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Diversifying your course syllabus

A resource guide for instructors and faculty to assist in reviewing or building new course syllabi with a focus on inclusivity and diversity in both style and content.

Creating an Accessible Syllabus

 

Ideally, your syllabus and course materials are created with accessibility in mind. Unlike accommodation, which adds extra assistance for those who require it, accessible materials are designed to be inclusive of the broadest group of people. Building your course syllabus and materials with accessibility in mind will help anyone who will use them. 

Tulane University has created an online Accessible Syllabus manual that provides guidelines on creating course materials and syllabi that are accessible to all students and "promote engagement and agency". The guide focuses on ensuring that Image and Text resources can be accessed by all students, by focusing on layout, design, and flexibility. A section on Rhetoric interrogates traditional authoritarian language in syllabi and focuses on sharing information within the syllabus with approachability and empathy in mind. Course policies on deadlines and grading distributions are also examined, with a focus on flexibility.

Accessible Syllabus website homepage. Features sections on Image, Text, Rhetoric, Policy.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a framework developed by CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, to "improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn." (CAST, 2018). Guidelines for UDL are used to implement the framework and include specific directions that can be applied to "any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities." (CAST, 2018).

 

Accessibility Statements

Consider including a statement in your Syllabus that outlines your commitment to creating a course that is accessible to all students, your willingness to be flexible and cooperative, and sets a tone for inclusiveness in the course. These statements can include information on services that can help your students such as Academic Accommodation Support, Student Learning Support, Human Rights Services, Centre for Student Development and Counselling, and Library Research Support.

The University has a general Statement of Commitment to Accessible Goods and Services, but consider creating one specific to your course. This can include an acknowledgment of different learning styles and students who may have mental health issues, care responsibilities, or learning differences but perhaps don't relate to the term "disability". 

For guidelines on creating a statement, along with successful examples, see this 2016 article by Tara Wood and Shannon Madden provide a Disability Studies based overview of accessibility statements. 

Accessible Text Materials

Not all digital text is accessible. If you are using scanned material, run it through an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program to ensure that screen readers can access the text (the Library provides a free Online OCR Tool).

Use design to make text more readable - use headings available in document programs, 12-14 point sans serif fonds, 1.5 line spacing, high contrast, and break up your text into short paragraphs.

Use self-describing links (ex: learn more about creating accessible text documents from the Access Ryerson).

Key Resources:

Digital Education Strategies. Understanding Document Accessibility: A Reference for Creating Accessible Office Documents. [Ebooks]. The Chang School, Toronto Metropolitan University. 

Accessible Images & Illustrations

Use alt text for all images in presentations and documents:

  • Include why the image is there, what it is, and describe it - ask yourself what the reader would be missing if the image was not there.
  • When images have no alt text, text/screen readers notify the reader that there is an image that has no description.
  • Strictly decorative illustrations usually don't require alt text, you can use null text:  ""
  • Be concise and move from general to specific
  • Adding alt text in Google Docs is easy, just right click on the image and select "alt text"
  • 5-15 words is often recommended but more can be used if more context is needed

Google Slide showing a right click on an image and the "alt text" options in the dropdown menu.

Accessible Graphs, Charts, and Data

  • Using Alternative text for graphs is particularly important, but it's not enough for very complex graphs
  • If the graph or chart has been saved as an image (jpg, png, tif) text/screen readers will not be able to read the included text - use a data table instead
  • Use both bar texture or line design and colour in design and ensure colour combinations used are unambiguous (see our section on colour blindness) 

 

Inclusive Language

Words matter, and are a tool for you to use in battling ableism in the classroom. The standard for inclusive language is set by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 

General guidelines:
  • Use person-first language
  • Avoid labels and stereotypes
  • Do not use Euphemisms
  • Disability is not an illness or problem
  • Use proper language in oral and informal speech
Recommended Language
person(s) with disability/disabilities/[type of impairment] person(s) with an intellectual impairment/disability
person(s) without disability deaf person/person who is deaf
have [disability/impairment/condition] person with a hearing disability/impairment
blind person/person who is blind person with hearing loss
person with a vision or visual disability/impairment hard-of-hearing person
person with a physical disability/impairment  deafblind person
wheelchair user/person who uses a wheelchair person of short stature
person using a mobility device little person
person with a mobility disability/impairment person with achondroplasia (if they have this condition)
person with alibinism person with Down syndrome/trisomy-21
person who uses a communication device accessible parking/washroom
person who uses an alternative method of communication  

Source: United Nations. 2021. Disability-inclusive language guidelines

Library Accessibility Services

Ensure all your course materials are available in accessible formats such as readable PDFs, Word documents, or captioned videos. If you have a student who requires other formats (Braille, large print, e-text, MP3) or you need assistance with closed captioning media, the Library's Accessibility Services can assist you.

Contact Accessibility services:  
By phone: (416-979-5055, option 2, or 416-979-5000, ext. 3093) 
By email: The Library’s Borrower Services at access@ryerson.ca or the Accessibility Services Librarian: kdermody@ryerson.ca

Accessible Syllabus Template

The Universal Design for Learning Committee has created a Course Outline Resource to help instructors create an effective and accessible course outline based on the principles of UDL (Universal Design for Learning).

University resources for UDL

Universal Design in the University Classroom (Best Practices guide from the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching)

Universal Design Flexible Teaching, and Academic Accommodations in Remote Teaching (List of resources and link to a workshop, from the Centre for Excellence in Learning & Teaching)

Universal Design for Learning Online (Workshop from the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching)

Accessible Documents and Slides playlists

The University of Minnesota's Accessible U program has helpful playlists of concise videos that outline steps you can take to make your syllabus and presentation slides accessible and usable. 

Example of ALT Text

President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac as he prepares to board Air Force One before his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Oct. 9, 2015.Time Magazine

(Ex. of alt text from the Accessible Syllabus Project)

Accessible Charts

Examples of inaccessible and accessible versions of a line chart from Penn State's Accessibility and Usability at Penn State.

The lines on this chart are colours of a similar brightness that would look very similar in black and white, and the key refers only to the colour.

The lines on this chart are colours of a similar brightness that would look very similar in black and white, and the key refers only to the colour.

Using dotted lines makes the chart much clearer and accessible to those with difficulties differentiating colour.