Creating Accessible Classrooms

Creating Accessible Classrooms

Although there are some simple strategies to create more accessible classrooms, disabilities can be complex. Depending on the person with the disability, they may feel stigmatized due to their experiences, and/or they may find significance in their disability. It may be an important and valued part of their identity. Of course, a person’s experience may be impacted by their other identities and the ways in which they intersect with their disability. It’s also important to remember that there is great variance in disability—both in people’s experiences of the same disability and of disabilities of themselves. Some disabilities are life long, while others are temporary. It’s important to remember that we should not try to decide who does or does not have a disability or tell another person what their experiences or needs should be.

We encourage all IUB instructors to become familiar with the office of Accessible Educational Services (AES). This office is “dedicated to ensuring that students with qualifying medical conditions, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), have the tools, support services, and resources that allow equal access and reasonable accessibility measures (accommodations) to be successful at Indiana University Bloomington." AES has a handbook about faculty responsibilities you should review.

Keep in mind, some students will make the choice not to disclose their disability. They may choose not to do so because of not wanting to be “outed” as having a disability; not having the time, money, or privilege of getting medical documentation of their disability; or another personal reason. As an instructor, this will mean you will not receive accommodation guidelines from the AES and you may not know your student has a disability. Although you will not know the specific accommodations that can make it easiest for this specific student to learn, there are multiple practices you can use to create a more accessible classroom. While an accommodation removes barriers for an individual, accessibility aims to create inclusive circumstances for all students.


Theoretical Views and Models of Disability: Medical and Social

Before we delve into strategies to help create accessible classrooms, it’s important to understand the different ways in which disabilities are understood and theorized. The ways in which people think about disability impacts their interactions, language, and expectations when they communicate with people who have disabilities (Haegele and Hodge 2016). Below we’ll explore the medical model and the social model, although there are other ways of understanding disability.


In the medical model of disability, disability is viewed as a problem, a deficiency, and/or abnormality (Bingham et al. 2013; Haegele and Hodge 2016; Mitra 2006; Palmer & Harley 2012). The focus of treatment is on “fixing” the disability via medical intervention, so that the person can function “normally” in society (Brandon and Pritchard 2011; Forhan 2009). In this model, society and environments remain the same as they are not viewed as the “problems;” disability exists independently of these conditions (Brittain 2004).

A large critique of the medical model is that it portrays disability as a deficit and a negative (Brittain 2004; Mitra 2006). Another critique of the medical model is that medical professionals have influence, power, and gatekeeping practices over people with disabilities. It is often medical professionals and scientists who are making decisions about what an individual needs (Humpage 2007).


In the social model of disability, disability is viewed as a difference; having a disability is not positive or negative. In the social model, “disability” and “impairment” are separated. An abnormality of the body is an impairment (Forhan 2009; Goodley 2001), while disability is the disadvantages a person faces due to a society and culture that does not consider the needs of people with impairments (Goodley 2001). In the social model, society inflicts disability on people with impairments (Bingham et al. 2013; Coles 2001; Palmer and Harley 2012). The focus of treatment is creating social, political, and environmental changes in an effort to decrease inequities (Haegele and Hodge 2016).

A critique of the social model is that it does not fully consider the lived experiences of people with disabilities, as it separates impairments and disability, when the impairment(s) can be an important aspect(s) of their experiences (Bingham et al. 2013; Palmer and Harley 2012). Another critique is that the social model does not consider intersectionality. Not all people with disabilities have the same experiences, as their identities intersect to form unique modes of oppression and privilege (Fitzgerald 2006).


Strategies for Accessible Classrooms

While we should avoid guessing what individuals need and firstly follow requests from the DSS, there are some strategies that can help make classrooms accessible. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework provides suggestions for creating learning environments that best meet different individual needs. The UDL Framework encourages educators to provide multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Read more about UDL to better understand the research from cognitive neuroscience and learning sciences and the steps you can make in your classroom. Keeping UDL principles in mind, below we offer some suggestions considering the ways to structure your class, the roles of learning management systems and materials, and the classroom climate.

Structuring your Classroom

  • If you plan to change classrooms for whatever reason, alert your students well in advance. Some students may need to plan and/or practice their route. Some students may need to prepare for environmental sensory issues that come with being in a new space.
  • If you’re able to move the furniture in your classroom, consider how to make your classroom most accessible for someone using a wheelchair, a walker, and/or a service dog.
  • When you or your students notice an accessibility barrier on our campus, make a report to the Office of Institutional Equity.
  • Include a statement in your syllabus addressing your goal to create an inclusive and welcoming classroom. Put resources in your syllabus for students (see below) and communicate your availability to meet with your students to talk about their needs.
  • When you receive an Academic Modifications Memo from Accessible Educational Services, have a private conversation with the student to make sure you both understand the specific accommodations needed. Check in with the student during the semester to see how the current accommodations are working and if modifications are needed.
  • Do not ban laptop use. While bans on laptops signal a distrust of our students, it also causes harm to students with disabilities (Guest Pryal and Jack 2017).

Learning Management Systems and Materials

  • Make sure your materials are accessible. IU has guidelines to help you create materials that are accessible to everyone. View their guidelines on electronic documents, multimedia, instructional materials, web content. and podcasts.
  • Canvas is central to our classes at IUB. Use the Knowledge Base’s guide to creating accessible content and sites in Canvas.
  • Make your syllabus and other course materials available as early as possible.
  • Create materials that are screen readable by using text files instead of PDFs.
  • To make graphics readable by screen readers, include alternative text of images. Alternative texts should describe the images. You might also think about providing a 3D model of images or tactile graphs. In videos, remember to describe the visual content. (For example: “And here I am displaying an image of a cactus. The tips of the cactus have turned brown and crisp, which indicates…”
  • Create multiple ways to access the same information (such as assignment instructions or course content). For example, have audio-to-text conversions available and captions for your videos. Do your best to keep this information the same without paraphrasing or using confusing modes of communication (like idioms, double meaning, sarcasm, nicknames, etcetera).

Creating an Inclusive Classroom Climate

  • People disagree on whether to use people-first language or identity-first language (ex. person with a disability vs. disabled person). It’s always best to listen to individuals and let them share how they like to be identified. Read Liebowitz’s 2015 essay on identity-first versus people-first language to understand the roles that disability pride, Disability culture, and personal preference play in this discussion.
  • Address ableist and harmful language and circumstances that occur. Often people can say harmful things accidentally (like “you don’t look disabled” or “your story is so inspiring”). When you hear comments like these, consider asking clarifying questions (“I want to understand what you mean. Are you saying… ”) or owning your feelings and thoughts (“When I hear that comment, it makes me feel…”) (Souza, Ganote, and Cheung 2016). View Stella Young’s TED Talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.
  • Ask yourself how you might include disability studies, rights, culture, and activists into your curriculum. Make these issues central to your students’ learning.
  • Avoid assumptions. We often see participation as one type of way (vocalizing opinions, asking questions). However, some students may have different ways of being social that include varied usage of eye contact, difficulty in understanding other peoples’ perspectives, and different understandings of space.
  • Consider having breaks in your classes for those who need a rest from focusing or from socializing.
  • Establish written rules for classroom discussions and classroom norms. Create these together, allowing students to share their preferences.
  • When students stop attending class or performing successfully on assignments, reach out to them. Let them know you’re concerned and would like to offer help if possible.
  • Provide opportunities for students to give you anonymous feedback.
  • Have difficult conversations face-to-face (either in-person or through Zoom). When the conversation is over, follow-up with the person via email, reiterating what you heard and what your next steps will be. This can help clear up any potential misunderstandings and provide documentation of your conversation.
  • Be clear in what you’re asking students. Rather than asking, “Why did you do that?” Consider saying, “I’d like you to do X and Z in this amount of time.” or “Why did you respond ‘that’s wrong’ to Bianca’s point?” This can be helpful for those who succeed with extra communication details.
  • Many instructors ban certain wearable accessories, but things like hats, sunglasses, and headphones may be helpful for those who have sensory sensitivities.
  • Be present, compassionate, and open to changing your opinions and practices.


IUB Campus Resources

  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): Need to talk to someone who cares? CAPS' trained, professional staff will give you the confidential support you need.
  • Accessible Educational Services (AES): AES is dedicated to ensuring that students with qualifying medical conditions, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), have the tools, support services, and resources that allow equal access and reasonable accessibility measures (accommodations) to be successful at Indiana University Bloomington.
  • Indiana Institute on Disability and Community: The Indiana Institute works to put good ideas into everyday practice in schools and community settings to improve choices and quality of life for people with disabilities and their families. The Institute includes many centers:
    • Center for Collaborative Systems Change: Connecting policy, research, and practice in partnership with communities to build local capacity that fosters lasting, sustainable change.
    • Center for Health Equity: Promoting a high quality of life for people with disabilities through fair and just opportunities to be as healthy as possible by conducting research, education, and service.
    • Center on Community Living and Careers: Partnering with school and support organizations to improve secondary transition and employment outcomes to bring about positive change for individuals.
    • Center on Education and Lifelong Learning: Working with schools and communities to welcome, include, educate, and support all learners.
    • Early Childhood Center: Conducting research and training to professionals to promote successful school readiness for children (birth to age five) and their families.
    • Eppley Institute: Partnering with recreation, park, and public land organizations in order to enhance access, choice, and quality of natural, cultural, and recreational experiences for all people.
    • Indiana Resource Center for Autism: Conducting training, consultations, engages in research and disseminates information to build local community capacity to support children and adults on the autism spectrum.
  • Student Health Services: The SHS’s mission is to provide student-centered, high-quality medical, psychological care, and wellness services in support of IUB’s commitment to enhance the student experience and student success.
  • Student Organizations: There are more than 750 student organizations currently on the books - and that number is always growing. Visit the Student Organization page to search for the perfect student organization for you. Some of interest may be:
    • American Sign Language Club at Indiana University: This club serves as an interactive place for students to engage in American Sign Language with all levels of signers.
    • Autism Mentoring Program: The mission of the Autism Mentoring Program is to provide mentors for students on the autism spectrum who are in 3rd through 6th grade as well as college-aged students at the College Internship Program (CIP).
    • Best Buddies at Indiana University: This organization is dedicated to fostering friendships between college students at IU and people of the Bloomington community with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
    • ICAN Service Dogs at Indiana University: This is a group of students with a mission to educate, fundraise, and volunteer with the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN). ICAN focuses not only on the service dogs in the program but on the individuals involved in this process.
    • The Neurodiversity Coalition at IU: This group of IU students, staff, faculty, and community members supports initiatives to make our campus more inclusive of the rights and needs of IU students with neurodiverse brain function.
    • Students on the Spectrum: Students on the Spectrum is a safe place for students who live with an autism spectrum disorder to come be themselves.
    • Wheelchair Basketball: This group will not only offer individuals the opportunity to learn and play the sport of wheelchair basketball, but they also create awareness of accessibility to the public through community outreach and demo-days.


Bibliography & Further Reading

Bingham, C., L. Clarke, E. Michielsens, and M. Van De Meer (2013). Towards a Social Model Approach? British and Dutch Disability Policies in the Health Sector Compared. Personnel Review 42: 613-637.

Brandon, T. and G. Pritchard (2011). “Being Fat”: A Conceptual Analysis Using Three Models of Disability. Disability and Society 26(1): 79-92.

Brittain, I. (2004). Perceptions of Disability and their Impact upon Involvement in Sport for People with Disabilities at all Levels. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 28: 429-452.

Coles, J. (2001). The Social Model of Disability: What Does it Mean for Practice in Services for People with Learning Difficulties? Disability and Society 16: 501-510.

DeOrnellas, Kathy (2015). Teaching College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Faculty Focus. Retrieved 10 November 2020 from

Fitzgerald, H. (2006). Disability and Physical Education. In The Handbook of Physical Education, edited by D. Kirk, D. MacDonald, and M. O’Sullivan, pp. 752-766. SAGE. London, England.

Forhan, M. (2009). An Analysis of Disability Models and the Application of the ICF to Obesity. Disability and Rehabilitation 31: 1382-1388.

Goodley, D. (2001). Learning Difficulties, the Social Model of Disability and Impairment: Challenging Epistemologies. Disability and Society 16: 207-231.

Guest, Pryal, Katie Rose and Jordynn Jack (2017). When You Talk about Banning Laptops, You Throw Disabled Students under the Bus. Retrieved 10 November 2020 from

Haegele, Justin Anthony and Samuel Hodge (2016). Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models. QUEST 68(2): 193-206.

Humpage, L. (2007) Models of Disability, Work and Welfare in Australia. Social Policy and Administration 41: 215-231.

Liebowitz, Cara (2015). I am Disabled: On Identity-First Versus People-First Language. Retrieved 24 November 2020 from

Mitra, S. (2006). The Capability Approach and Disability. Journal of Disability Policy Studies 16: 236-247.

Palmer, M. and D. Harley (2012). Models and Measurement in Disability: An International Review. Health Policy and Planning 27: 357-364.

Thurber, A. and J. Bandy (2018). Creating Accessible Learning Environments. Retrieved 9 November 2020 from

Young, Stella (N.D.) I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much. TEDxSydney. Retrieved from 25 November 2020 from