When Steffi Arkilander, a fourth year health sciences student, approached her English and cultural studies elective instructor, Emily Scherzinger, about a request for accommodation, she was nervous. After a positive meeting with Emily, however, she felt so supported by the experience she wrote an article about it.
Below Emily and Steffi discuss the importance of accommodating students and how instructors can make their courses more accessible.
PhD Candidate, English and Cultural Studies
Instructor: ENG 2PC3: Popular Culture
Your student wrote a very complimentary article about your willingness to listen to and honour her requests for accommodation. What did reading that mean to you?
Steffi emailed me with a link to the article and explained in a personal email what our meeting meant to her. I instantly remembered our meeting, and how much it also meant to me to connect with a student on that level. Once I read the article, I teared up, because I felt seen — I had and continue to put so much work into this course to ensure it is accessible and available to students who feel excluded from academic spaces. To have a student acknowledge that she sees the work that I put in for people like her was immensely gratifying.
Thinking back to your own experiences as a student and now as an instructor, why do you feel like educators need to accommodate their students and make their materials more accessible?
Educators must make their courses more accessible, because it is the right thing to do. It is as simple as that. Sometimes, the massive numbers of students that are enrolled in a course becomes just another number, but these are human beings with their own needs and methods of learning that they have developed over time. I strive to treat each person I meet with kindness, empathy, and gentleness, and this policy includes students. If my course is inaccessible to one student, then it is not kind, empathetic, or gentle.
During this time, is accommodating students’ accessibility requests even more essential? Why?
I don’t know if it is so much about virtual education that necessitates accessibility, but more the current state of global affairs. This pandemic has applied pressure to all of us in a myriad of individualized ways. Making your course accessible circumnavigates a student’s concern over accessibility, which takes pressure off of them in a very anxious time, and also helps the instructor avoid extra work in the long run, of which there is a lot in online learning.
What are some of best ways instructors can make their classes (and themselves) more accessible?
I am a huge proponent of transcripts, or even class lecture notes. For this class, I have [also] offered students weeklong deadlines, but, sometimes, life gets in the way, as I tell my students. Encouraging open communication and honesty when a student falls behind or needs more time for an assignment is a lovely way to establish a rapport, and it benefits the instructor, as well: I have fallen behind on marking deadlines, and simply communicated to my students that I am in a stressful period. My students were very understanding, just as I am for them. The foundation of my relationship with my students is mutual respect and understanding, which we need more of in such an anxious time.
4th year health sciences student
What made you want to write this article?
I wrote this article because as a disabled student, I’ve run into barriers with past courses. Seeing the way this course was set up kind of opened my eyes at how courses can be structured so that students don’t even need to be put in a situation where you need to ask for an extension, notes from another student, or a different midterm date — because all of these things are already considered.
Are you finding courses and instructors more or less accommodating/accessible during this period of virtual education versus when most learning was in-person?
For the most part, I think courses have been doing a lot better at accommodating during the pandemic. Some of my live lectures are recorded beforehand so I can watch them later, where in many cases I find that in person lectures are not podcasted (unless it’s an introductory or bigger class). I’ve also seen a lot more courses using captioning which is something that was almost never done for podcasted or in person lectures — even if the course had pre-recorded videos.
Do you have any recommendations to instructors about how to make their courses more accessible?
I think the biggest thing about making courses accessible is to set up a course in a way that a student with disabilities can take it without requesting special support. Whether it’s providing transcripts, lecture notes, providing unlimited time for quizzes, or making take-home exams, these can really ease the burden on students needing to request accommodations in the first place. Otherwise, I would say supporting students when they might need something, especially during such a difficult time is very important. Whether it’s being more lenient on deadlines or maybe providing extra time for a midterm, all of these accommodations can be super helpful. I think it’s important to note that these accommodations are important even if a student isn’t registered with SAS (because there can be barriers to registering with SAS). Honestly, I find even chatting with a professor and getting a supportive email back that shows that they care about us as students is very heartwarming and helpful.
Allison Mullin is the communications manager for faculty of humanities at McMaster University. This article was reprinted with permission from the author. The original article appears on the McMaster faculty of humanities website.