Developing an Accessible Learning Environment

Elisabeth Miller, Writing Across the Curriculum

According to the US Department of Education, 11 percent of undergraduates enrolled in 2- and 4-year colleges and universities report some form of mental, physical, or emotional disability. That number is likely significantly higher given students who are not diagnosed, do not disclose their disability, or choose not to seek out accommodations.

Moreover, both students with and without disabilities undoubtedly have a variety of preferred learning and participation styles—from being visual learners to having trouble with aural comprehension to preferring active or kinetic modes of learning. Here are four tips to develop an accessible learning environment for all students, an approach to teaching that’s often called Universal Design:

  1. Using writing to make classroom discussion accessible.

Many students may have difficulty determining when or how to enter classroom conversations and anxiety may prevent them from meeting oral participation requirements. Consider inviting students to write and submit questions or responses before class, or give students time in class to write and submit responses. These brief, informal pieces of writing open up another communicative channel and make more room for participation.

Professor Margaret Price, in Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life1, suggests alternating between both oral and online discussions during class time. She explains that “Taking part in a synchronous discussion that does not require one to ‘jump into’ an oral/aural conversation can benefit all students, particularly those for whom the timing and social pressures of face-to-face situations are difficult to navigate. I have used course-management software and also free ‘blog’ spaces (WordPress and LiveJournal) to construct spaces that enable both synchronous and asynchronous discussions” (93).

  1. Using informal writing to provide additional opportunities for participation.

To encourage thoughtful, focused interaction with course material for all learners, Price suggests requiring that students annotate course readings with their own “ideas, questions, and interpretations as [they] read” (237). Annotation, for Price, can happen through any method that students prefer: writing on the page, typing in another document, writing on Post-It notes, or tape-recording ideas.

Whatever method students employ, they annotate for responses to each paragraph of a reading (stating their confusion, agreement, and alternate interpretations), authors’ sources of evidence, and structure of articles. They end annotations by writing two-or-three sentence summaries of the readings, paraphrasing the article’s argument, and writing down a few questions.

  1. Respecting and promoting a range of writing processes.

Be aware that there is no “one-size-fits-all” writing process. The value of outlines and putting thoughts in a linear fashion before writing may hinder, rather than help, some students. Idea-mapping may simply not make sense to some learners. Consider giving students a menu of options for their writing process: outlines, idea-mapping, rough notes, “zero” drafts, reverse-outlines (See “Reverse Outlining” in this section), and more.

Various writing strategies will also work for different students. Gender and Women’s Studies Professor Eunjung Kim at UW-Madison reports success with “setting up a time and space for students who have trouble writing to come in and write in the presence of others.” Writing Center sessions, “retreats” with reserved time for drafting, or other groups may also help support students’ process.

  1. Inviting students to talk with you about their needs.

Finally, be sure to encourage writers with disabilities and students who have various learning preferences to come talk with you about their needs. Include an “Accessibility Statement” or “Inclusion Statement” early on in your syllabus inviting students with and without documented disabilities to talk to you and to seek out resources from UW’s McBurney Disability Resource Center. For excellent suggestions on how to craft your syllabus statement, see Shannon Madden and Tara Wood’s “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements” at

1. Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.