Opening Doors: Promoting Equity through Accessibility

Hleziphi Naomie Nyanungo, Linda Hasunuma
Justice and Inclusion

When hearing the term ‘accessibility,’ many immediately think about accommodations to meet the needs of specific individuals or groups, primarily those with disabilities.  While related, accessibility and accommodation are not the same. According to LaGrow, ‘accommodations are reactive solutions to address special cases. Accessibility is a proactive solution to providing equal access for all.’ The word “proactive” is essential here as accessible learning spaces are intentionally and thoughtfully designed and delivered so that all students have access to the tools, resources, and support they need to be successful. In Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, Kevin Gannon (2020) invites teachers to think of access as a feature of our pedagogy by asking the question: ‘Do all of our students have the same degree of access to us, the course, the material and to learning? (pg 74).

Accessibility promotes equity by making it possible to engage students who would otherwise be pushed to the margins. Take, for example, a student like Tanya (name has been changed). Due to COVID safety restrictions, she lost her job as a waitress, and now lives with her grandmother, mother, and sister. The only place she is able to get her work done is in her car. A course designed to provide flexibility and options will allow Tanya to access course content and participate in activities in a way that works best for her situation, and increase her ability to be successful. You may have students in a course you are teaching this semester who are in situations similar to Tanya’s, and are having to navigate barriers such as internet connectivity issues, availability of computers and technology, health matters, the demands of work and family, and more.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the Peralta Equity rubrics provide guidance for designing and evaluating your courses for equity, inclusion, and access. UDL Guidelines and the UDL Progression Rubric can help instructors create more inclusive and accessible learning experiences. UDL asks us to anticipate our students’ needs instead of putting the burden on the student to request an exception. We can provide options or pathways that benefit everyone, including those who may need accommodation, thereby potentially lessening the need for individual accommodations. For example, captioning tools may benefit students who may have a hearing impairment, but can also benefit English language learners who process information differently as well as those who must attend class in a space that is not private. 

The Peralta Community College system’s Peralta Equity rubric was developed to close gaps in learning outcomes in online courses and promote more inclusive and accessible online learning experiences. The rubric consists of the following areas:

  • addressing students’ access to technology and different types of support (both academic and non-academic); 
  • increasing the visibility of the instructor’s commitment to inclusion;
  • addressing common forms of bias (e.g., image and representation bias, interaction bias); and 
  • helping students make connections (e.g., between course topics and their lives; with the other students).

Drawing from these two frameworks, we offer some recommended strategies as well as some simple things you can do right now to make your courses more equitable and accessible. 

  1. Get a sense of who your students are and what they may need. A good way to do this is administer an anonymous survey at the beginning of the semester that asks students about their needs and well-being. The ‘Who is in the Class? Form’ is a good example of a survey with questions related to factors that may impact the students’ learning experience such as internet connectivity, disability and health concerns, work and family obligations.
  2. Offer low tech alternatives: Students may not have the same access to stable internet connectivity, computers and other technology tools. It is important to keep this in mind as you assign readings and activities. See this article for low-tech ways for teaching online.
  3. Use low-cost or open source instructional materials, where possible: The increasing cost of commercial textbooks can be a barrier to students. Consider low-cost or open source high quality educational materials. Visit Temple University Library OER page for guidance.
  4. Be flexible and provide students with options: Consider ways to adapt your course to meet the needs of your students. CAT’s Agile Pedagogy resource page offers some guidance for being flexible in your teaching. 
  5. Design for accessibility:  Take advantage of the accessibility options (e.g. automatic captioning in Zoom) available in the technology used for online teaching. While typically designed to accommodate people with disabilities, these accessibility features provide great options for everyone. ‘Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19’ highlights accessibility features in educational technology tools.

If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of applying these frameworks to your courses, we recommend a simple approach where you think about one thing you could try from either rubric. Consider Tobin and Behling’s (2018) Plus One strategy from “Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education.” Pick one strategy to implement in a course you are currently teaching.

Good teaching means honoring and recognizing the full diversity of our students, and the accessibility mindset offers us a way to design learning experiences that benefit all learners. The principles and strategies shared here can help you create more equitable, inclusive, and accessible classrooms that help all students succeed. If you would like to  learn more or think through how you can use these approaches in your own teaching practice, please make an appointment for a one-on-one consultation with one of our faculty developers or Ed Tech specialists at the CAT.


Addy, T. M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K., & SoRelle, M. (2021). What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press.

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, T. K. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.

Hleziphi Naomie Nyanungo, Ph.D. is the Director of Educational Technology at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching

Linda Hasunuma, Ph.D. is the Assistant Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching

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