Drawing from the recommendations proposed in a recently published edited volume on ableism in academia, Nicole Brown shares her top-five list of accessibility hacks for teachers, lecturers, and speakers in higher education
‘Equality,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘inclusion’ have become trendy key words within higher education; such that there are now EDI policies, EDI champions, EDI initiatives, EDI strategies … We can all agree that the concepts of equality, diversity, and inclusion are integral to ensuring equity and social justice, yet we struggle when it comes to turning these theoretical constructs into practice.
This is the gap, the book, Lived Experiences of Ableism in Academia: Strategies for Inclusion in Higher Education attempts to fill. My key concern in editing the many contributions was with practicability. The book, therefore, brings together scholars’ engagement with their experiences, which opens up opportunities for reflections and recommendations.
It is all too easy to ask for quick-fixes, and higher education as a sector is notorious for trying to patch up rather than to substantially change. However, deep-seated change is not possible without some superficial developments. For change to fully embed, for individuals to learn to empathise, and for society to gain awareness, we need to model good practices consistently, adamantly, explicitly.
So, what are some little, inexpensive steps that will make higher education more accessible for staff and students? Here is my top-five list based on the recommendations brought forward in the book.
Presentation slides are commonly used in higher education settings to support teaching and dissemination of research. Yet, for many people the typical slides are difficult to navigate. Oliver Daddow highlights that one in 12 males and one in 200 females with Northern European ancestry have some form of colour blindness, and between five percent and 10 percent of the general population have dyslexia, add Jennifer Hiscock and Jennifer Leigh. How can we make our presentation slides appropriate for these audiences? Black writing on white background is harsh on the eyes and may make letters dance, make reading difficult. Colour schemes that are based on pinks and purples or reds and greens make writing difficult to distinguish from backgrounds for people who have colour blindness. One solution would be to use black writing on an off-white background.
time makes the difference between joining in and being excluded
In this day and age, time is often money, and it does mean that we may not offer quite as much time as we should. For some individuals, however, as Robert Mann and Bryan Clift point out, time makes the difference between joining in and being excluded, as stammers and processing speeds worsen with the perceived added pressures and stresses of wanting to share thoughts and views. Communication in higher education is largely based on writing and speaking, and those, for whom writing and speaking come with additional difficulties, time is of the essence. This is largely acknowledged within the accessibility structures for students, who, subject to formal diagnoses, are entitled to extra time. But what about those students, and staff, who do not have a formal diagnosis? And slowing the pace is good for everyone anyway.
Nowadays, most seminar rooms and lecture halls at universities are equipped with modern technology. Whiteboards, interactive or not, data projectors, and computers, are so commonplace that we cannot even remember a time where these gadgets were not part of the furnishings. Microphones are no different. Modern lecterns often boast charging stations for lapel microphones that can be clipped on to collars or fastened around one’s neck with a strap. Unfortunately, as I have written, many speakers do not use those microphones, with many even overtly stating that these microphones would not be necessary because “there are only 20 of us in the room.” The onus here is on the one person in the room to publicly counter this statement, thereby announcing their personal needs, making themselves vulnerable and stand out for being different and difficult. Using the microphone is a first step that needs to be followed up with good microphone etiquette. If there are questions or comments from the floor that are brought forward without a microphone, maybe because there is not one in the room or because the person has forgotten about it, it is the speaker’s responsibility to repeat what was said first before commenting. For people who identify as hearing impaired, deaf or Deaf, these little changes to our practice make a huge difference.
Accommodating everyone is not easy. But restricting an accommodation to a particular group of people, for example to those with medical issues, is also problematic
It is difficult to accommodate everybody’s needs in a room, especially as many needs are conflicting. There are individuals who need near-absolute silence to be able to focus, while there are others who need to move around, stretch their legs, or tap their fingers. As Rosalind Janssen describes so emotively and impactfully, there sometimes just is not enough time to wait for the next opportunity to go to the toilet. Accommodating everyone is not easy. But restricting an accommodation to a particular group of people, for example to those with medical issues, is also problematic. In the spirit of universal design for learning, the compromise must be to allow individuals to move around, to consume foods and drinks, to use their gadgets, to do whatever they need to guarantee health and wellbeing. After all, we cannot concentrate on a lecture or conference presentation, when we are preoccupied with our bodily needs.
Mentoring and support
Arguably, the biggest theme running through the book, and connecting all conversations I have been privy to, is the need for mentoring and support. Early-career researchers and postgraduate students struggle to navigate higher education as a space that demands efficiency and productivity, and where there are very few disabled, chronically ill and/or neurodivergent role models. Having said that, support and mentoring does not have to be provided by a disabled, chronically ill and/or neurodivergent person. For the mentor to have some lived experience may be beneficial, but anyone can be an ally and advocate for the needs of others. For example, when we hear “You don’t need me to use the microphone, do you?” we can speak up and ask for the microphone to be used; or when the slides have a difficult colour combination, or have black writing on a white background, we can speak up and educate others in accessibility, even if we, ourselves, don’t need those accommodations. That is true allyship.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.