Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements

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Contributor: Tara Wood and Shannon Madden
School Affiliation: University of Oklahoma
Email: twood@ou.edu or s.madden@ou.edu

Contents

Introduction

Though seemingly transparent, the syllabus does much to set the tone for a course and is typically the first textual contact students have with their instructors. As such, syllabi function rhetorically and have consequences in terms of how students understand the classroom atmosphere, what they expect from the teacher’s relationship to students, and how they predict the semester will go for them. Students with disabilities, especially those whose needs may not be met under the minimum legal guidelines for accommodations, can glean a lot from the accommodation statement in the syllabus about how the instructor approaches disability; this statement reveals the teacher’s ethos as well as her attitude toward issues of access. Further, the disability statement represents one of the first (and perhaps few) points of contact with the instructor within which students with disabilities have the opportunity to disclose their accommodation needs. The disability statement therefore warrants closer attention from writing teachers and program administrators who wish to create inclusive classrooms and meet their students’ needs in flexible and comprehensive ways. Finding the right brand of craftsmanship for the statement, however, is no easy feat. Now is the time to move beyond meeting legal obligations, obligations that resulted from years of hard-fought battles for civil rights for individuals with disabilities, and into thoughtful construction of accessibility statements that allow for adaptable, universal access to our pedagogies and classroom spaces.

This page offers concrete examples and perspectives from teachers and scholars invested in Disability Studies (DS), an academic discipline dedicated to investigating disability not as an individual problem or deficiency but as a category of identity constructed in historical, medical, and social contexts. To wit, scholars in DS examine the impact of oppressive structures of normalcy and stigma that inform the lived experience of persons with disabilities. Our process for soliciting such perspectives included emails to scholars we have admired and learned from, correspondence with institutions that offer degree programs in DS, and inquiries to DS listservs. It’s worth noting that many of our respondents also shared our concerns for carefully and rhetorically crafting accommodations statements in a manner that accounts for the rich scholarly insights of DS. They indicated discomfort with their own disability statements and/or their home institutions' mandated approaches to representing accommodation policies. It is with these exigencies that we offer a set of recommendations for crafting the disability statement.

Create Your Own

Create your own disability statement (even if it’s in addition to an official required statement at your home institution). This type of personalization allows you to position yourself rhetorically as an instructor interested in creating an inclusive atmosphere and one who is willing to work with students on an individualized basis to maximize their accessibility to your class. It also suggests to your students that you are willing to go beyond the minimum legal or institutional requirements to provide them with access to learning. For an excellent resource on how to discuss the statement with your students in the classroom environment, see Margaret Price’s recent book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, pages 90-91.

Below is an example from Margaret Price (note that the first paragraph here is the portion required at Spelman and the second paragraph is Dr. Price’s narrative):

Spelman College is committed to ensuring the full participation of all students in its programs. If you have a documented disability (or think you may have a disability) and, as a result, need a reasonable accommodation to participate in this class, complete course requirements, or benefit from the College’s programs or services, contact the Office of Disability Services (ODS) as soon as possible. To receive any academic accommodation, you must be appropriately registered with ODS. The ODS works with students confidentially and does not disclose any disability-related information without their permission. The ODS serves as a clearinghouse on disability issues and works in partnership with faculty and all other student service offices. For further information about services for students with disabilities, please contact the ODS.
I assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of any course will accommodate each student differently. For example, you may prefer to process information by speaking and listening, so that some of the written handouts I provide may be difficult to absorb. Please talk to me as soon as you can about your individual learning needs and how this course can best accommodate them. If you do not have a documented disability, remember that other support services, including the Writing Center and the Learning Resources Center, are available to all students.

Regarding this example, it’s important to provide a bit of preliminary historical context: When Dr. Price arrived at Spelman, the statement began with “Spelman College is sensitive to students' special needs." After several years of working with the Office of Disability Services and the Curriculum Committee, the statement was rewritten. Because teachers may find themselves beholden to the prescribed language of their home institution, in addition to creating one’s own narrative, instructors may also need to work with various campus offices to enact institutional change with regard to official policy on accommodation.

Consider its Location

Consider the location of the statement on your syllabus. As Amy Vidali (2011) argued in a response essay on classroom syllabi, titled “Embodying/Disabling Plagiarism”, a section on plagiarism and a section on disability accommodations generally appears “somewhere past the first page,” and their inclusion late in the syllabus represents them both as “mere policy matters” (p. 260). Representing them as policy, Vidali argued, “downplays the complex morality issues involved in plagiarism...as well as the challenges and benefits of teaching a diversity of bodies” (pp. 260-61).

In light of Vidali’s work, Shannon Madden includes the accommodation statement at the beginning of the policy document directly after the course overview and objectives, and uses that space to outline objectives and guidelines for class discussion as well as to caution students against using hurtful and offensive language in their writing or toward others. Positioning the statement near the beginning of the document allows instructors to foreground their flexible approach to disability and demonstrate their interest in providing an inclusive and accessible classroom for all students.

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photograph by Shannon Madden

Consider the Header

Naming the statement an “Accommodation Statement,” “Inclusion Statement,” or “Statement of Commitment to Universal Design for Learning” resists the potentially disparaging rhetorical positioning of “Disability Statement.” However, there are fine lines to walk here as well; in resisting the traditional disability terminology, instructors also risk effecting a kind of erasure so that students who do not know what UDL means, for instance, may not recognize the UDL statement as referring to what the university elsewhere refers to as disability.

How you frame your statement requires thoughtful consideration of audience; choosing a particular label always-already functions as a means of potential inclusion or exclusion. Because these labels (“disability,” “accessibility,” “learning styles,” “accommodations”) run the risk of aligning with particular identities in your classroom, the statement requires a rhetoric that acknowledges the seeming inevitability of erasure but strives for full inclusion anyway. For example, Dale Katherine Ireland encourages teachers to change the title to "Accessibility Statement," rather than "Disability Statement" because “'accessibility' rhetorically positions the statement in a more inclusive manner for students and faculty.”

Incorporate Flexibility for Different Modes of Learning

Providing space in the official course document for differences in learning style can communicate to students both that the course is accessible to students who are not language-centered learners and that other ways of knowing are valued and valuable in the classroom. Due to the stigma associated with some disabilities (especially psychiatric disabilities) and because many students don’t identify as disabled, Wendy Harbour suggests directly confronting such issues on syllabi or in discussions with students about syllabi disability statements. She encourages students to talk to her about any issues, whether or not they see it as a disability issue or even simply a life circumstance. Here is an example of her syllabus statement:

This class seeks ways to become a working and evolving model of inclusion and universal design for all participants. Individuals with disabilities of any kind (including learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, health conditions), who require instructional, curricular, or test accommodations are responsible for making such needs known to the instructor as early as possible. Every possible effort will be made to accommodate students in a timely and confidential manner. Individuals who request accommodations must be registered with the Office of Disability Services (804 University Avenue, Room 309, 3rd floor, 443-4498), which authorizes accommodations for students with disabilities.
Students are encouraged to approach Wendy Harbour with any other life circumstances that may affect their participation in the course. These may be personal, health-related, family-related issues, or other concerns. The sooner your instructor knows about these, the earlier we can discuss possible adjustments or alternative arrangements as needed for homework, exams, or class.

Include a Collaborative Element

Teachers who foreground the relationship with their students as collaborative can not only make the course accessible to and flexible to the needs of all students but can also help students claim agency and feel empowered by their learning experiences. Teachers who openly admit their willingness and desire to learn from their students and to construct a productive learning atmosphere together with their students will help all students, not only those with so-called disabilities, to maximize their learning potentials. Stephanie Kerschbaum works to construct this collaborative tone in the rhetoric of her syllabus by including the following statement in addition to her institution’s more formal one:

Your success in this class is important to me. If there are circumstances that may affect your performance in this class, please let me know as soon as possible so that we can work together to develop strategies for adapting assignments to meet both your needs and the requirements of the course.

Likewise, Amy Vidali’s statement openly encourages students to strategize with her about increasing their access and opportunities for success in her course by inviting them to contact her to “work together to develop strategies for success.” Mariette J. Bates also works to foreground the collaborative teacher-student relationship in a positive way. In her accessibility statement, she writes that “All students are encouraged to let the instructor know what we can do to maximize your learning potential, participation and access to this course.” Such approaches help students conceptualize the course as participatory and help them self-advocate for their own learning needs.

Advocate Universal Design for Learning

Many teachers and researchers are dedicated to viewing accommodation as a pedagogical issue rather than as a legal obligation. Many such teachers rely on the pedagogical principles that can be taken from Universal Design for Learning, which holds that teachers should design classrooms and materials so that the curriculum is accessible to the widest possible range of persons. Patricia Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers' webtext "Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space" is an excellent place to begin thinking about incorporating UD principles. For additional resources on pedagogical application of principles from Universal Design, see Jay Dolmage’s (2007) essay, “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Dolmage also compiled a bibliographic resource on UDL, which you can find in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann.

Lewiecki-Wilson directly invokes UDL in her own accommodations statement:

In the spirit of Universal Design for Learning, I will strive to provide an environment that is equitable and conducive to achievement and learning for all students. I ask that we all be respectful of diverse opinions and of all class members, regardless of personal attribute. I encourage persons with disabilities or particular needs that impact on performance to meet with me to co-design accommodations, if necessary, beyond those listed under UDL. I ask that we all use inclusive language in written and oral work. Students with disabilities may also want to register with the Office of Disability Resources, located at 19 Campus Ave. Bldg.

Jay Dolmage also envisions his disability services statement to be an opportunity to advocate for UDL. He frames accommodations as something everyone will need, and something students can talk to him about individually, as well as something to address with campus disability services. For example, take the following excerpt from his syllabus statement on accommodations:

We will all need some accommodations in this class, because we all learn differently. If you need specific accommodations, let Jay and your section instructor know. We will make an effort to ensure that all students have multiple means of accessing class information, multiple ways to take part in class activities, and multiple avenues for being assessed on class work. You should also seek the accommodations you need through the Waterloo Office for Persons with Disabilities.

Image:access ramp.jpg

photograph by Shannon Madden

Indicate Alternative Modes of Assessment and Delivery

For students with disabilities, demonstrating knowledge or competence with course content can be difficult due to the constraints of typified assessment processes. For example, if part of your grading scheme includes active participation in class discussion, and you have a student who experiences discomfort when speaking in front of large groups, it might become necessary to adjust your method of assessment for this student.

Patricia Dunn adds a note about such modification to her disability support services statement. She asks students to “please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you better access the materials in this course, and I will try to do it if I can. Also please let me know if you can think of a better way to assess what you know about the course content.” Like Dunn, Bates extends alternative modes of assessment to also inviting students to talk with her about alternative modes of delivery. She states, “We want to make the course material accessible and we want you to succeed as student. If you need to present what you have learned in an alternative format, please see the instructor to discuss this option.”

Additional Resources

The Disability Studies Special Interest Group with the Conference on College Composition and Communication maintains the excellent Disability Rhetoric website that offers additional resources such as DS bibliographies and an extensive list of teacher resources and syllabi. Composing Access, co-sponsored by the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition (CDICC) and the Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP), provides multi-authored, multimodal strategies for making conference presentations more accessible and houses several excellent resources that might inform further thinking on accessibility, both inside and outside our classroom spaces.

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List of Contributors/Special Thanks

Peg Alden, Ellen Barton, Mariette J. Bates, Michael Bérubé, MJ Bienvenu, Johnson Cheu, Sharon Cuff, Lennard Davis, Jay Dolmage, Patricia Dunn, Laura Eisenman, Paul Heilker, Wendy Harbour, Dale Katherine Ireland, Stephanie Kerschbaum, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Robert McRuer, Valerie Owen, Alison Piepmeier, Margaret Price, Steven Taylor, Amy Vidali, and Sue Wendell.

References & Resources

Dolmage, Jay. (2007). Mapping composition: Inviting disability in the front door. In Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson & Brenda Jo Brueggemann (Eds.), Disability and the teaching of writing (pp. 14-27). Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s Press.

Dunn, Patricia A., & Dunn De Mers, Kathleen. (2002). Reversing notions of disability and accommodation: Embracing universal design in writing pedagogy and web space. Kairos, 7(1). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/7.1/binder2.html?coverweb/dunn_demers/index.html

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, & Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. (2007). Disability and the teaching of writing. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Price, Margaret. (2013). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Vidali, Amy. (2011). Embodying/disabling plagiarism. Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics, 31(3-4), 248-266.

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