In November 2019, several members of our eLearning team attended Michigan State University’s (MSU) 5thannual Accessible Learning Conference (ALC). The theme of the conference was storytelling, emphasizing that the core of accessibility is “people and their stories.” As someone who’s been a student in the communication and theatre fields for almost a decade, this theme struck a chord with me. Often, at both private and public universities, the majority of students’ disabilities are often unidentified, so their stories go untold. These untold stories create a roadblock in these students’ ability to succeed in learning environments.
According to Dreamscape (2019), people with unidentified disabilities “wrestle in silence with the tools, technology, and environments so often designed for people without disabilities…The struggle is right in front of us, yet too often our eyes miss it.” Dreamscape also reports that:
- 20% of Americans live with at least one disability
- 35% of working-age people with disabilities are employed
- 15% of people worldwide live with disabilities
Many in higher education are strong advocates for accessibility. On the flip side, there are those who may be aware of the need to make their curriculum and learning environments accessible, but find it to be a daunting, overwhelming task, so they struggle, and sometimes fail, to address it. I believe those in the latter category feel overwhelmed by accessibility because they haven’t heard effective or prominent stories about accessibility practices and how those practices have impacted students’ lives for the better.
ALC helped me begin to envision how we might share stories of accessibility in new and more prominent ways. Sharing stories of accessibility in higher education opens faculty, staff, and administrators’ eyes to the hidden, unidentified needs of students, challenging them to address those needs in their curriculum and learning environments. As a result, their students thrive and succeed in the classroom and after they graduate.
My biggest takeaway from the conference came from one of my former colleagues, Nate Evans, who is now MSU’s Manager of Digital Content and Accessibility. Nate challenged me to share others’ stories. However, the follow-up question he asked is, “How do I (we) tell more stories of success more often and more effectively?”
Telling effective accessibility stories came to life for me through the many attendees and presenters with disabilities who were willing to share their stories at the conference. At the core of each story was someone trying to navigate the world of higher education with his or her disability and the successes and/or struggles they face while doing that on a daily basis.
One touching moment during a panel discussion with four MSU students with varying ranges of disabilities has stayed with me. Two of the four students on the panel were blind, but only one of them was a presenter at a couple of the breakout sessions at the conference. A question was directed at the student presenter about her experience with people outside the MSU community asking to help her and how people within the MSU community have accommodated for her blindness. After she responded, she included the other blind student and asked her about her thoughts in response to the question. It was a beautiful gesture not only of the inclusivity of accessibility, but also the power of asking someone to share their story.
So how do we apply ALC’s model and begin to tell more stories of success more often and more effectively and include others in the process? I have a few ideas:
- Keep your eyes open – If you see a great example of how someone has improved accessibility for students, whether as an instructor or instructional designer, don’t be afraid to ask them if you can share their story. These are your champions of accessibility who will begin to inspire others to do the same!
- Once you have permission to share someone’s story, share it multiple ways!– Blog about it, Tweet it, Instagram it, or share it on Facebook. Whatever social media platforms you use, get those stories out there! In addition to social media, don’t be afraid to share your stories, or others’ stories, in faculty, department, or committee meetings. These stories can also be shared with your students, both online and face-to-face. Having the courage to share these stories and to share them in effective, prominent ways will empower others to share their stories as well.
- Share stories of accessibility more effectively by keeping them in mind both in teaching and in course design– The conference’s keynote speaker, Shell Little, defined inclusive design as “diversity, including and learning about a range of perspectives.” Similarly, Jackie Rhodes, the director of MSU’s College of Arts and Letters asserted that “Accessibility is about social justice and connection.” By remembering that accessibility is necessary from some, and helpful for all, and incorporating a range of perspectives in your courses, you are sharing and adding to the overarching story of accessibility.
Who are some champions of accessibility at your institution? How can you begin to share their stories more often and more effectively and inspire others to do the same?
About us. (2019). Retrieved from Dreamscape website: https://dreamscapefoundation.org/about-us/
ALC 2019: Storytelling. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.accessiblelearning.org/
Evans, N. (Presenter). (2019, November 21). 7 tips for good storytelling. Speech presented at ALC 2019: Storytelling, Michigan State University, MI.
Why accessibility? (2019). Retrieved from Dreamscape website: https://dreamscapefoundation.org/why-accessibility/