From Accessibility to Innovation

By Matthew Edwards, PhD. – Associate Professor of Spanish, Associate Faculty of Latinx and Latin American Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies

For many people “accessibility” is a wheelchair ramp, descriptive captions on a film, or Braille translations posted alongside signs we see. It is a term that is almost inseparable from diagnosed disabilities and the American Disability Act.  As a professor with low vision who identifies as blind, I have been trying hard to use the things that help me as a standard. Simply put, I create my classes for myself. Just recently, for example, I stopped showing PowerPoint presentations altogether. Powerpoint presentations are uncomfortable for anyone who has to get close—the fonts are too big and the layouts vary too much. It is simply too hard to navigate. They stress me out—I can’t see the information on the computer screen and the projected image is always too far away, no matter how close I get. In its place, I now use a GoogleDoc.  I post the class outline, give students editing permissions, and start class. This is a change that is motivated completely by what makes me comfortable.  But, what was surprising to see was how my class has changed. The GoogleDoc has created a classroom centered on collaboration. As I am talking, I hear students keyboards. I look at my screen and now see their ideas, reactions, comments, and questions. If in the past I always suspected students were chatting with friends, I now see continuous in-class interaction. And, in the past, if students kept their questions silent due to nerves or anxiety that they were for some reason inherently wrong, now anonymity gives them a necessary freedom to expression.  We keep this GoogleDoc as our “running notes”—a sort of continuous white board that never gets erased. It is always with us and in that way the GoogleDoc is a safety net that not only promotes community formation in learning, but it also supports class members who miss a day due to COVID, quarantine, family responsibilities or work.

I am sharing this episode with you today to suggest that we think about accessibility and accommodations as not only supporting everyone, but making our classroom, workplace and community a different place to be in—a place where collaboration motivates freedom of expression and mutual support.