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How Do I Make My Course Content Inclusive?

Accessibility is ultimately about inclusion. It’s about making a course site (or classroom, or office, or movie, etc.) as inclusive to as many people as possible. A majority of the focus in accessibility considerations, especially in web accessibility, focuses on the technical aspects: how to properly structure,code, or design a site. But the content of the site, what it actually says, also needs to be thought of through an accessible, inclusive lens.

Pronouns and Names

Students come to Northwestern from around the country and around the world. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences, and it is important to make sure that the courses they enroll in and engage with do not appear to be excluding them. To quote the APA Style Guide, “long-standing cultural practice can exert a powerful influence over even the most conscientious author. Just as you have learned to check what you write for spelling, grammar, and wordiness, practice rereading your work for bias.” These guides will help you to create a classroom that is inclusive of all students.

Gender identities outside of the man/woman gender binary have become increasingly accepted and openly expressed in recent years. Transgender, non-binary, and genderfluid students, to name a few, are becoming more vocal about who they are and how they want to express themselves. A crucial part of an inclusive classroom is respecting students’ chosen names and pronouns.

The Vanderbilt Center for Teaching has an excellent, in-depth guide on how instructors who are not already familiar with the idea of a gender spectrum can be more inclusive. One of the easiest things an instructor can do is to include their preferred form of address (a nickname, a title, etc.) and their preferred pronouns in their introduction.

Example: Dr. Alex Smith (they/them) has taught statistics for nearly a decade. Alex specializes in election and polling analysis...

Likewise, ask your students to include their preferred name and pronouns in their introductions. This normalizes the idea of sharing pronouns and doesn’t put students who might otherwise need to request a different name or pronoun on the spot.

Avoid using language that refers to a gender binary when possible. “Boys and girls” or even “ladies and gentlemen” leaves out a lot of people. Instead, use non-gendered group terms: students, audience members, esteemed guests.

Above all, respect the names, pronouns, and identities that individual students share with you and the class.

Inclusive Writing

The following tips are based on the APA’s guidelines on reducing bias for ensuring that your course is written in an inclusive way. These tips can be incorporated into discussion forum guidelines as well, to encourage your students to also be thoughtful and inclusive when addressing each other. And of course, be open to and respectful of feedback from your students. If a student points out something in the course that seems to be exclusive in nature, consider altering it, or at least providing context for why it has been presented this way.

Gender

Do not default to male pronouns or descriptions when the gender is unknown or vague. For example: “a student should put his books down on a desk.” Alternatives include: deliberately alternating pronouns, using the singular they/them pronoun, or making the subject plural and using the plural they/them.

Be cautious when using male and female in your writing. They are sometimes acceptable as descriptors–male students, female employees–but should generally be avoided as nouns. It is especially important to avoid mixing and matching men/women and male/female (i.e., men responded 60% of the time, while females responded 80%). Using male and female as nouns can be perceived as dehumanizing and should be avoided. (It can also exclude students who identify outside the gender binary, as mentioned in the Pronouns and Names section.)

Disability

Avoid language that reduces a person to their condition (“the disabled” or “the autistic”) or that carries negative connotations (“confined to a wheelchair”). Even seemingly “neutral” terms like hearing impaired or visually impaired can be seen as negative, by putting the focus on impairment and limitation. Phrases like “deaf and hard-of-hearing,” “blind and low-vision,” and “physical/mobility disabilities” are preferred.

On the flip side, terms like “differently abled” or “handicapable” are also not recommended, as many in the disabled community feel that these overly positive terms erase their experiences and tries to avoid or minimize the existence of disability. For the same reason, some disabled people dislike “person-first” language (in which you would say “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person”). A growing number of disabled people are pushing back against this language, saying that it reduces a key part of their identity and experience--their disability--to an afterthought. However, there are some people with disabilities who prefer it. As always, respect individual preferences when talking to or about specific people.

Sexual Orientation

Avoid making assumptions about the gender of someone’s spouse or romantic partner. For example, if a woman mentions her spouse, do not assume she is referring to a husband.

Avoid binary descriptions like “gay and straight,” as this excludes people who have other sexual orientation identities, such as bisexual.

For more information on terminology used within the LGBTQ+ communities, you can visit this glossary of terms put together by The Trevor Project, or the more lengthy and detailed Transgender Language Primer.

Race & Ethnicity

Avoid using the word “minority” simply as shorthand for any non-white racial or ethnic group.

Avoid overly broad descriptions, such as talking about Africa like it is a single country or Native Americans as if they all belong to a single culture. Be specific.

In general, it’s recommended that writers use commonly accepted designations, such as U.S. Census categories, to refer to racial and ethnic identities. However, if an individual expresses a preference (Black over African American, for example), use their preferred identity label instead.

Try to avoid common colloquialisms that paint disability in a negative light, and instead simply be straightforward about what you mean. For instance, rather than saying “Sorry for the late update, my week has been insane!”, say “My week has been really busy!” Or rather than, “I know this video is kind of lame, but please watch to the end,” say “I know this video isn’t very exciting…”

For further information about disability and language, check out this  blog post from Disability in Kidlit, which advises writers and readers on how to approach disability in literature.

Other Considerations

While writing is the most common area where these issues arise, consider inclusivity in other areas of your course design. If you are using stock photos, for example, make sure that people of various genders, races, disabilities, etc. are represented. Are all of your assigned authors white, men, or white men? Look for places where you can incorporate materials by creators from marginalized groups (women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, people who fall into more than one of the above categories, etc.) to expose your students to more diverse viewpoints.

Be aware of what words you choose based on who is acting or being described. For example, men who speak up in a meeting may be described as assertive, while women who do the same may be described as abrasive. Consider context and connotations.

Content Warnings

Content warnings, sometimes referred to as trigger warnings, are a controversial subject in higher education. Some educators see them as unnecessarily coddling students or even as an attack on academic freedom.

However, the reality is far less dire. Content warnings are a lot like ratings on movies. A movie rating isn’t simply the code PG, PG-13, or R; it also includes a description of the content in the movie that earned that rating. It allows viewers to make informed decisions about whether or not the movie is one they want to see, or if they want to see it at a certain time. For example, someone who knows they get easily spooked might decide to see an R-rated horror film in the middle of the day, rather than late at night.

Similarly, consider the following scenarios:

  • A class on public administration and ethics has a module talking about Nazi Germany, which includes a number of readings about the Holocaust. This module is clearly labeled and the readings are annotated, so a Jewish student taking the class is able to set aside an evening during his week to work through this emotionally difficult material, instead of reading it at work on his lunch break like usual.
  • A literature course includes an assigned reading that graphically describes the sexual assault of a woman. The reading comes with a warning about the content, and so a student who was sexually assaulted by her partner in high school is able to ask a friend to review the reading for her and tell her which pages contain the description, so she can skip over it while still completing the assignment.
  • A film studies course includes an assignment in Week 5 to compare a scene from a popular war film to footage recorded on the ground during the Iraq War. Both film clips include notes about the violent content they contain. A veteran enrolled in the course sees this in Week 2 and is able to reach out to the instructor to ask for an alternate assignment that will cover the same topics.

Without content warnings, each of these stories could have ended very differently. The Jewish student may have been overwhelmed by memories of his Holocaust survivor grandmother and been distracted and upset the rest of the day at work. The student who was sexually assaulted may have had a panic attack on the bus ride home. The veteran student may have had a PTSD-induced flashback while at home with their family.

Content warnings simply provide additional information to students and allow students to decide when and how to engage with potentially troubling material. They no more coddle students than movie ratings coddle viewers. And including a content warning does not mean that the instructor shouldn’t include the material, or that the material has no educational merit. It simply means that the material contains content that some students may find troubling. It carries no moral judgment and no requirement that the instructor change their assignments.

There also isn’t an expectation to anticipate every single potential issue that a student could have with a reading. But there are subjects that are more commonly troubling and are generally worth noting. These include:

  • Graphic depictions of violence
  • Sexual content
  • Sexual assault
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Hate speech and/or action aimed at a marginalized group (racial slurs, homophobic/transphobic language, sexist/misogynist language, ableist language, etc.)
  • Graphic depictions or in-depth discussions of genocide and/or war

Content warnings do not always require a change of course materials. They simply require an instructor to think outside their own experiences and understand that each student brings their own history to the course and the readings. Providing this information up-front empowers students to make decisions about how best to approach the assigned work so they can achieve academic success.