Accessible tutorial activities for students with disabilities
February 21, 2017 6:01 PM   Subscribe

This semester I have a lot of students with disabilities in my classes (university, third year undergraduate, primarily discussion-based humanities subject). Two of them in particular have challenges that mean I can't do a lot of the usual stuff in my teaching "bag of tricks". One is severely visually impaired, and the other is non-verbal (uses an electric wheelchair, limited use of hands, uses nose to tap out sentences on an iPad that are spoken electronically). Can anyone suggest some engaging interactive teaching and learning practices that will still work for these students?

I've met with the non-verbal student, together with Disability Services, and she was great about filling me in on what will and won't work for her, but I haven't been able to meet with the blind student yet, and I start teaching tomorrow. I have tried to ask Disability Services for this sort of advice, but they've been very clear on what doesn't work, and not very forthcoming about alternatives.

As for the students themselves, even with their suggestions, it's not as though they have a background in pedagogical theory and teaching and learning best practice, so there's a limit to how much I can expect them to do to solve my questions about "but how do I actually help students to learn within this parameter-space?"

The main absolute no-goes are:
- writing or drawing on the board
- putting up anything on screen that I haven't given the blind student access to in advance so she can use her screen reader
- using non-accessible content (e.g. video that relies on visuals, non-accessible pdfs, hard-copies)
- having in-class timed quizzes or written activities that expect more than a few words of answer
- activities that require physical moving around the classroom space.

Activities that I rely on a lot for interactive engaged learning that I can't see how to do now:
- Students quickly jot down a question or comment about a topic on scrap paper, pass up to the front, and we go through them anonymously (great for shy students)

- the "pendulum" - students have to talk to each other to figure out where they stand relative to each other on a controversial issue and literally line up across the classroom in order from 'totally disagree' to 'totally agree'. (It's great because it forces them to actually dig down into their peers' viewpoints about an issue so they can work out all the shades of grey on an issue, plus it gets them moving about and woken up, so I usually use this about halfway through a long class.

- breaking up 'talky' bits with visuals, e.g. getting them to analyse an image or video relevant to the topic. E.g. last year in the lecture that I will be giving tomorrow, we showed a two minute compilation of stills from old sci-fi movies, and got them to think about and discuss what imagery was common to the various movies and how this sort of imagery has influenced technology design.

- In class quizzes on the weekly readings. This was mainly because a large proportion of our students just don't do the readings. We aren't allowed to have such quizzes worth anything towards their grades, but if they have to do them in class, they feel pretty stupid sitting there for 15 minutes not being able to do anything, so it's a bit of an incentive. Plus it's open-book, so even the ones who didn't prepare spend 15 minutes flicking through and skim-reading. Before we implemented that, we usually had only 10% of the class or fewer coming prepared, and sometimes no one at all. The student I met with asked if I could make the quiz online and available a week ahead of time instead, which is a reasonable accommodation, but I'm pretty sure that this just means the students who don't do the reading also won't do the quiz. And Disability Services have asked me not to do something like have this one student excused from the first 15 minutes of class, so I can't just have her do it in advance and other students do it in class. Ideally I'm meant to find accommodations that work for everyone.

- I also usually try to have minimal text on Powerpoint slides during lectures. I pick striking images that relate to what we are talking about to kind of 'signpost' the main topics of the lecture, and then only include text for headings, complicated words/jargon that they might not know how to spell, and quotations from the readings that I want to refer to. However, I'm required this semester to fully describe any images on the Powerpoint, so I can't really 'waste' people's time by having images that aren't strictly necessary, and I also have to read out all text on the Powerpoints in full, which means a quotation of even a short paragraph is going to annoy people if I do it too often. So what on earth goes on my Powerpoints? Do I just not have Powerpoints? Last time I did that was five or six years ago, and even then the students complained mightily in the evaluations.

So what I'm looking at is accessible activities that will (a) get students to do the readings, (b) help students feel able to engage in the classroom even if shy, (c) will break up long sessions with something that will wake students up again, (d) allow me to intersperse talking/verbal discussion with other kinds of activities, particularly for students with different learning styles.

Any suggestions gratefully accepted!
posted by lollusc to Education (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For the reading quizzes:

In the past, I've done online quizzes via Blackboard (or whatever course management system you've had). I've found (and students have confirmed via feedback) that the students do in fact stay on top of the reading. (And if even they really aren't, like you note, they're at least still skimming through the reading and picking out the key words and concepts I want them to.)

For the pendulum: does your university have some sort of rapid response/clicker system students could use to respond with instead, with a Likert scale of some sort?

For the talk-y bits: any way you can use, say, audio files or music instead? For your sci-fi example, there's certainly been changes in the audio cues used to signal "technology" or "space" in a feedback loop with the actual audio-design of technology.

And yeah, unfortunately, some of this comes down to actually tracking down the student and talking with them and the university about what a "reasonable accommodation" is (even if the disability services people are being cagey). I'm betting, for example, you can still write on the board when you need to (especially if not doing so would cause issues for the more visual learners in the class)--you just might need to verbalize things at the same time.
posted by damayanti at 6:59 PM on February 21, 2017

I am probably underthinking this, but is there any way for you to give copies of your powerpoints and videos ahead of time to the blind student? That might include recording yourself ahead of time describing the important visuals so the student can study up ahead of time, and during class you can instead briefly describe the visual as reference for the student (who hopefully has already studied up on the images).

For the in-class quizzes, is there any way to change the format to include less writing? It might take some work, but matching quizzes can give good feedback on whether students have been doing the assigned readings while also not requiring much writing from the non-verbal ipad student. Since they're not for a grade, is it possible for the non-verbal student to try taking those quizzes at the same time as everyone else and see how it goes? If after a couple quizzes it's too hard for them to complete a matching quiz in the same time as everyone else, perhaps you can send the reading quizzes down to Disability Services for them to administer to the student, or give the questions to the student in advance and they come to class with prewritten answers (or have the answers already written in their notes and just transfer them onto the quiz so they have something to do while everyone else is working).
posted by lilac girl at 7:16 PM on February 21, 2017

Best answer: "I also usually try to have minimal text on Powerpoint slides during lectures. I pick striking images that relate to what we are talking about to kind of 'signpost' the main topics of the lecture, and then only include text for headings, complicated words/jargon that they might not know how to spell, and quotations from the readings that I want to refer to. However, I'm required this semester to fully describe any images on the Powerpoint"

Doesn't PowerPoint have a function where you can print (e-mail) both the slides and presenter's notes? So you could use your usual slide deck, but include in the presenter's notes things like "Image: A still from the movie Blade Runner, showing Deckard searching for a replicant; a strong diagonal implies separation between humans and replicants" and then put the sort of outline notes that you might present from, or your prepared text? I've had students with visual or hearing impairments who were fine with my outline notes and didn't need the whole "speaking from a prepared text" text as I am more off-the-cuff (they typically audiorecorded lectures too, so they could play back the "prepared text"). Similarly, A/V services was able to provide classroom recording services and e-mail me the file as an mp3 which I could in turn provide to students.

With the writing on the board, a reasonable accommodation I've used in the past was taking snapshots of the board with my cell so that I could send the image to students, with a description. Got the idea from a student with a visual impairment who would use a digital camera to snap the board and then could blow them up big and adjust the contrast for himself on his computer at home. I was like, whoa, that's a really good idea -- and whenever something on the board was particularly crucial or I'd diagrammed brilliantly, I'd snap it and send it to the class, and students LOVED that. If you're saying what you're writing, and you can provide a memorialization afterwards (picture with descriptive text), I would think that would be an okay accommodation, at least if used sparingly.

With mp3s of lectures or board snapshots (with descriptions), you can provide them to the whole class via the class website or e-mail list, and you might be surprised how many students want those things just to help with their particular learning styles. (I was always SHOCKED how many students wanted to listen to lecture mp3s over again, that struck me as excruciating, but I learn best by reading, so ...)

"- the "pendulum" - students have to talk to each other to figure out where they stand relative to each other on a controversial issue and literally line up across the classroom in order from 'totally disagree' to 'totally agree'."

(Is the "no moving around" limit from disability services or from the student? Or just that it seems like it wouldn't work well?) Depending on the size of the class, I'd think you could still manage this -- other students can ask your student using the wheelchair yes/no questions to help sort, and your visually impaired student can move around with the help of his or her classmates. Like if everyone's going to be tripping over desks, not so great, but if you have room for everyone to move around safely. Most students are pretty good about accommodating their peers and I bet they'll work it out pretty quickly. I agree this one is too good a teaching strategy to give up even if movement is totally out! Maybe the clickers could work, or maybe they could do a blackboard exercise in advance, saying agree/disagree with various statements, and you could turn that into a scale you can provide before class? And have a discussion from there?

(From my experience teaching, avoiding visuals completely seems unusually limiting, especially if the class touches on design.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:39 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Students quickly jot down a question or comment about a topic on scrap paper, pass up to the front, and we go through them anonymously (great for shy students)"

For this (which I've also used!), would it be possible for your accommodated students -- or even all your students -- to e-mail you? Like, I've got my phone in my pocket during class, and I've got my school e-mail open on the podium computer, is it possible for the student with the iPad and the visually impaired student to shoot off an e-mail while other students are jotting down their questions? If they know you're going to do it at the start of class they could have the e-mail already open and addressed ... or even pre-written if they prefer.

Alternatively everyone could submit by e-mail before class.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:31 PM on February 21, 2017

Response by poster: Great ideas so far. Just a follow-up question: I like Eyebrows' idea of using something like email for the activity I was previously using scrap paper for, but it defeats the purpose of anonymity (also there is no way in hell I would want to risk having my "live" work email open in front of class. All sorts of sensitive stuff might pop up.) But there must be alternatives where I could have something like a twitter stream that the students could post to, for example. Ideally though (unlike Twitter) it shouldn't require them to set up an account on a commercial platform. We use Blackboard, but I don't think their forum-type options auto-refresh. Even something like a webpage that is a scratch pad with a URL that students could access and then write on anonymously would work, I think, as long as it was iPad accessible. Has anyone used something like that they could recommend?
posted by lollusc at 10:04 PM on February 21, 2017

Best answer: allows you to create a temporary "room" online that students can access on smartphones/tablets/computers and post to. It's completely free and you can see the responses roll in like a Twitter stream. Students are asked for a nickname, but you could have them enter pseudonyms to preserve anonymity.
posted by invokeuse at 10:47 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to echo that you may well be able to write on the board, as long as you read what you're saying out loud. (Maybe also make an effort to reread it at the end of the sentence or paragraph.

I tutored a blind student in calculus who was very good at taking notes with her Braille computer. However, she did find it really frustrating when profs would say something like "And as you can see from this equation back here..." without specifying which equation that was. Try to be really aware of things like that. All she needed was for the prof to add "y = 2x + 1" - but some never did, even after she asked them specifically several times.

I suspect this particular student would also have been fairly comfortable discussing images if she had a written description of the image. Of course, this student is not your student.

Also, don't discount simple options. If the questions are short, maybe these two students could email you, and you could quickly copy the questions down on paper? They would be anonymous to the other students but not to you - might work, might not. Also in the "might work, might not" category, (in addition to a written description provided in advance), might it be beneficial for the seeing students to verbally factually describe the image before interpreting it? Starting with the facts can sometimes help lead to more sophisticated ideas. One last "might work, might not": as an alternative to the pendulum, perhaps students could raise a number of fingers from 0 (strongly disagree) to 5 "strongly agree", and them move around the room to meet up with one or more people who have the same (or different) view. That way not everyone has to move, but you still get a lot of the benefits of the pendulum.

And no, these students aren't pedagogy experts. But they do have a lot of experience with different teachers and profs, and could answer questions like:

"I sometimes do ____ in my classes. Would you be able to participate in that?"
"Do you have access to technology that could help you participate in ___?"
"What do you instructors usually do about ___? Does it work for you? What would you hope that I would do?"
"Is there anything instructors sometimes do that makes things extra difficult for you? Please tell me so I can avoid it!" or "Is there anything instructors sometimes do that you appreciate?"

I think the key here is to ask them for input without putting the work on them. You want their ideas, but then (as you said) it's your responsibility to figure it out.
posted by MangoNews at 10:49 AM on February 22, 2017

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