The Secret Thoughts Professors Admit to Having About Accessibility

January 22, 2016 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: January 4, 2018

If there’s one thing that educators value above all else, it is student success. But some students require a slightly different path to success.

Whether they have a learning disability, an attention deficit, a sensory disability, or even if they just have a different learning style, these students may need accommodations to achieve their best.

By law, any disability accommodation request must be honored to ensure students have equal access to quality education. Accommodation might mean giving them extra time to take an exam or write an essay, or it could mean the providing a transcript of a lecture, closed captioned video, or Braille or audio versions of course materials.

That shouldn’t be so hard. And yet…

Educators admit that, secretly, they feel a flood of unpleasant thoughts and emotions when faced with such requests.

The Confession

In our webinar on getting buy-in for universal design learning, presenter Thomas Tobin posed this question to attendees:

Think about faculty members’ experience. If you’re a faculty member yourself or if you support faculty members, think about their experience when students come to them with requests for accommodations. They have that piece of paper that says, ‘I need time and a half on the tests. I need the software to read the questions out loud to me. I need a human being in the room just in case I have questions — you name it.

So we all know how faculty members should feel in that instance.

How should they respond?

“Yes, I’ll set that up for you. Thank you very much for letting me know.”

But how do faculty members often actually feel?

Here is what the educators in attendance admitted to feeling as an initial reaction:

Annoyed, Burdened,Frustrated, Dread, Freaked out, Overwhelmed, Confused,Panicked, Resentful, Stressed, Angry, Unprepared, Unsure, Afraidword cloud of secret thoughts
They confessed some of their secret thoughts:

Oh great…more work!

Will it even make a real difference?

How do I do that?

I don’t have time for this.

What a pain…

I’m not prepared to deal with this.

This is too much work.

Oh geez, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. This is overwhelming!

One more thing to do…

Why should this students get an accommodation over others?

This is an inconvenience.

This isn’t my job.

As these confessions reveal, creating accessible coursework can feel daunting at times.

But it doesn’t have to.

Universal Design Learning: Accessibility for All

Tobin recognized and sympathized with these reactions, then explained how universal design principles can eliminate the stress, fear, and frustration that accompany accessibility requests.

Universal design learning means that coursework is designed to be used by anyone. If educators approach learning as a process that should be made universal, then they can significantly reduce the need for special accommodations. “Special” becomes the norm. And it means the difference between proactive instructional design and reactive accommodations.

Some examples of UDL:

  • Providing reading material in both PDF and plain text format
  • Using LMS systems with built-in accessibility features
  • Offering students a choice of audio, visual, video, or textual content
  • Adding an interactive transcript, closed captions, and downloadable transcript to educational videos or lecture capture
  • Adding text alternatives to images, graphics, and charts so they can be read by screen readers

How UDL Solves Your Accessibility Woes

Let’s examine those unpleasant reactions to a student accommodation request and see how universal design can solve the problem.


Educators feel confused or afraid if they don’t know how to make their coursework accessible. Universal design means making coursework accessible as part of a routine. In an ideal world, all professors, administrators, and IT staff would be trained in UDL practices so they become second nature.


If you receive a special request the day before classes begin or the night before a test, then of course accommodation feels like a burden. When you have limited time and resources to remediate your coursework, it makes sense that you’d feel resentful or stressed.

Instead of reacting to a problem, you want to anticipate students’ needs. Since you may not know whether or not you have a student with a disability in your class, it’s prudent to design your class to accommodate all needs.


Cover your bases with universal design, and you won’t get caught off guard with last-minute requests!


Some educators worry that it is unfair to give special accommodations to students who request it. However, what’s truly unfair is denying students with special needs or disabilities the assistance they require to learn well. Accommodation is not only fair, it’s the law.


Some faculty admit to feeling burdened by accessibility, like it is not part of their job to make their coursework fully accessible. The truth is, accessible design is everyone’s responsibility, from faculty to disability services staff.

The good news is that if you engage in universal design as a habit, if UDL principles are taught and advocated for from the top down, then accessibility doesn’t take any extra effort. It’s just part of ensuring all students succeed.

Need help convincing your colleagues and administrators of the importance of UDL? Watch Thomas Tobin’s presentation.

Strategies for Getting Administrative and Faculty Buy-In for UDL

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