Designing with Accessibility in Mind, Part 1: The Theory

We have reached that glorious time of year when students are starting to plan for the future (i.e. – register for Fall semester).  As we wrap up the current academic year, you may start thinking about the future yourself.  What courses will I be teaching next year? How will I do that? What assessments am I going to use? What am I going to change up?  Wouldn’t it be cool if {insert innovative idea here}?  While TLT is here to help you with all of your planning needs this summer, there are a few things to keep in mind while you make plans for your future courses, especially in terms of meeting the needs of all learners.

College of Charleston currently has approximately 900 students with various disabilities on campus who are registered with the Center for Disability Services. [1]  Some of you may have already worked with students with disabilities in your courses and have a working knowledge of accommodations.  For others, this concept may be new and foreign to you.  In any case, as you look to prepare your courses for future semesters, here are some overall tips that will help you to design with accessibility in mind:

  • Think about the whole process more as Accessibility rather than Compliance. When you hear someone bring up the topic of working with students with disabilities, you often hear it referred to as ADA Compliance.  Just that phrase can conjure up images of lawsuits, courtrooms, and “early retirement”…but it doesn’t have to be that way!  True, there are federal requirements that are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, reauthored in 2010.  What it all boils down to is making sure that each student in your course has equitable access to the information and participation.  When you think about it, that just makes sense!  Why would a student be in our courses?  To learn.  How can we help them learn? By giving them the opportunity to do so.  To learn more about what this means, check out this video on Web Accessibility as it pertains to College of Charleston.


  • It is much easier and less time consuming to design a course to be accessible from the ground up than to try and retrofit it later. Sometimes, you’ll hear a faculty member say “I’ll worry about that IF I have a student who needs a disability in my class”.  However, as one professor who recently had a student with visual impairments in her class put it, “I realized at that point it was too late.  I had to struggle to get all of my material together and put into a format that the student could use.  Add that on top of not knowing what that meant or looked like and all of the responsibilities of the semester.  I was stressed out, the student was falling behind, and it wasn’t really their fault! I just hadn’t thought about it.” Many of us will be teaching courses that we’ve taught before, so how can we start looking at accessibility issues and fitting in pieces that fit?  Which leads us to…
  • Consider using Universal Design for Learning principles as you redesign parts of your course. “Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” (CAST 2015)[2].   Structured to help all learners in your courses, not just students with disabilities, this framework for curriculum design is based off of three primary principles:
    • Multiple Means of Representation: Present information in different ways so that all learners can access the information.  Look for flexible ways to present what you teach and what you want the students to learn.  Consider using visual and auditory elements, experiential learning, and kinesthetic opportunities to engage with content.
    • Multiple Means of Expression: Provide ways for students to show what they know and what they can do using multiple modalities. Project Based Learning is a great way to do this by giving students a forced choice menu of final product options and adding in a reflection piece.
    • Multiple Means of Engagement: Consider using different “hooks” or “activators” to capture your students’ attention to the content and hold it. Remember, relevance is key!

Universal Design for Learning is a vast and useful framework for reaching all learners and to individualize the learning process to meet their needs and your course goals.  I would suggest checking out some of the additional resources below if you are interested in learning more about the theory.

To learn more about HOW to do this, including examples from current faculty, stay tuned for Designing with Accessibility in Mind, Part 2: The Practice (Coming in May…debuting just in time for your summer course planning!)

Additional Resources

When using these principles there are a variety of resources available to help you out.  Here on College of Charleston’s campus the Center for Disability Services is a wonderful resource for faculty.  TLT can also help you differentiate your instruction and research academic-related technology solutions to implement.  Here are some other resources to help you out:


[1] Mihal, Deborah. “Our Role.” Center for Disability Services. College of Charleston, Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

[2] Poller, Lisa. “About Universal Design for Learning.” About Universal Design. CAST, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.