also be informed to assume they are being recorded; either by students for personal use or by those who receive permission to audio record lectures as an accommodation.

Common Accommodations

Students with disabilities are granted accommodations through the Student Disability Access Center. You will receive notice of a student's disability-related accommodations via email. If you would like more information on these accommodations, or have questions about how they may apply to your course, please feel free to reach out to SDAC directly. Detailed information about common accommodations can also be found on the SDAC website.

Syllabus Statement

Instructors are strongly encouraged to include an accessibility statement in their syllabus. Below are different options that you may use.

Syllabi Statement Option 1

UVA is committed to creating a learning environment that meets the needs of its diverse student body. If you anticipate or experience any barriers to learning in this course, please feel welcome to discuss your concerns with me. If you have a disability, or think you may have a disability, you may also want to meet with the Student Disability Access Center (SDAC), to request an official accommodation. You can find more information about SDAC, including how to apply online, through their website. If you have already been approved for accommodations through SDAC, please make sure to send me your accommodation letter and meet with me so we can develop an implementation plan together.

Syllabi Statement Option 2

It is my goal to create a learning experience that is as accessible as possible. If you anticipate any issues related to the format, materials, or requirements of this course, please meet with me outside of class so we can explore potential options. Students with disabilities may also wish to work with the Student Disability Access Center to discuss a range of options to removing barriers in this course, including official accommodations. Please visit their website for information on this process and to apply for services online. If you have already been approved for accommodations through SDAC, please send me your accommodation letter and meet with me so we can develop an implementation plan together.

Syllabi Statement Option 3

I am committed to creating a course that is inclusive in its design. If you encounter barriers, please let me know immediately so we can determine if there is a design adjustment that can be made. I am happy to consider creative solutions as long as they do not compromise the intent of the assessment or learning activity.

If you are a student with a disability, or think you may have a disability, you are also welcome to initiate this conversation with the Student Disability Access Center (SDAC). SDAC works with students with disabilities and faculty members/TAs to identify reasonable accommodations. Please visit their website for information and to start the application process. If you have already been approved for accommodations through SDAC, please send me your accommodation letter and meet with me so we can develop an implementation plan together.

Other Considerations

Assignments

Many elements discussed elsewhere on this page can also be applied to assignments. Encourage your students to come to you early to discuss any potential barriers that they may have with assignments, as well as possible alternatives. In addition, when creating assignments for students, practice what you preach when it comes to accessibility. For example:

  • Break assignments into multiple phases, with clear guidelines or rubrics for each phase. Offer some flexibility with assignment deadlines if needed, and structure this flexibility into the syllabus.
  • If students must give a presentation, consider asking that the students send out advanced copies of PowerPoint slides. Also consider that not all students can present in front of a class. Offer alternatives, such as a 1:1 presentation, a video presentation, or a written paper.
  • If you require students to create a video as part of a project, also encourage them to caption it as part of the assignment. Captioning will benefit other members of the class without disclosing any accommodation need.
  • Any digital assignments should encourage the use of alt text for images and diagrams, large font sizes for presentations (such as 22 pt or above), and captioned videos.
  • Reading assignments should be accessible to screen readers and other assistive technologies.

In essence, the assignments your students create should be as accessible as the materials you provide to them, to benefit all students.

Out of Classroom Learning Experiences

If you are planning a field trip or excursion as part of your course, you must plan for accessibility. The most basic of these is physical accessibility. Even if a student is not using a mobility-related aid, such as a wheelchair, you may have a student with a physical or medical condition which renders it difficult to use stairs or walk for long periods of time. When planning excursions, ensure that the facility is ADA accessible. If you are providing transportation to get to the site, please ensure that accessible transportation is available. If it is an outdoor excursion on-Grounds, please plan on using an accessible route. If the site that you have chosen is inaccessible and a student with a disability is unable to participate as a result, you may have to reconsider this as part of your course. Please contact the Student Disability Access Center to discuss options.

If there is a student in your course who is D/deaf or Hard of Hearing, they may be utilizing equipment (such as an assistive listening device) or services (such as ASL-English Interpreting or CART services) in the lecture. When you are out of the classroom, please ensure that these services or equipment will also work in the alternate setting. Please consult with both the student and SDAC to ensure that this is in place well before this out of classroom experience takes place.

Depending on the nature of the excursion, students with vision-related disabilities may need additional assistance out of the classroom. If the terrain is unfamiliar or potentially hazardous, the student may need an assistant to assist with their mobility. If the excursion has a visual element to it (for example, going to an art museum), then an assistant may be useful to visually describe the important elements. Please consult with both the student and SDAC well beforehand to ensure that proper services are set up before the excursion.

Science/STEM Laboratory Accessibility

In addition to any accommodations a student may have, the incorporation of Universal Design principles in the planning of the lab environment is important, including the equipment used.

Examples of equipment incorporating UD principles:

  • Uncluttered lab with wide aisles
  • Talking and/or large display instruments such as thermometers
  • Microscopes with large format projection
  • Adjustable fume hoods
  • Use plastic rather than glass
  • Standing rather than chest style freezers
  • Adjustable workstations and/or lab benches
  • Single-lever action controls instead of knobs
  • Consistency in the placement of equipment
  • Standardized safety equipment and instruction in their use
  • The University of Washington's DO•IT Center has created a guide to help in this endeavor.