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First steps for teachers

🔆 Before or during the first class

  • Let the class know that they should tell you if there is anything disability-related you need to know about. You can keep a few minutes after the class for those who want to follow up on this. Even though students who really need accommodations will most likely reach out to you themselves, knowing that you are open-minded and willing to help makes a big difference.

  • Give out the course’s syllabus! It is very beneficial for students to know what to expect from the course, what type of material will be used, and what kind of assessments they will complete. The earlier this information is available, the better they can prepare for the course.

🔆 Have the accessibility-talk

Communication is critical to managing students' and your expectations. If a student's needs are unusual compared to what you are used to, or if the information they gave you is unclear, discussing it in person is the best way to make sure everyone is on the same page.

🔆 Let students know about change

Unexpected change can be difficult to manage if the new situation is inaccessible. If you decide to change the type of materials used or the kind of assessments, let students know as soon as possible. Sometimes, what you think is a minor change can create a challenging situation for a student. Without time to prepare for it, they will most likely miss out on information and/or be disadvantaged during the evaluation.

🔆 Inform yourself

Except in the case of actively ableist individuals, most biases are unconscious. Thus, this advice is not about blame or fault. A whole range of factors come together to determine how a bias is formed. However, you are responsible for becoming aware of your own biases and their expressions. This is especially important if you discuss disability-related matters during classes. Note here that students are not responsible for informing you or the class. It is okay to ask questions about the specifics of their situation in an academic context; it is something else to expect education from them.

Some notions you should know about include ableism, the social model of disability, and intersectionality.

🔆  You do not have to put in place every single accommodation

Common feedback from teachers and administration members is that putting in place every accommodation students might need is too much work. Let us break this myth now: you do not have to. The point of accessibility is that you must be ready to make necessary changes when the time comes. For instance, you do not have to print out every article to be read in Braille if there is no visually impaired student in the class. The only changes that must be implemented regardless of the student community’s characteristics at a time t are architectural: ramps, elevators, flashing fire alarms, etc. Generally, you do not need to have every single accommodation active if there is no need for it. However, when a student asks for support in certain ways, you do have to be ready to follow up on their request and make the challenging situation accessible.

🔆 Share the Disability Handbook!

Most challenges related to disability arise from a lack of information. Teachers want to help but don't know how. Students ask for support but don't always know what they need. Administration members know there are initiatives to take and structural changes to make but don't know which course of action is effective and which isn't.

One thing you can do that will not cost you time (or money) and will make an impact, helping teachers and supporting students, is share the Disability Handbook with your institution's community. Individual action following up on the Disability Handbook's content can and will make a difference.

🔆 DOs and DON'Ts

✅ Read (and apply) the information that students give you. 

It benefits both parties. On the one hand, if you know what is talked about and apply it, there will likely not be unpleasant surprises for the students due to a lack of accommodations. Moreover, students will not have to repeat themselves and struggle to access the course's content. On the other hand, you, as a teacher, will not have to be continually solicited about it.

Having the accessibility talk, overviewing the whole course once, is the best way to ensure a smooth running of the classes and assessments for everyone.

✅ Make agreements clear.

What often happens is that students get a "don't worry about it" type of reply, "We will see when we get there," especially regarding situations that are not formally evaluated. In most cases, the burden eventually falls on the student who, only once the challenging situation has started, has to find ways to cope. It is, therefore, crucial that you make clear what you can and can't do so that the student can anticipate the challenges and get help in other ways. This also avoids unnecessary stress due to the uncertainty caused by the unclarity of the agreement.

✅ Be in touch.

A short reply is better than no reply. If students know you are not available (rather than have to deduce it due to a lack of reply after a few weeks), they can move on to the next step, which is asking for help somewhere else. The less time they spend waiting for a reply, the more time they get to set things up for themselves and focus on their studies.

❌ Don't be ableist.

At its most basic, ableism is discrimination in favor of non-disabled people and against disabled people. Ableism in academia is pervasive: it appears in the way content is taught and assessments are made, and it appears in the behaviors of teachers and students towards their disabled peers. It can be active or passive. There are countless accounts of people made fun of or told they are not made for academia because their body has different needs. However, sometimes, people are not even aware they are doing it. It comes down to relatively simple things though: one's ability is should never be a reason not to pursue one's academic interest, one's physical differences does in no way reflect their intelligence, and accessibility is not a favor made to students, but it is meeting their right to education.

❌ Don't put students on the spot.

Most students might not be comfortable sharing about their disability in front of a group. If you have any questions about a particular situation, it is best to ask before or after the class. In the same line of reasoning, if you touch upon a topic related to the student's disability (inclusivity, accessibility, health), that is not a reason to ask them to contribute in a particular way to the class. Students are not guinea pigs.

❌ Don't ask personal questions.

Sometimes, the accessibility talk mentioned above turns into one about the student's health history. "Why are you like this?" "What happens?" "Is it difficult during your everyday life?" As a teacher, you do not need the answers to these questions to make a class accessible, nor should you assume that the students should give the answers as a form of justification for their requests.

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