Like many other American kids, I attended a summer camp where I spent some time outdoors, learned new things, and made long-lasting friendships. At my camp, though, I was introduced to a whole new world I had never experienced before.
At my camp, all the kitchen appliances had raised dots to indicate the settings, schedules and notifications were posted in large print and braille, and none of our educational sessions required the ability to see. At 16 years old, this was the first time I could just be me. There was no need to ask for accommodations because what I needed was already provided.
Summer camp would look very different for me now. Undoubtedly, technology and the internet have changed the way we live. You can’t even order a pizza without someone telling you there’s an app for that! Unfortunately, it still sometimes takes legal action for it to be accessible. (Proof: “Court finds Domino’s Pizza violated the ADA by having an inaccessible website and orders WCAG compliance.”)
It’s really common for digital spaces to be inaccessible. The latest update from the WebAIM Million report, an evaluation of the top one million websites, revealed that 96.8% of sites have accessibility errors, with an average of 50.8 errors per page. Not only is it incredibly frustrating to encounter accessibility issues that prevent you from accomplishing what you need or want to do, but it is also a constant reminder that you are “other” and that your needs are “special” and often forgotten.
Global Accessibility Awareness Day reminds us that universal design is paramount
This year, Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) is May 19. The purpose of GAAD is to bring attention to digital accessibility and the more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide who are out there surfing the web, learning, shopping, meeting virtually, and maybe even writing a blog post right now. Using universal design and including accessibility before you even start a project are the best ways to ensure that your products will be equitable.
If you are feeling overwhelmed about all the different backgrounds, needs, and experiences your students may have and how you can promote inclusion and belonging for everyone, you’re not alone!
When I think about universal design, I imagine a bell curve with most people falling in the middle and smaller numbers on either end. It’s easy to think that you will accommodate the greatest number of people if you focus on the average user experience. However, that is not true. When you do that, what you have actually done is exclude the experiences, needs, and backgrounds of anyone who does not fall directly in the middle!
Educational experiences designed for all your students
Imagine you are at a buffet and there are no labels for the food. Maybe you are able to select foods you like, but maybe not. Would you feel comfortable eating at this buffet if you are vegan or allergic to eggs? What if this buffet is hosted in a country you’re not familiar with? What if you cannot see the food or communicate with the host well?
To make a buffet more inclusive, we can provide written labels and list the ingredients of each dish. We can hire servers to assist and answer questions. We can share information about the buffet online so it’s available in multiple formats and languages. Maybe as you are considering these changes, you determine that a buffet isn’t a very inclusive eating experience at all, and you switch to a sit-down meal instead.
As an educator, you probably aren’t planning a buffet, but you are designing curriculum and lesson plans. CAST, a nonprofit organization dedicated to removing barriers in education, has created the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which is based in universal design but with a focus on education. The UDL Guidelines can serve as a kind of checklist to help you audit your materials, activities, online lessons, and practically anything you share with students in your class.
Of course, it is not just children with disabilities who can feel excluded in our classrooms. Students of color, LGBTQ+ youth, students new to the U.S., and students living in poverty, among others, all have unique experiences and deserve an equitable and inclusive education. One where they feel like they can bring their whole selves to school. Read Why equity matters in education—and what to do about it for more on this.
If you are feeling overwhelmed about all the different backgrounds, needs, and experiences your students may have and how you can promote inclusion and belonging for everyone, you’re not alone! As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
When we all think about those students at the edges of the bell curve and how their needs can be the model for the norm, instead of the exception that needs to be accommodated, we can start to make meaningful changes for all children. Start as small as you need to, but just start! And keep working toward accessibility and inclusion for all.