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Assessing Accessibility

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

I am a neurotypical, cis gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, white [northern] European male. The world has been structured in such a way as to facilitate my pursuit of projects and goals. When I first went to university everything was available and accessible to me and, as such, I did well in my studies. In 2009 something happened that changed the way I accessed information – I completely lost my eyesight. This was restored five years later, but during this time I found accessing information – the information I needed to pursue a career I had always dreamed of (and a career, it turns out, I was capable of doing) – extremely difficult. The solutions to problems were obvious, and expressed, but very few people would actually do the thing I needed them to do. For example, the software I used to translate written text to speech was remarkable. It was efficient, quick and accurate. However, and this is a big however, it could not ‘read’ PDFs. PDFs aren’t really text, they’re ‘pictures’ of text (I’m told this makes copyright infringement more difficult). It normally took several e-mails to have publishers send me articles in a different format to the standard – and often they would just stop responding to my e-mails, without providing me with the article I needed (and which my institution had paid for). This is a simple example of an everyday problem those in the blind community will face all-too-frequently, and a simple example of an everyday problem that benefits from a simple solution that involves no extra work – often the publishers of PDFs already have access to the original .docx file.

And there are millions of such problems and such solutions.

I regained my eyesight around 1/3rd of the way through completing my PhD and accessibility became less of a personal issue and more of a personal mission. Although I didn’t have any visually impaired students (undoubtedly in virtue of access to education being particularly poor for students with disabilities), I was keen to help anyone who needed it. But with no formal, or informal (for that matter), training, all I was equipped with was a sort of absurd bonhomie disposition and a frequently stated willingness to give my students help if required. What I lacked in practical strategies, I made up in enthusiasm.

I have always been a keen educator and when I finished my PhD I jumped at the chance to get a salaried position on a teacher training programme. I always considered myself to be sensitive and responsive to the barriers some might experience but foolishly – and despite my experience - worked on the assumption that the content, not the means of transmission of content, would be the problem for students. All I had to do, so I thought, was be as disarming as possible, and if the students were finding things difficult they would tell me. Of course, I know now that such a position is not only naive, but positively harmful. Assuming that students will walk up to their teacher and express their issues presupposes a level of confidence that simply is not enjoyed by many of the students I have taught over the years – neither at university (where feelings of imposterhood accelerate this phenomenon), nor the comprehensive state secondary school I found myself teaching at (the town suffers from a collective depression, a shared low self-esteem). If nothing else, I betrayed my own arrogance and projected my own privilege onto a group of students, many of whom come from an economically, and socially, challenged background.

Luckily the outstanding teacher-training programme I was on had excellent practical strategies for diminishing some of the many difficulties faced by students who suffer from any number of barriers to their learning. I was already on board with the project of facilitating the learning of neuro-diverse students (as were all my fellow trainees), and I was now sensitive enough to know that simply ‘being friendly’ wasn’t going to be sufficient.

I learned a number of effective strategies to enable access - and, of course, if something is good for a student with a special educational need (or, indeed, needs), it will undoubtedly be good for all students. Engaging with a plurality of voices, harvesting information from a diverse group makes for a more enriched, and enriching, classroom. But as MAP blog readers, you’ll know this already.

Making your lessons more accessible to a wider range of students involves surprisingly little [additional] labour, which makes it all the more depressing when those who know how to help, don’t. A more cynical person than me might justifiably think that the alienation is deliberate, and the exclusion wilful.

Here are some of the practical strategies I learned and have adopted into my everyday practice:

When speaking, avoid using sarcasm where this might obscure the point you’re trying to make. Students on the autistic spectrum can often get confused trying to untangle what you might have meant (and that’s if they’ve picked up on the sarcasm in the first place) – so much energy is expended on this, that much of the material you’ve covered has completely passed by.

When writing slides for a presentation, use short sentences and avoid circumlocution. Try not to have run-on clauses. I once read that sentences should contain around twelve words (fewer if possible) if they are to be accessible. The temptation to show off your language prowess might be super strong, but avoid this. It’s not helpful.

Changing the colours of either each sentence, or each paragraph, has been shown to help enormously. Students with processing issues frequently lose their place when reading, and taking notes from slides can be a nightmare. If the student knows that they were taking notes from the red paragraph, they don’t have to re-read the whole page to re-find their place. Facilitating ‘chunking’ is perhaps the most effective thing I do in my classroom. Several students have brought this up during conversation, without me explicitly pointing out what I was doing.

There is a lot of discussion around which fonts are best. Comic sans has fallen out of fashion (many education experts sung its virtues), but most fonts with exaggerated serifs are good. There is a font called ‘Open Dyslexic’ pre-installed on Microsoft PowerPoint. Anecdotally, many of my students have commented on how easy to read they found text in this font. The font is not beautiful – it’s certainly no Garamond – but remember you’re not trying to show how refined your font palate is. You’re trying to convey information to people who need it. They’ll appreciate it. I promise.

And, finally, don’t send out files in .pdf

In summation, the material you’re trying to convey is difficult. We want people to understand the dynamics of the argument narratives we’re discussing. Facilitating the learning of those who face barriers empowers us all, and empowerment is really what education is all about.

Will Sharkey completed his PhD in Moral and Political Philosophy before training to become a school teacher. He now works in a secondary school in Andover. Pronouns: he/him.