Inclusive Course Content & Universal Design
Web accessibility emphasizes disabled students and users’ ability to access and engage with digital content. But we can also consider accessibility through a different lens: one of inclusivity and intersectionality. Disabled students come from a wide variety of experiences; their race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, and more all interact with both their disabilities and their educational career. Non-disabled students bring their own identities and backgrounds into the classroom as well.
Most web accessibility guidelines focus 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. 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.
Inclusive Course Resources
How can we create more inclusive course content? One approach is through inclusive course resources. By deliberately and thoughtfully seeking to include resources created by people from marginalized identities, instructors will expose their students to a broader, more diverse range of experiences and perspectives.
Marginalized identities include, but are not limited to:
- Marginalized genders (meaning cis women, transgender people, non-binary people, and gender non-conforming people)
- BIMPOC (Black, Indigineous, Mixed, and People of Color)
- Disability (including sensory, physical, and mental disabilities)
Socioeconomic background, national origin, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are other identities that can be considered as well. Most people will have intersecting marginalizations. For example, Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer and the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law, is a Black disabled woman and the daughter of immigrants. Her network of identities give her a unique background, perspective, and experience--all of which she brings to her work and advocacy.
For students who come from similar backgrounds or experiences, it can spark new interest and engagement to see that people like them are active creators. For students who may not share those backgrounds, it is equally vital that they recognize that anyone can be a valuable and worthwhile contributor to their field.
While some fields may have more centralized resources (like the data science article linked in the resources section), for most classes, some research and evaluation will be required. It’s not much different from looking for any other course resources: instructors should still evaluate the quality of the resource and the relevance to the course goals the same way. There’s simply an additional step to ensure that you’re deliberately, thoughtfully seeking out more diverse authors and creators.
Creating a Culturally Responsive Curriculum
Portland State University library’s resource guide on creating a culturally responsive curriculum is an excellent place to start when considering how to make a course more inclusive.
The following reflective prompts were contributed by Lisa Grady-Willis, Director of Diversity Education & Learning, Global Diversity & Inclusion, at Portland State University.
- How does my pedagogy reflect intentional efforts to engage diverse and/or underrepresented populations?
- How does my curriculum acknowledge various perspectives and/or voids within the field?
- What did I take into consideration in choosing my course materials?
- How does my syllabus reflect the desire to foster an inclusive classroom community?
- How do my course materials reflect my current students?
- How do my course materials reflect the students I hope to serve?
- How is attention to diverse perspectives in course content distinct from diversity engagement? Does your proposal reflect this distinction?
Selection of Textbooks and Course Materials
“Culturally accountable” offers a better strategy for evaluating and changing the curriculum. It means recognizing when you’re sharing just the "same voice over and over."
When choosing course materials make sure the voices of people from different cultures, genders, classes, sexualities, and disabilities are heard--not just talked about by others. For example, Seattle University’s MSW program assessed readings in the curriculum and aimed for only 1/3 of reading to be written by the dominant culture. This strategy helps "disrupt the canon" and focuses on the presence of the perspective of non-dominant groups as opposed to non-dominant groups as the topic.
Looking at the dominant culture in a university or classroom can also make our pedagogy more responsive and inclusive. Assumed and invisible cultures permeate academia, which is often seen as supportive of white, male, middle class, heteronormative, and abled ways of knowing and being.
Resources and Further Reading
Portland State University: Creating Culturally Responsive Curriculums
A guide dedicated to helping faculty create courses that are culturally aware, accountable, and responsive. It is strongly recommended that anyone interested in developing an inclusive course read this entire page and consider the questions it poses.
This toolkit provides numerous resources on how to develop an inclusive online course. In addition to the toolkit, this page also provides a glossary of terms that can help familiarize instructors with some of the language used in conversations around inclusion and diversity.
Teaching Tolerance: Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education
This in-depth guide provides numerous strategies for how to approach education from an anti-biased, anti-racist perspective. The four main subjects--Instruction, Classroom Culture, Family and Community Engagement, and Teacher Leadership--are broken into sub-sections, each with contextual information and concrete practices to implement.
Towards Data Science: 5 Steps to Take as an Anti-Racist Data Scientist
An example of the kind of resource that can be found through research. This article not only discusses opportunities for engaging with anti-racist practices in data science, but also includes information on numerous experts, articles, organizations, books, lectures, and more--all of which can and should be used in courses.
Names & Pronouns
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’ 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 (first name, a nickname, a title, etc.) and their 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, invite your students to include their 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.
Do not require students to share their pronouns, however. Some students may not be in a space where they feel comfortable doing so, and students who are resistant to the idea of sharing pronouns will not be swayed by pressure to do so. If a student does not share their pronouns, you can default to using “they/them.”
Avoid using language that refers to a gender binary when possible. “Boys and girls” or “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.
Adding Pronouns in Canvas
Canvas includes a feature for users to select their pronouns. Once this is done, their chosen pronouns will show up in parentheses after their name anywhere they post in Canvas.
You can add your pronouns by logging into Canvas and clicking on the Account button in the main navigation. Then click Settings, and then the Edit Settings button. You can then select your pronouns from the drop-down menu.
There may be several pronouns on the list that you are unfamiliar with! A wide variety of pronouns (sometimes called neopronouns) have been developed by LGBTQ+ communities to better reflect the experiences and identities of people who live beyond the binary man/woman conception of gender. Ultimately, all pronouns accomplish the same goal: talking about someone in the third person. Fae/faer, ze/hir, or tey/ter fit into a sentence just the same way as she/her or they/them. It may feel a little strange at first, but if you take the time to practice privately, using these pronouns will become easier.
Some people may have pronouns like “she/they” or “they/she/he”. This generally means that they are comfortable with any of the listed pronouns. You don’t have to use all two or three in a single sentence, though! In one discussion board post, you may refer to a student whose pronouns are “he/they” as he; in another one, you can refer to the student as they. If you’re uncertain about which pronouns to use or how to use them appropriately, reach out and ask privately how to use them. Likewise, if you see someone using pronouns that you are unsure of how to pronounce, reach out to the person privately to ask.
If you ask with respect and curiosity, most people will be happy to tell you the best ways to address them.
Language tends to reflect the norms and beliefs of a society and culture. This can lead to a lot of unconscious bias and excluding terms to find their way into speech. Common phrases like “ladies and gentlemen” leave out people who don’t fit into either category. Describing someone as “wheelchair-bound” overlooks the very real experiences of freedom and mobility that many wheelchair users experience. Talking about Native Americans as if they’re a single, historical entity ignores the hundreds of cultures and languages that are still very much alive today.
This bias is often unintentional and simply reflects how people hear others speaking. As the introduction to this page said, it takes practice and effort to see this bias in your own work and learn how to correct it.
There are a great many resources available on a wide variety of identities. We’ve linked to several of them below, broken up by identity type or category.
- Northwestern Inclusive Language Guide: This excellent and thorough guide provides up-to-date resources on appropriate language to use when discussing race & ethnicity, gender & sexual identity, religion & national identity, and disability.
- APA Style Guide Supplemental Material: Guidelines for Reducing Bias (PDF Download). This guide covers many of the same areas as the Northwestern language guide, but with an eye towards reducing bias in academic, research-oriented writing specifically. Highly recommended for academics and instructors.
Gender & Sexual Orientation
- Trevor Project Glossary of Terms: The Trevor Project is an organization dedicated to crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth. Their glossary of terms page is a quick, straightforward overview of common terms relating to gender and sexuality.
- GLAAD Media Reference Guide: GLAAD advocates for better representation of LGBTQ+ people in media, including news and entertainment. Their media reference guide provides guidance on how to talk about these communities in respectful, welcoming ways.
- Trans Language Primer: Developed by a group of trans writers, the Trans Language Primer is a detailed history and dictionary of terms used throughout queer history, especially in the Western world. It can be fairly intensive, but it’s a valuable resource for less common terms and for perspectives on how LGBTQ+ communities talk about themselves.
Race & Ethnicity
- United States Census Bureau: About Race: The APA style guide recommends copying the terms for different races and ethnicities used in the U.S. census, especially when talking about American populations.
- Diversity Style Guide: Race/Ethnicity Glossary: A broader list of race/ethnicity terms used in many forms of media, with guidance about appropriate usage.
- Disability in KidLit: Introduction to Disability Terminology: This blog post covers many of the ways that ableism (prejudice against disabled people) appears in language and how to avoid it.
- Diversity Style Guide: Disability Glossary: As with the race/ethnicity glossary referenced earlier, this covers many terms commonly used when talking about disability and highlights appropriate and inappropriate usage.
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network: Identity-First Language: This blog post discusses why many disabled people prefer identity-first language (i.e., disabled person or autistic woman) as opposed to person-first language (i.e., person with a disability, woman with autism).
Other Diversity Considerations
In addition to these areas, there are many other aspects of diversity to consider. The Diversity Style Guide covers many of these in greater detail, but as you create course content, consider how you talk about these topics.
- Weight, especially fatness and obesity
- Immigration and refugees
- Socio-economic classes
- Geographic regions
- Non-native English speakers
There’s a lot to keep in mind, and many harmful phrases and words are seemingly baked into English. You may have the best of intentions and still make mistakes. If someone points out that you’ve used language in a way that’s harmful, apologize briefly, thank them for coming forward, and look for a way to fix it.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a teaching philosophy that encourages instructors to remove barriers to learning and to provide students with greater choice and control in their education. UDL has its roots in supporting disabled students, but it is meant to be universal, accepting differences in learning styles from any student for any reason.
For example, from a purely accessibility-focused perspective, captions on videos are necessary for students who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. UDL recognizes that many non-disabled students may also benefit from captions: students who are non-native English speakers, students who are watching the videos on mute during their lunch break at work, or students who process information better by reading it rather than listening. UDL accepts all these reasons as valid ones and encourages instructors to find ways to build learning experiences that are adaptable, flexible, and engaging.
There are numerous resources on UDL available. SPS Distance Learning offers a pair of two-week, online, asynchronous workshops on UDL and accessibility. These introduce key UDL concepts and give instructors the opportunity to revise and develop UDL course materials they can start using right away. If you’re interested, contact the Senior Content Specialist to be added to the list for the next available session.
Other resources include:
- University of Washington DO-IT: The Center for Universal Design in Education. University of Washington has been a leader in web accessibility and UDL for decades. Their Center for Universal Design has numerous resources covering both in-person and online courses.
- CAST: The UDL Guidelines. CAST is an educational research organization that has pioneered UDL concepts. Their three pillars approach to UDL is one of the most well-known and accepted versions. By focusing on engagement, expression, and representation, instructors can build courses that will help all students learn.
- CAST: UDL on Campus. A subsite of CAST that focuses specifically on how to apply UDL in higher education.
- Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Edited by Sheryl Burghstahler of University of Washington, this anthology contains numerous essays on applying UDL to higher education.
- Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Edited by Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling, this is another anthology on UDL in higher ed, with a specific focus on digital and online learning.