Initial Publication Date: June 8, 2017

How Can You Design and Adapt Instruction to Make Your Courses Accessible?

Jump Down To: Universal Design | Individual Accommodations | Inclusive Fieldwork | Instructional Strategies

On this webpage we focus on specific teaching and assessment strategies that you can use to design and adapt instruction to maximize success for students with disabilities in your courses. Importantly, your specific course objectives spell out essential student learning outcomes — what students are expected to know and be able to do upon completion of the course that support matriculation in college emphases, majors, or minors. Importantly, your adaptations for students with disabilities should not compromise the realistic career rigor objectives of your course; accommodations are intended to enable students who have a disability (or multiple disabilities) master and demonstrate the standards and demands of your course. Universally designed instruction (see below) opens your course accessibility to students with and without sanctioned accommodations. Adapting instruction does not mean lowering your expectations; it does mean designing your instruction and assessments to meet the needs and the demands of students' career paths.

Accessibility Hints

Think about what a student in your course (whether face-to-face, online, or hybrid) must do to be successful. Although there may be accommodations that will be legally granted based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (2008), you can proactively choose to use inclusive practices that integrate required accommodations while developing universal design principles (see below) as accepted course practice (e.g., fieldwork, working with maps, hand samples of minerals or rocks, etc.).

  • What do the labs require (for example if you use a microscope)? Check out this information for technology accommodations (Job Accommodation Network, n.d.).
  • How user-friendly is your personal website or your course management system? There are various programs to evaluate web-pages related to accessibility--this tutorial provides information on how to create accessible web-pages (Abou-Zahra et al., 2015).
  • Are your presentations accessible? Your word processing program or slide presentation program offers embedded support in making your presentations fully accessible; this tutorial provides information on how to make presentations accessible (Henry & Abou-Zahra, 2012); this site by Microsoft (2015) provides information on how to make documents more accessible to users with disabilities.

You will want to ensure that your instructional support materials (textbooks, video, audio) as well as your presentation of information are accessible and that handouts or other print materials you use are machine readable. For example, if you select an electronic textbook, be sure that it meets ADA guidelines. For a comprehensive look at the evolution of accessible instructional materials in colleges and universities, see the Accessible Instructional Materials Report (AIM Commission, 2011).

The three basic principles of UDL emphasize:

  • multiple means of engagement to stimulate motivation and interest (the "why" of learning),
  • multiple means of representation to present content and information (the "what" of learning), and
  • multiple means of action and expression to differentiate the ways students demonstrate what they know (the "how" of learning).

Universal Design

One of the most powerful and efficient ways to meet the needs of diverse learners is to incorporate principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (CAST, 2015) into your course planning. First articulated in the 1990s, UDL is a research-based set of principles intended to guide the design of learning environments that are accessible and effective for all. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 incorporated the first statutory definition of UDL.

UDL Guidelines elaborate on these principles and identify many instructional options for each component (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2012). The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD) has developed Inclusive Design Guidelines and Principles modified from the original to apply specifically to geosciences.

For example, you might...

  • heighten student engagement by offering them choices of readings, instructional media, and formats for interacting and by encouraging self-assessment and reflection.
  • vary representation of content by videotaping lectures for review, facilitating small group and online discussions, and suggesting optional readings and resources.
  • allow for multiple means of expression as alternatives to typical papers and tests by encouraging projects and multimedia presentations.

The concept of instructional scaffolding is useful in planning for students to be successful in your course. You can help students to construct knowledge by breaking it into manageable chunks, meeting students where they are, and guiding them to achieve mastery. Some supports can be built in to make it easier for all students to learn; other supports are customized for individual needs.

Wendi Williams (2013) (University of Arkansas Little Rock/Northwest Arkansas Community College) shared examples of utilizing UDL principles when working with students with disabilities at the 2013 workshop on Supporting Student Success. She also shared a set of properly captioned videos related to Earth science literacy that she uses in her classes. Her workshop essay also speaks to using Universal Design to promote student success.

The UDL framework can seem overwhelming in its complexity, yet even small efforts to provide options for students to enable them to acquire knowledge and demonstrate mastery can make a big difference. You may find it helpful to view UDL applications as experienced by students and faculty via short videos such as these developed by The DO-IT Center of the University of Washington.

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Equal Access: Universal Design for Instruction
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Invisible Disabilities and Postsecondary Education

Individual Accommodations

UDL can minimize—but not eliminate—the need for accommodations to meet specific needs of individuals with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations should not fundamentally alter the nature of your course or place undue burden on you as the instructor. Your college office of disability services will notify you when a student in your class is entitled to specific accommodations.

Extended testing time represents the most common accommodation requested by college students with varying disabilities as well as the most common one provided in two- and four-year colleges (Newman, et al., 2011, Raue & Lewis, 2011). Students might receive extended testing time due to difficulties in attention, memory, slower reading or writing skills, or anxiety related to test taking. For example, some students with specific learning disabilities read more slowly than their respective peers; thus, given more time they can finish their exams and demonstrate their knowledge (Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2015). Some students with cerebral palsy or other physical disabilities may physically need more time to write or use a computer to complete their exam. Some may need an alternate exam format such as oral examination, large print, or oral recording of answers.

A national survey of two- and four-year colleges and universities (Raue and Lewis, 2011) found that, in addition to extended testing time, approximately 70% of these institutions identified the following accommodations as frequently accessed by their students with disabilities:

  • note takers
  • faculty-provided written course notes or assignments
  • help with learning strategies or study skills
  • alternative exam formats
  • adaptive equipment and technology.

There are students who may need a note-taker due to challenges with the actual visual motor demands of writing or computing. Their handwriting may be illegible. They may have difficulty if you use tests that include fill in the blank or bubbles, lining up columns, or writing in a confined space, or may require alternate assessments. Students with attention or memory challenges may need copies of your presentation slides or instructor notes; others may need to record your lecture to review later. Focusing on creating an inclusive environment, you might choose to make your notes available for all students for review purposes.

Accommodations or strategies used while in your course may translate into support for individuals with disabilities entering STEM fields. For more information, the Job Accommodation Network provides a free technical assistance resource with searchable databases on potential low or no cost accommodations that could be made for adults with disabilities entering STEM fields via your courses.

Inclusive Fieldwork

Geoscience courses may include work in the field, and students with disabilities should participate to the maximum extent possible. Although opportunities for alternative field experiences -- such as real-time telepresence and virtual fieldwork -- do exist, there is no definitive substitute for first-hand experience in the natural environment (Gilley et al., 2015).

Inclusive field trips can be designed to accommodate a wide variety of physical sensory and cognitive disabilities by selecting locations that can accommodate a handicapped accessible bus, using tactile maps and audio field guides, partnering participants, and tailoring activities to ensure maximum engagement at each stop (Gilley et al., 2015). Additional details about the 2014 Inclusive Field Course run at the GSA Annual Meeting is available in Atchison and Gilley (2015) . Cooke, Anderson, & Forrest (1997) applied universal design principles and found that redesigning their field exercises to ensure accessibility resulted in improved learning experiences for all students.

The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (2015) provides a list of accessible geoscience field trips, courses, and camps.

Instructional Strategies

The Starting Point: Teaching Introductory Geoscience (Science Education Research Center, 2014) website has a wealth of information on different pedagogical strategies that can be used in the classroom. They are not specifically designed for students with disabilities, but you will be able to determine how they can work in your context.


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Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 101-336, §§110-325, 104 Stat. 327 (2008). Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic database.

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