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Educate All. Empower All. Include All.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Creating content that is accessible is key to ensure success for all students. Information is always at our fingertips. We can access anything at the speed of light and give instantaneous responses in email. These are all cultural expectations for many students, parents, and staff. Though we have this technology and the ability to deliver information rapidly, some students are not getting equal access to information because we are not being thoughtful about the format and delivery. As educators, we can be proactive and build content for students with accessibility in mind. Most might believe that accessibility is a non-issue as we often envision physical roadblocks to learning. However, 70% of disabilities are invisible, making it highly likely that you have a student, or parent, right now who will benefit from content that is made more accessible. With a few easy adjustments to current lessons, presentations and handouts, educators can ensure that all students can access quality content, efficiently and independently. Educators can use free tools to design authentic, learner-driven activities and environments that recognize and accommodate learner variability. Instructional coaches can assist novice and veteran teachers across content areas and grade levels in and model design and implementation of technology-enhanced learning experiences using differentiation, including adjusting content, process, product and learning environment based on learning styles, skills, abilities and personal or school-created (IEP) goals. As educators, we must recognize why accessibility is important; offer the best tips for making sure that all documents and materials can be accessible for everyone; identify the varied audiences who benefit from accessible materials; and create accessible yet engaging content easily with tools already available. Let's dive a little bit deeper.

 Why is Accessibility Important?

With over 1 billion people living with disabilities, there are many different disability segments to consider. Each person is unique and will experience disability in their own way. Some disabilities are visible (person in a wheelchair) and others invisible (bipolar). People can be born with a disability or have disabilities that become apparent over time (situational or natural).​

Which Audiences Benefit from Accessible Materials?

  • Hearing impaired

  • Visually Impaired

  • Physically Impaired

  • Cognitively Impaired

  • Speech Impaired

  • Neurally Impaired


1. Be proactive and utilize Universal Design for Learning.

CAST (Center for Applied Special Technologies) first developed the UDL framework in the early 1990s.  It has gained momentum across the country in all education circles. It is a concept that originally began in the architecture world by Ronald Mace. The inspiration for UDL came from universal design in architecture where design features intended for individuals with disabilities had unexpected benefits for the entire population, for example…curb cut outs that were designed for wheelchair access have benefits for strollers, rolling luggage, skateboarders, bikes, etc. 

Universal Design (UD) is an approach to design that increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals.​  Educational researchers found that this idea would help us change the way we teach and students learn. ​This framework reduces barriers and meets the wide range of needs of ALL learners therefore maximizing learning for everyone​. The framework is based on brain research that suggests that a one size fits all approach to education is not effective.​What we now know from brain research is that the way we learn is as unique as our fingerprints and just like no two people have the same fingerprint, no two people learn in the same way​. ​

There are 3 main UDL principles, the first is based on the recognition network of the brain and is considered the “what” of learning, or how we access our learning​. The second is based on the strategic network of the brain or the “how” of learning, how we assess our learning. The third is based on the affective network of the brain and is considered the “why” of learning or engagement, or why learners are motivated.  ​Through the UDL framework, curriculum is designed BEFORE teaching or as I like to say "front loaded" ​with various ways for students to access material, engage with content, and show what they know.​ When thinking of UDL and accessibility, teachers must ensure that the material can not only be accessed but actually used. 

Frontloading curriculum and making it accessible with UDL in mind could mean:

Principle 1 Multiple means of representation-videos with closed captions; Microsoft immersive reader for texts; increase font size of text, images, graphs, tables, or other visual content; use color contrast between background and text or image; use color for information or emphasis; use learning tools to slow the reading of text; use headings to make the layout of content easily readable; use captions or automated speech-to-text (voice recognition) for spoken language, provide visuals of music or sound, provide written transcripts for videos or auditory clips, provide visuals (Windows 10 setting) for alerts, provide alt text for all images, graphics, video, or animations;  use outlines, graphic organizers to emphasize key ideas and relationships; 

Principle 2 Multiple means of action and expression-Vary the methods for response and navigation such as providing alternatives for physically responding or indicating selections and physically interacting with materials by hand or keyboard (ink to text, dictation, alternative keyboard in Windows, Cortana, touchscreen, alt keys and more); Compose in multiple media such as text, speech, drawing, film (Windows Photo app or Paint 3D); Use interactive web tools (Microsoft Teams); Use multiple tools for construction and composition (spell checkers, dictation, Audio recording in word, PowerPoint, Sway)

Principle 3 Multiple means of engagement-use focus assist on a Windows 10 computer; use digital inking (student choice); use OneNote (personalized notebooks and tools) and learning tools; Cortana to set alerts and keep schedules; Optimize individual choice and autonomy (tagging in OneNote); foster collaboration and community (OneNote class notebook); provide personalized feedback (Onenote and Teams); develop reflection (written or audio journaling in OneNote) 

The more I think about it, if we simply use UDL alone we would be creating a learning environment that educates, empowers and includes all; all the time!

2. Be reactive through differentiation

When it comes to differentiated instruction (DI),  many educators are familiar with and are already using  Multiple Intelligences (MI) and  Bloom’s Taxonomy  in the classroom.  I believe these two concepts are at the heart of differentiation and should be apart of every teacher's toolbelt. MI is the easiest concept to use when approaching DI as it allows us to really reach a wide range of learning styles  in one classroom while Bloom's taxonomy helps us  reach  the wide range of  abilities (basic-advanced) in our classroom. Learning styles and abilities are the top two differentiators in the learning environment. Teachers often get stressed and frustrated because they think they must meet each and every students' every need every single lesson. This is an honorable effort but it is just not possible. However, using MI and Blooms will surely give you a higher success rate than if you did nothing.  

There are so many more strategies and tools to use for differentiation besides the aforementioned.  Have  you thought of other strategies to use in your teaching? To what extent or degree? In what way? Other strategies include flexible grouping, peer teaching, tiering, compacting, independent study, anchor activities, learning centers, and more!

It is important to remember that while you can use one individual strategy, you can pack a powerful PUNCH if you incorporate or overlap strategies. For example, you can group students by interest while giving them different levels of the same text (incorporating Microsoft learning tools to support reading fluency and comprehension) and then varying their product by multiple intelligence. 

I suggest educators begin with a curriculum map. It is by far my favorite tool to use as it helps you create meaningful, accessible, universal learning activities and incorporate a variety of DI strategies. 

As Diane Heacox said, "The activities you plan on the matrix may be used with the whole class, small groups, partners, or individuals.  Even if you go no further with differentiation than using a matrix plan as you design activities, you'll have taken an important step forward in increasing the variety and challenge in learning activities and in reaching more students". I think this makes DI easier to swallow for educators who feel that it is an overwhelming, daunting task. Many of us already know that our students are diverse in their needs, abilities, and interests. Yet, we still tend to teach traditionally or only differentiate in some subjects or areas. However, I like that a curriculum map can help us differentiate content, process and product; implement MANY DI strategies (flex grouping, cubing, anchor activities, choice boards, etc); and plan for modification and accommodations easily. Having a curriculum map is like having a swiss army knife for an inclusive environment.  

3. Make materials and learning activities accessible and inclusive.

Using free {Microsoft} tools you already have access to, you can build a strong foundation for success by continuously promoting equity and inclusion; enabling students to grow their potential; and engaging every learner. With tools like immersive reader, dictation, color filter, focus assist and digital inking students with varying learning preferences, styles and abilities can be motivated and engaged in every lesson.

5 Quick Tips for Creating Accessible Documents

1. Create new and revise old Word and PowerPoint files so they are accessible to everyone by:

a. Always running the accessibility checker

b. Adding headings to your documents. 

c. Adding alternative text to images

d. Using built in accessible styles

e. Recording narrations of PowerPoint slides

f. Adding closed captions for videos

2. Translate text and audio in real time using PowerPoint Translator in Office. Learn how here.

3. Turn printed materials into digital, accessible materials for students with Office Lens. Learn more here.

4. Utilize and modify accessible templates in Office 2016. Learn more here.

5. Let students personalize their device and applications to meet their needs. Show them how to access the immersive reader and dictate tool across applications. Take them to Windows Settings on their devices. Create personalized toolbars. Teach them alt keys.

In conclusion, first ALWAYS plan to create content that is usable by all. Do this during the curriculum development phase. Secondly, know your audience (your students). Learn more about how they learn and what their needs are to be successful in your classroom every lesson. You can use a simple learning styles inventory to find out more about each student and use the results to differentiate instruction. Next, work with the tools you've already got. Microsoft Office/365 and Windows 10 was built with accessibility in mind. There is no need to go buy expensive software. Your current solutions and tools can help ensure that you are helping students unlock their full potential by addressing a diversity of needs consistently. It also empowers students to take charge of their own learning. Lastly, create new habits. Make it a habit to always run the translator in PowerPoint, use headings in your Word documents, and run the accessibility checker to determine if your document can be used by all. 

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