This article explores how the University of Ottawa enacted interest convergence (Bell 1980; Dolmage 2020) during March 2020 when it changed its accessibility procedure because of the COVID-19 crisis. By looking to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP), I argue that educators should take a universalizing and intersectional understanding of disability in the classroom, designing classroom methods in advance to acknowledge ability difference from the beginning of teaching. Through two proposed assignments, this article outlines how educators can better care for their disabled, BIPOC, gender diverse, and/or queer students by acknowledging difference as itself an alternative means of knowledge-creation.
On March 13, 2020, the University of Ottawa announced that classes would be cancelled on Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 17 and that the rest of the Winter semester would take place online. This unprecedented announcement was the result of a rapidly spreading contagious virus caused by COVID-19; a few cases of coronavirus had appeared in Ottawa and the surrounding areas. The inhabitants of Ottawa were being encouraged to stay indoors and engage in social distancing. Universities and other educational services were being suspended across the country and the globe, with students being sent home, and educators at a loss for how they would alter or suspend their classes. In this moment of crisis, pedagogical care was of the utmost importance.
When this news was announced, I had already been spending the day starting the process of moving my own class online. Weeks leading up to this moment had been making it more and more clear that people with chronic conditions and older people would be most hard hit by the spread of the virus. As I was teaching a disability studies course, I was very aware of the ways that my students might be experiencing this virus first hand. Because of this crisis, I had also been reflecting on my own classroom set up. Had I been attuned to the needs of my students throughout the class, not just after hearing information regarding this unprecedented pandemic? The transition to online classes was also fraught in my mind: it has been clear to me, despite my training in online, distance, and blended classrooms, that technology often causes accessibility issues, especially for those who do not already have access to a strong wifi connection, a working computer, and enough space/time to complete online work.
The Coronavirus pandemic brought up questions that pushed the concept of accessibility even further. For example, was it ethical to expect the same from my students during a collective traumatic event as severe and all-consuming as this particular crisis was turning into? When students' friends and family could potentially be dying, when students were potentially working overtime in hospitals and in grocery stores, when students are potentially isolated from their families, friends, and support networks, when students were already being bombarded by a very pessimistic news cycle, how can educators expect learning to take place? What does pedagogical care look like in the time of a pandemic? Is learning possible, even while trauma is taking place?
This article explores accessibility in a classroom context and the connections between pedagogy and care. Throughout, I will be emphasizing the intersectional nature of accessibility concerns. That is, rather than imagining disability separately from gender, race, class and sexuality, I will point to the ways that accessibility concerns should also encapsulate cultural, racial, gender, and class difference in the classroom. If Access is Love, as Alice Wong, Mia Mingus, and Sandy Ho argue through their campaign (Access is Love), pedagogical care and accessibility are inherently linked. I argue that Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a method that often coincides with conversations about accessibility but arguably goes beyond accessibility for individuals, must be connected to Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) to adequately address difference in the classroom. These two structures of thought must also be met with a universalizing impulse that recognizes the specificity of disability and the possibility that conditions fluctuate. A universalizing impulse does not see disability as an exception, instead considering disability as something that affects all students in different ways. While people with disabilities experience the brunt of ableist oppression, people who are temporarily ablebodied, or seemingly ablebodied/minded can still experience ableism. By starting from a place of those most affected by ableism, we can better structure our classrooms to minimize ableist oppression for all our students.
This article examines the announcements that the University of Ottawa sent to its students and to its faculty during March 2020, alongside its regular accommodation procedure. The new flexibility of the University of Ottawa, a flexibility that was arguably thrust on its precarious and permanent faculty without adequate paid training, demonstrates a pedagogical care of students within a time of pandemic that was not present for students with disabilities before this crisis took place. This care that was only extended to all students when the majority of students were affected is reflective of a concept within Critical Race Theory: "interest convergence" (Bell 1980). Derrick Bell (1980) argues that Black students are only integrated into white schools when this process benefits white supremacy. Jay Dolmage also used this theory to comment on disability in 2005 and again in 2015 (Dolmage 2005; 2015). More recently, he has directly applied this concept to the ways that universities have changed their policies because of COVID-19 (Dolmage 2020). Using this concept also emphasizes the ways that disability is seen and treated as an exception or how the university depends on a minoritizing view of disability, something ingrained into the University of Ottawa's accessibility policy.
I start by exploring what pedagogical care consists of in an educational setting by turning to UDL and CSP, exploring how these two teaching methods interact with pedagogical care. I then examine accessibility policies at the University of Ottawa, first before COVID-19, and then during. By attending to the work of Critical Race theorists who explore the possibilities of interest convergence, I argue we can better apply CSP and UDL in our classrooms. I end by examining some of the ways that we might design our courses in advance with disability in mind. By also extending the concept of disability beyond bodily difference and into racial, gender, class, and sexuality difference, I imagine a classroom that also emphasizes care. Pedagogical care depends on a willingness to be flexible and understanding in times of crisis. However, pedagogical care also means ongoing critique and boundaries on the part of the educator. Knowing our limits, our capabilities, and our needs is also an important part of pedagogical care. I have therefore proposed an assignment for educators to complete and/or assign in their classrooms to better inform pedagogical care in an accessible format. This proposed assignment encourages a reformulation of what accessibility is, so that we can better uncover whose learning is centered in our classrooms.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
UDL is a classroom strategy that anticipates accessibility needs in advance and integrates them into the class before the class begins, rather than adding or accommodating disability retroactively or reactively. Universal Design claims to build in access for the highest number of people possible, creating technologies that would work for the majority (through a focus on minority needs, like focusing on those with disabilities), rather than adding in accommodations into the building or technology. In this way, UDL goes beyond individual accessibility, emphasizing access for all. By considering difference in advance, additional work to change the building, technology, or service is minimized, benefiting not just those accessing but also those in charge of maintaining or allowing access. We might compare this to caring in the classroom: the experience of being cared for is maximized and the work of care is minimized when those most marginal in the classroom are centred. Rather than marginalizing those who are already made marginal by systems of oppression—including white supremacy, compulsory heterosexuality, ableism, imperialism, colonialism, and cissexism/cisgenderism—we need to be teaching with those very people in mind. Intersectionality reminds us that by teaching to and for the most marginal in our classrooms, everyone has the potential to learn.
In many ways, UDL emphasizes the re-centring of the margins, aiming to challenge the myth of the normal curve as it appears in teaching and learning contexts (Dudley-Marling and Gurn 2010). For example, in their article connecting UDL and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP), Federico R. Waitoller and Kathleen King Thorius argue that UDL consists of three guiding principles:
The first, multiple means of representation, addresses the "what of learning; it accounts for various ways learners perceive and comprehend information. This principle guides teachers to present information in multiple, flexible formats so all students' ways of understanding and making connects across content are honored. The second, multiple means of action and expression, addresses the "how" of learning, accounting for the various means by which students navigate the learning activity and demonstrate knowledge. The third, multiple means of engagement, focuses on the "why" of learning, addressing different ways students' interest is recruited and sustained; this principle guides teachers to build into the learning activity multiple sources of motivation and engagement. (370)
These three principles work together to "account for the widest range of learners from the start" rather than adjusting for individual learners (370). I myself depend on UDL in the classroom often, assuming and beginning with disability in mind. Like Margaret Price (2010), who asks in Mad at School how things might be different if Mad students and faculty were expected in university spaces, I ask how my classroom might look differently if I expect all my students to arrive with disabilities. This question points me in the direction of UDL principles, forcing me to change the "what," "how," and "why" of my classroom. As Anne Meyer, David Gordon, and David H. Rose (2014) demonstrate, UDL emphasizes the multiplicity of learning styles that must be addressed with a multiplicity of teaching styles. Similarly, Marylin T. Leinenbach and Margaret L. Corey (2004) argue that technological advancements can help learners if technology is mobilized to give learners flexibility in how they learn. However, while UDL emphasizes changing the classroom from the beginning of teaching and can therefore radically alter the experiences of disabled students and faculty, there are still some issues to contend with.
In Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, Aimi Hamraie (2017) argues that Universal Design, though once focussed on making buildings more accessible specifically for disabled people, has since been more interested in the majority. The "universal" in Universal Design has, over time, erased the specificity of disability needs, instead pushing for design that would fit the most people. More often "most people" translates to what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1997; 2002) has named the "normate" or the corporeal representation of unmarked physical characteristics. Further, Hamraie argues that the focus on disability in UDL often ignores or glosses over considerations of race, even though Eugenics policies and conceptions of normal bodies are always racialized. The result is glossy new accessible buildings being constructed in neighbourhoods where gentrification is pushing out BIPOC and poor people, making these buildings ironically inaccessible to those most affected by oppressive structures.
In the same way, we might consider the ways that UDL does not necessarily integrate cultural or racial difference. While considering racial or cultural difference from the beginning of the class is indeed possible, it is not often emphasized as much as other disability-related access needs. What happens when BIPOC students are bombarded by racism in their classrooms by white students learning about their own racial privilege? Can we conceive of these moments as problems of access—where BIPOC students need access to classroom spaces where they will not experience violence? Similarly, what happens when Queer/Trans BIPOC students (or QTBIPOC) experience a combination of racism, transmisogyny, cissexism/cisgenderism, and heterosexism in the classroom—or when this is embedded in the curriculum? Is it possible to differentiate between productive disagreement and oppressive communication?
Often, UDL appears in Teaching and Learning materials in the form of a checklist. These checklists often ask how cultural difference has been addressed in course design. However, they fail to explain what it might look like to address cultural difference. Intersectionality, a framework initiated by Black feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill-Collins, among others, might be a helpful framework for imagining difference in the classroom, as it encourages us to design based on those most affected by oppression. This is similar to the origins of Universal Design which aimed to design based on those who were most unable to use any given space. Tabitha Grier-Reed and Anne Williams-Wengerd (2018) argue that Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy must be integrated with Universal Design for Learning in order for race to be best prioritized alongside disability. Likewise, Waitoller and Thorius (2016) argue that in order to be done properly, UDL must integrate CSP, as race is inseparable from disability given contexts of eugenics, white supremacy, and settler colonialism. However, race is often represented in education, like disability, as a deficit in need of adjustment.
In most university settings, students with disabilities are asked to apply for accommodations that will erase or solve the deficit that their disability creates. Similarly, students who are not the default race, gender, class and sexuality in the classroom—in institutions that are often white supremacist, heterosexist, cissexist institutions— are expected to act and address their gender/race/sexuality/class difference in order to make up for this deficit. Disabled students are thus responsibilized for their own needs, including needing access to doctor's notes and health assessments that might not be covered by health insurance. Similarly, students outside of racial and class norms—or students of colour and/or poor students—are responsibilized for their racial/class difference in the classroom, adjusting schedules for non-Christian holidays, for example, challenging racist remarks in classrooms, or justifying late assignments when work schedules conflict with assignment deadlines. Educators are not taught to imagine that their students have lives and experiences outside of their classrooms. Even when teaching feminist or disability-related subjects, educators are taught to expect "academic rigour" in their classrooms, without regard for how that rigour might involve class, race, or ability privilege.
Troubling the understanding of class/race/disability difference in the classroom as deficit in need of correction must coincide with a troubling of who might be making these corrections. If difference in the classroom is presented as deficit, as it often is, students are responsibilized for solving the issue of their difference. However, replacing the responsibility of addressing difference in the classroom onto the educator is not a solution. In fact, we must challenge the idea of difference as deficit in order for our classrooms to truly "solve" the issue; true care in the classroom translates to reconfiguring the classroom in order to interpret difference not as deficit, but as "disagreement" perhaps, something that is necessary for pedagogical care. If all classrooms will have some kind of disagreement, we can use the conflict created by accessibility needs in our classroom as a form of learning aid. In fact, David Mitchell, Sharon Snyder, and Linda Ware (2014) argue that crip failure can lead to crip epistemologies; that is, difference in the form of disability, race or class difference, can help the whole class learn if we are centring the needs of those at the margins.
Crip success, Mitchell, Snyder and Ware (2014) argue, is the failure to become the normate. If we aim to represent learning as a process of knowledge creation, rather than as a result of knowledge distribution, disability has the potential to also be actively invited into classrooms. Disability can act as a new way of learning rather than a limitation or deficit to be overcome. If every process of knowledge creation depends on boundaries set around goals, timelines, and activities, disability in the classroom creates new unforeseen boundaries, and new opportunities for alternative knowledges to be fostered in the classroom. Similarly to how CSP emphasizes the knowledge creation possible when we foster racial and cultural difference in the classroom, UDL can emphasize the possibilities for new crip knowledges.
Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP)
CSP examines and troubles the understanding of cultural difference as deficit, instead arguing that pedagogy should be culturally sustaining, rather than replacing or fixing cultural difference. By addressing cultural difference head on, and by considering the standpoint of the educator alongside the standpoint of their students, CSP challenges the representation or understanding of racial difference as part of classroom dynamics that often reiterate and strengthen power relations. Challenging power structures regarding race and class entails not just recognizing that class and race difference exists, but that power around those identities also exists. That is, the educator—many of whom are, like me, white women—must not claim to know cultural experiences better than their students. Instead, they must grapple with whose knowledge they are choosing to emphasize in the class and whose experience is represented as "normal" or abnormal, and therefore in need of study or understanding. CSP recognizes that disability and race can both be useful forms of knowledge, rather than undesirable aspects.
In 1995, Gloria Ladson-Billings argued for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) because standard class curriculum was upholding white supremacy by making cultural difference seem abnormal or irrelevant. Ladson-Billings (1995) focusses on three areas that make up CRP: academic success, cultural competence, and socio-political consciousness (as summarized in Ladson-Billings 2014, pp. 1). By academic success, she described the "intellectual growth" of the students; by cultural competence, she described the ability of the student to find knowledge in their own and at least one other culture; and finally, by socio-political consciousness, she described the ability of the student to apply their learning to real world problems beyond the classroom (1-2). Together, these three aspects make up CRP, a teaching style and methodology that emphasizes learning through and with cultural difference in mind.
More recently, Django Paris (2012) argues that Culturally Responsive Pedagogy is not enough. Being "responsive" to cultural difference in the classroom still centers and normalizes one kind of student at the expense of others. Instead, Paris argues that we must advocate for Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy, a rhetorical move beyond "response" and into "sustaining". Ladson-Billings (2014) also pushes beyond ideas of relevant teaching and into CSP, calling it "Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0" (1). CSP argues that certain students are often set up to fail because their cultural differences are marked as deficient. Ladson-Billings (2014) argues that African-American students are specifically termed "at-risk" and "disadvantaged" without attempts given to understand how disadvantaged learning takes place. However, teachers that were successfully teaching African American students were applying specific kinds of tools in their classroom:
By focusing on student learning and academic achievement versus classroom and behavior management, cultural competence versus cultural assimilation or eradication, and sociopolitical consciousness rather than school-based tasks that have no beyond-school application, I was able to see students take both responsibility for and deep interest in their education. (3)
CSP brings in the same tools as CRP: academic excellence, cultural competence, and socio-political consciousness, but does not stop at being "relevant" or "competent". Ladson-Billings argues that the concept of cultural relevance has become static over time, erasing the ever-changing reality of culture and erasing the need for continued struggle against white supremacist teaching.
Similarly, conversations around "inclusion" are not necessarily helping us teach our most marginalized students. We do not need to "include" Blackness or International students, trans students, disabled students, or those who live at the intersections of these identities. We do not need to "include" them because they are already showing up in our classrooms. By using the word "include" or "inclusion," we are not going far enough to actively center their learning. As Frances Henry and Audrey Kobayashi (2017) argue "Inclusion" does not solve the issues of whiteness or other forms of identity dominance in the classroom (143). By advocating for UDL to also refer to differences around race, gender, and sexuality, and for CSP to also include disability, I want to emphasize that we need to completely change our classroom structures, rather than incrementally "include". We need to build in change and difference into the way we perceive and interact with power in the classroom.
In many ways, the difference between CRP and CSP, or "relevance" and "sustaining," is the difference between viewing cultural difference as an ingrained and unchanging minority identity and seeing cultural difference as something that applies differently to different people in changing and shifting ways. This difference is one that Eve Sedgwick arguably points to regarding queer identity, naming the former "minoritizing" and the latter "universalizing". In the next section, I outline these two ways of viewing queerness, and apply them to disability and other identities that fall within the CRP and CSP frameworks.
Minoritizing and Universalizing views of disability
In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick (2008) differentiates between the minoritizing and universalizing views of homosexuality. In the minoritizing view, homosexuality is something innate and fixed in the person who loves people of the same sex. This view represents homosexuality as a minority identity that has its own perspective and its own culturally different experience, again built into the human body. The universalizing view posits that homosexuality is not innately built into human beings, but is rather a social category that potentially impacts everyone. Sedgwick intentionally uses the term "homosexuality" to highlight the medical and legal definition at the time she was writing, highlighting that this term was a clinical and institutional term that was defining specific bodies based on specific behaviour. In pointing to these two views of this specific behaviour—the minoritizing saying that this behaviour was fixed in a specific minority, while the universalizing saying that this behaviour was universal—Sedgwick is not necessarily arguing that one is right or the other is wrong. Rather, Sedgwick intentionally examines these views to emphasize how both are dependent in social understandings of behaviour.
The minoritizing/universalizing viewpoints have been also applied to disability (Garland-Thomson 2002; Kelly 2011), where certain people have described disability as a fixed and unmoving identity category, one that defines a specific way of seeing the world and a specific set of behaviours—the minoritizing view—or as a category that affects everyone to a certain degree, with behaviours and worldviews fluctuating with time, social circumstance and other kinds of identity—the universalizing view. Again, both viewpoints are useful; for example, the minoritizing view encourages a disability community, one that collectively fights against ableism. Calling disability a social identity is useful for disabled people who are socially and physically isolated by ableist structures. However, like queerness, disability is both a specific identity and a universal experience; all of us experience limitations in our bodies that limit our participation in society in some way. For example, we cannot be in two places at once, or able to read a book in a couple minutes, as much as society sometimes expects us to be. It is therefore possible to study disability as both a specific group of people or community, and as a social category that sometimes and often affects all of us.
As Aimi Hamraie (2017) argues, the danger with talking about disability as something that affects everyone is that we erase disability altogether, instead representing accessibility as something "for everyone" (7). For many, disability is not an abstract characteristic that affects everyone in various degrees, it is something in their own body and environment, something that they experience on a daily basis. However, the issue with minoritizing disability is that it erases the possibility that disability could change. For example, for many with chronic conditions, bodily conditions—like pain for example— could improve or worsen with time and/or because of environmental factors. The minoritizing view also supports a representation of disability that should be individually accommodated or addressed, rather than giving a more general change that could help those who may not qualify for the individual fixed definition of disability. Finally, the minoritizing view also does not recognize the intersectional nature of the disability category. Many communities do not define themselves as disabled, even though they also experience the labeling and limitations in embodied ways. For many Indigenous peoples, the category of disability brings with it a history of colonial state intervention, rather than community (see Ineese-Nash 2020 for example). An indigenous disability theory is still a contentious idea for many, because white settler disability communities still largely support military and settler colonial invasions in the name of better disabled lives (see Hutcheon and Lashewicz 2019). However, by applying the universalizing view of disability, we can open up the potential for sustaining Indigenous understandings and knowledge systems, as disability is not an isolated event of the few, but something that appears and is experienced in all cultures in different ways.
The University of Ottawa largely supports the minoritizing view of disability through its Student Academic Success Service (SASS), the main way that disabled students receive accommodation for their accessibility needs. SASS communicates with professors of every class, giving them a list of modifications that they need to make for their students. The students must bring medical notes to SASS in order to apply for accommodations. While SASS does not need to know the diagnosis of the student, they do require a list from a doctor or other specialist regarding "functional limitations" and what measures might address these functional limitations. If any of the student's needs change, they must once again consult with a doctor or other specialist and go through this process again in order to receive different accommodations. Professors are instructed to refer "all accommodation requests related to a disability to Student Academic Success Service (SASS)—Academic Accommodations" ("Academic Regulation I-16 Academic Accommodations") and to comply with all SASS decisions regarding academic accommodations. This includes uploading a copy of all exams to a system (VENTUS) so that those with academic accommodations can write their exams in an alternative location to the rest of the students.
At the same time as educators are expected to work within the accommodations given to them through the SASS service, they also "share the University's legal responsibility for providing academic accommodation of students with disabilities" and are therefore expected to work "in collaboration with the Teaching and Learning Support Service, [and] consider universal design elements of their course that could minimize the need for accommodations" ("Academic Regulation I-16 Academic Accommodations"). The policy links to the Teaching and Learning Support Service (TLSS) website, which gives a checklist of what kinds of design tools an educator can use to minimize accommodation requests from their students. None of these tools are made mandatory for teaching, apart from listing this requirement in the policy. This is an example of what Sara Ahmed (2012) describes in On Being Included as writing change into policy so that the university does not have to change. The accommodation policy includes UDL, rather than incentivizing or paying university professors to be trained in UDL.
SASS both purports to take care of the accommodation process for University of Ottawa professors, and expects the participation of professors. In the process, students and professors are responsibilized for the care of accommodations, while the university acts as a mediator between the two. The process encourages university professors—who may not be trained in universal design at all—to interpret their students who are in need of accommodations as needing extra care. Even though SASS runs a separate system for exams, segregating those who need differently formatted or more time on exams, university professors must pick up these exams at a different time, giving them a separate pile of exams for those who have gone through the disability system. This segregated system emphasizes those in need of accessibility measures, making it difficult for these students not to experience unconscious ableist biases.
Many studies have demonstrated that there are a number of issues with accommodations processes in universities across North America. Christopher Toutain (2019) reviewed 23 empirical studies, finding three major themes in issues with accommodations services at universities: lack of student awareness of available services, inability to access documentation providing needs, and stigma around receiving or needing accommodations. The accommodation process also leaves little room for fluctuating conditions or conditions not institutionally recognized. Students are forced to interact with multiple different institutional bodies, medical and educational, in order to be recognized as sufficiently disabled for disability accommodations, and even when they have received this accommodation, they are often interpreted as inferior because of their disability. Toutain demonstrates that university professors and students both had unconscious biases against those signed up through disability services.
In The Question of Access, Tanya Titchkosky (2011) argues that disability policies in the university are a bureaucratic function of the university that erase cultural or racial difference in the name of sameness:
Ruled by person-first linguistic expressions, all disabled people are regarded as the same sort of people who happen to come along with a condition of impairment; embodied differences along with race, gender, and sexuality are thus made to disappear. The process of bureaucratizing embodiment suggests that it is fair, or morally correct, legally efficacious, or even tacitly neutral to regard disability as a condition attached to some people while disregarding the ways disability is differentially conceptualized around the world. (95)
Titchkosky highlights the importance of reinterpreting accessibility to also represent other forms of identity, perhaps outside of university policies. Accommodations models reinforce understandings of disability as deficit, while at the same time emphasizing a "level playing field" (Price 2011, 59). People with disabilities—people that are removed from their gendered, racial, and sexual specificities—are represented as similarly unfit to complete university work without university help. This unfitness is measured on an equal basis, representing disability experience as an innate minoritizing difference without acknowledging the ways that this minoritization erases important differences in how people both experience impairment and the cultural identity of disability.
Disability accommodation policies therefore emphasize disability as a deficit to be corrected through accommodations given by the university educator, and erase difference in and through disability as a minoritized identity. At the University of Ottawa, SASS accommodations often also segregate disabled students while they are taking exams or other evaluations. Students with extra time on their final exams or alternative formats on these exams are placed in a separate room in a separate building, often far away from their professors. When I taught my first class, I went to each room that my students were assigned to answer questions and distribute stickers (a thank you that I was giving to all my students). I had to visit three different buildings and six different rooms. The students were surprised by my visit, saying that they had never had any other professor visit them while they were writing exams. More often, SASS is given the phone number of the professor so that if students have questions, they can call. Students have often complained that professors do not answer the phone when SASS calls them during an exam. Finally, professors have to pick up the SASS exams on another day than the exams the rest of their students have written, emphasizing which evaluations are written by disabled students. The limitations of university space makes it so that disabled students experience their disability as a deficit to be corrected, and as a difference that is emphasized through university procedure.
Finally, the accommodation policy is a rigid policy that does not incentivize its educators to apply UDL. If all accommodations go through SASS, educators are not encouraged to care for their students, even as this care might provide more support than an outside service can provide. For example, if a student cannot afford to be medically assessed for Autism, a process that can often take thousands of dollars if a student has not been diagnosed as a child, care from a professor might be the only accommodation they can access. When SASS evaluations are not enough for students to receive what they need, educators are left to pick and choose what boundaries they are willing to loosen for their students. Meanwhile, the university often claims that changing accommodation processes would take too much administrative labour, or would be too costly for the university as a whole. However, this accommodation process was completely altered in March 2020 because of COVID-19, and students were allowed to take classes online and access other accommodations without any medical documentation. This process is detailed in the next section through an analysis of University of Ottawa emails.
University of Ottawa and COVID-19 policy changes
The University of Ottawa defines me as an employee, a union member, an alumna, and a student. 1 As such, I receive a variety of emails from the university on a regular basis, with different reference points. The first email that I received from the University of Ottawa regarding coronavirus was on January 27. In this email, the first few cases in Ontario were announced, and students were encouraged to wash their hands and take proper precautions. On January 31, 2020, the University suspended all travel to China based on the World Health Organization (WHO)'s declaration of a global health emergency. International students were encouraged at this time to ask the International office any questions they may have had. The first mention of COVID-19 was on March 4, 2020. In this email, addressed to the university community as a whole, the University of Ottawa wrote that it had created a working group in case of emergency measures, and that travel to Iran, Hong Kong, Northern Italy, Singapore, China, and South Korea were suspended. A travel registry was also created at this time for students and staff to register their university travel. Faculty were also encouraged to apply.
On March 10, 2020, a new procedure for attaining a medical certificate was announced by the University of Ottawa. Students who needed to be excused from exams on the basis of short-term illness no longer had to receive a letter from a doctor, instead requesting a form from "reception staff" located in the clinic on campus. Students were told to go to the "campus walk-in clinic" where the clinic reception staff would validate a certificate for them. This new procedure was communicated to me in two separate emails, one directing me as a student and the other directing me as a university employee. According to the email sent to me as a student:
Reception staff will print the attached medical certificate to be completed by you. Once you have completed it, reception will stamp it to validate and scan a copy for your chart. (institutional communication from University of Ottawa March 10)
When I received this email, I was initially shocked that the university would consider believing its students when they say that they are sick. This new procedure was frustrating, though, because it still forced sick students, possibly contagious students, to enter into medical service areas in order to receive proof of their inability to complete course work. While this protected doctors from possibly contracting COVID-19, it downloaded this risk onto reception workers, a form of work that is often feminized.
A copy of the medical certificate was attached to the email describing this new procedure. In this certificate, students must sign a line that reads:
I understand that using this form to provide false or misleading information to delay or avoid fulfilling academic requirements constitutes a departure from the University of Ottawa academic integrity policy. ("Student Medical Certificate" institutional communication from University of Ottawa March 10)
This form tells us a lot about how the university views its students. First, there seems to be an ongoing fear that students are trying to cheat their way through university. Second, it seems that the university, even when it is trying to lessen the outbreak of a pandemic (in this case Coronavirus) will still make their students come to a health office in order to have a letter stamped proving that they are sick. In both cases, I wonder how much more would get done if we assume that are students are trying desperately or enthusiastically to learn, and that this desperation/enthusiasm is not completely separate from the bodies that they inhabit, bodies that sometimes get sick. Accepting late submissions at any time, not just in the moment of global crisis, is a matter of disability justice.
On March 11, one person with coronavirus in Ottawa had tested positive. The university reminded its community that a working group had been created including some of its senior administrators regarding a contingency plan in an emergency situation. On March 12, the travel advisory changed again, this time banning all university-related travel. The university also announced the following:
Based on recommendations by public health officials that 'social distancing' is an effective means of protecting students, staff and faculty members from infection, the administration is exploring the possibility of moving the remainder of the academic semester to distance learning (online, etc.) as early as next week. (institutional communication from the University of Ottawa March 12)
This declaration was once again shocking. In three days, the university had transitioned from requesting that sick students still access a medical service in order to prove that they were sick, to announcing that distance learning procedures might be applied. On March 13, the University announced that it would be closed on March 16 and 17, with the rest of classes transitioned to distance learning. Final exams would no longer take place in person, with more announcements regarding exams to come. Educators were encouraged to take a number of different distance learning trainings from TLSS during the two days of university closures. Later, after weeks of negotiations, the union for part-time professors (APTPUO) announced that this additional training and time to complete online classes translated to $250 for part-time professors and $71.43 per hour for each hour of training. For those of us already trained in online instruction, $250 was a very small amount for transcribing 3 weeks of classes to online instruction.
On March 14, the University announced that a student had died in residence. This was the fifth student in twelve months who had died by suicide within the University of Ottawa community. The president, Jacques Frémont, confirmed that this death was unrelated to coronavirus, but wrote:
Apart from following the steps that have been recommended to reduce the risk of Coronavirus infection, please don't forget to tend to your emotional wellness. Eat well. Sleep well. Practice Mindfulness. Meditate. Take a walk in the fresh air. (institutional communication from University of Ottawa March 14)
In the same email, the university is giving information about COVID-19 and about mental wellness. Here the university connects the coronavirus global pandemic to the mental health crisis unfolding within the University of Ottawa community. Encouraging students to "tend to your emotional wellness," replaces the burden of action once again onto the student. On March 15, the university confirmed that all campus events would be cancelled for the week of March 16. The university also wrote that "it is deeply disappointing to learn that some members of our International student community have experienced harassment and discrimination in recent weeks" (institutional communication from University of Ottawa March 15). This "unacceptable" behaviour was likely racism, specifically against those from COVID-19 infected areas. Without naming racism outright, anti-Asian racist behaviour can be denied.
On March 17, it was announced that all students in residences would need to move out by March 22 at 4pm. This eviction of students in residences came at a particularly vulnerable time for them, three weeks before exam period, around when final papers and assignments would be due. While the announcement allows space for students who cannot leave residence because of "exceptional circumstances," it gives the majority of students less than a week notice before asking them to leave.
Finally, Faculties were given flexibility regarding the grading of their classes. On March 23, the Faculty of Social Sciences (FSS) and on March 24, the Faculty of Arts decided to change their policies such that students would not be penalized for failing to take the final exam and would not be able to defer exams. According to the Faculty of Social Sciences:
It is therefore up to each student to decide which final exams they will complete. Students do not have to inform their professors of their choice. At the end of the semester, FSS professors have been asked to submit the best of the following two final grades, for each student: 1) the final grade which includes all the assessments (re-weighted to 100%) other than the final exam, OR 2) the final grade which includes all assessments, including the final exam. (institutional communication from Victoria Barham, University of Ottawa, March 23; emphasis in original)
Students would also be allowed to change their final grades to S/NS (Satisfied/Not Satisfied), making classes now pass/fail courses. Finally, professors were "highly encouraged" to extend all deadlines on assignments due before the final exam by at least one week. These measures once again create a much greater flexibility for students struggling through their semester than they might have been able to access otherwise. For disabled students or students struggling for other reasons related to equity, these changes would have been extremely useful. However, in this current context, the work has been once again downloaded onto the professors to work out the math around grades, and to construct an exam that would still assess the work of students, without testing the whole class. These changes also conflict with earlier messages of "academic rigour"; how is it possible to both expect academically rigorous learning to take place while also making the final exam optional?
These major changes to university policy came during a global pandemic and a traumatic experience for many students. The University made difficult decisions regarding its services and campus, eventually closing campus completely—except for essential workers—on April 8. The decision to evict students from residence buildings and to close university campus were decisions that were needed given how contagious coronavirus has been demonstrated to be. The university administration acted quickly to safeguard the health of its community. In doing so, many of the accommodations needed by disabled or otherwise marginalized students were made available. The COVID-19 crisis should remind us that these needs are not marginal or unique, but pervasive, even outside of crises. University institutions have the power to allow their students to learn in safer and kinder circumstances, but do not deem this necessary outside of extenuating and unprecedented circumstances.
The changes announced by the University of Ottawa were a relief for many students with disabilities. In fact, one of my students commented that online learning would allow them to participate much more in class as their mobility disability made it difficult to walk across campus to access my classroom. Jay Dolmage spoke about this newfound freedom for many people with disabilities on Twitter on March 30:
There is a concept in critical race theory called "Interest Convergence" (access: Derek Bell). Basically, it means conditions for the minority will only improve if the changes can be framed as helping the majority. We have a perfect example of how this is happening now (n.p.).
He continues by writing that "universities are using the language of accommodation, starting to think of students as economically vulnerable, as people who have needs for housing and food, as people who have dependents" (n.p.). This new conversation and these new policies, around late assignments, final exams, and online classes were completely impossible until they were seen as helpful to the majority, not the disabled minority. Throughout the emails sent by the university, the idea that "the health of community is our highest priority" was repeated (institutional communication from University of Ottawa, March 17, for example).
In Derek Bell (1980)'s initial article that coins the term "interest convergence," he is describing the legal decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education and the ways that racial integration was inevitable because of the needs of the majority: "the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interest of whites" (523). Bell (1980) argues that at issue in the Brown case was not the oppression of Black students in the form of segregated schools, but the needs of both white and Black students. He argues that judges involved in the case pointed to how desegregation would make Americans look good abroad, as a representation of equality through democracy, in contrast to communist nations. As well, the Brown decision also helped Black veterans see progress after coming home from the War, making them less likely to challenge white supremacy at home. Finally, desegregation was seen as an important step in order to further the industrialization of the South (524-525). In these ways, Brown was not necessarily about helping Black students, but of representing the American school system as a democratic one.
Jay Dolmage connects this display of nationalism to the accommodation process for disabled students in universities. Instead of viewing accessibility as an investment in alternative kinds of knowledge production, and therefore better schools, educational institutions use accessibility as a marketing ploy, while still claiming an academic rigour that disqualifies disabled participation in many cases. However, when a traumatic event like COVID-19 makes accommodations necessary for the abebodied majority, academic rigour is redefined in order to allow everything to have different kinds of access.
A number of people on Twitter and other forms of social media have mentioned that interest convergence has been extremely apparent throughout the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Twitter user autistictic (@autistictic) wrote on March 7:
Please REALLY take in how EASILY amid the Coronavirus pandemic
- - places go back to single use plastic
- - businesses switch in-person meetings to online
- - schools and universities switch to online lessons
Yet these have always been "impossible" accommodations for disabled people. (n.p.)
In reply, Cait S. Kirby (@caitskirby) wrote that they would begin to document the different institutions that were making accommodations during the pandemic that these institutions would have otherwise deemed impossible. Kirby created a "Digital paper trail" in the form of a google excel sheet, including different tabs for university, technology, food service, retail, transportation, and utility (Kirby 2020).
These comments and this paper trail emphasize how institutions do not take seriously the needs of those they understand to be in the minority. In an ableist white supremacist heteropatriarchal world, this often translates to women, people of colour, disabled, trans, and/or queer people being left out from the initial policies of the institution. It is not until the cisgender, male, white, ablebodied, and/or straight people are directly affected that policies regarding the wellbeing of everyone are considered necessary. In the case of the University of Ottawa, accommodations around taking final exams, around online classes, and around pass/fail grades were only considered necessary when the ablebodied majority was implicated. This process was also accomplished without regard to how online courses might not be best for all students, and for university professors who had not been given training in online teaching. Indeed, online course work is not best for everyone. It also emphasizes an understanding of learning as knowledge accumulation rather than knowledge creation. Creating an online course that encourages online participation, rather than passive accumulation and regurgitation is a challenge that can often take years to accomplish. In the case of March 2020, professors were instead given two days and a handful of webinars that they were encouraged but not mandated to take.
Problems with Access and Online Learning
Online classrooms have been emphasized as accessible spaces, especially for students with disabilities. Indeed, online classes allow for students with reduced mobility to access classroom spaces. However, online learning environments often depend on narratives of flexibility that encourage a neoliberal learning subject, one that is autonomous and independent. 2 This learning style is not shared by everyone, and not even for students with disabilities. Shandell Houlden and George Veletsianos (2019) argue that narratives of flexibility around online learning—flexibility on the side of the student to take the course when and where they prefer—actually erase the power differentials between those with time and space to complete work. This space for choice is only accessible to some, those with the cultural and material capital to access time and space for focussed learning. In emphasizing individual learning practices, online learning environments also erase race, gender, and sexuality differences that still impact learning processes, even in the seemingly democratic and equal environment of the online space.
In Restricted Access, Elizabeth Ellcessor (2016) argues that accessibility, especially when considering access to online spaces, is often referred to as an inherently positive thing—that someone might have access to a space or an activity is seen as primarily a good thing. Access is also represented as something someone either has or does not have, erasing all the complexity involved in allowing someone to access learning processes. For example, giving a student access to information in the form of an excel sheet is very different from giving them access to an executive summary. It is also very different to giving them access to a video explaining data found in the excel sheet. While all three might include the same information, the video might give the greatest chance for understanding, depending on the student. Similarly, when thinking about accessibility for students with disabilities, alternative formats might be a helpful accessibility need, but may not necessarily provide equal access. A Blind student with a screen-reader, for example, might be able to have a machine "read" all the same materials as a sighted student might be able to read, but will probably take longer to process this "reading," as the machine reads HTML code, making images without image descriptions impossible to read, and annoying to gloss over. Image descriptions are also not the same as seeing images; in fact, many of the accessibility fixes that we have in online spaces create a different kind of access, not necessarily an equal access. In part, this inequal access represented by different mediums is addressed in UDL when educators present students with materials in multiple different kinds of media, explained in different ways, and with multiple different forms of assessments. However, if a student can only access one of these methods, we must be aware of their perspective; UDL with disability in mind emphasizes that access is a process, not an end point.
Ellcessor (2016) likewise argues that accessibility is a fluctuating process of negotiation: conversations about accessibility need to be constantly asking accessible for whom? Ellcessor points to the idea of "cultural accessibility," where race, gender, and sexuality is interpreted alongside disability when creating or addressing access:
Considerations of access as an experience entails attention not just to forms, regulations, or content, but also to the embodied and affective dimensions of those involved and their choices regarding use. It requires conceiving of the user—whether the producer or beneficiary of access—in terms of an intersectional identity that forms a standpoint from which the means and goals of access may (or may not) be understood, produced, or achieved. (162)
So often when accessibility is enacted in online classroom settings, it is tacked on as an extra resource or alternative format in order to correct a deficit. However, by reimagining accessibility as a process, we can reintegrate our learning with and through accessibility instead of against it. Who, how, and when are important questions for accessibility of any kind: who has access? How do they have access? When are they having this access? Changing, adding, or addressing access issues is a process of figuring out the default user of any space, and those that might be left behind in making access. UDL once again offers a solution in the form of multiple formats and multiple processes, so that multiple kinds of users can access in multiple ways. By moving to a mode of multiplicity, we are more likely to fit our curriculum into the margins, especially if we keep moving, acknowledging that accessibility, access, and learning are all processes, not end points.
In an online environment, process is often erased from the conversation in service of content. How students are accessing content is not necessarily emphasized as much as the content itself is accessible in some way. However, pedagogical care means acknowledging that both accessibility and learning are processes, rather than results. Access is a process, often involving pedagogical care to consider multiple, potentially conflicting users/learners. Learning as well is a process that requires and depends on respectful conversation, disagreement, and reflection. In an online space, this means providing multiple opportunities and formats of learning similar material, guiding respectful conversation between students, and expecting varying assessment results.
Blending UDL and CSP beyond Interest Convergence
Considering access and learning as both processes means distancing our teaching methods from banking models of education. This also means recognizing that teaching itself is a process, one that cannot be accomplished with a single method. Lilia I. Bartolomé (1994) argues that there is not a singular method for teaching well; rather students exist within the social framework of oppressive systems, and must always learn from their own standpoint. Often this is in contradiction to university methods of assuming students are all equally equipped to begin autonomously learning.
By understanding the historical specificities of marginalized students, these teachers and prospective teachers come to realize that an uncritical focus on methods makes invisible the historical role that schools and their personnel have played (and continue to play), not only in discriminating against many culturally different groups, but also in denying their humanity. By robbing students of their culture, language, history, and values, schools often reduce these students to the status of subhumans who need to be rescued from their "savage" selves. (127)
Instead of imagining that students must learn in spite of their cultural specificity, we might begin by acknowledging that this cultural specificity is where all of us begin. That is, difference is already baked into the classroom through all of the different perspectives of the students and educators. A really important first step to properly addressing this difference is to find out more about your students. Who are they? How did they arrive in this classroom? What assumptions do they bring with them regarding race, gender, sexuality, class, or disability? Finally, how does their experience challenge the educator's biases around race, gender, sexuality, class, or disability?
In order to begin "creating democratic learning environments where students become accustomed to being treated as competent and able individuals" (Bartolomé 1994, 130), educators should aim to bridge gaps between UDL and CSP. Designing classrooms with those most impacted by oppression in mind also implies actively understanding who your students are and what they are expecting from a classroom space. Something I have often struggled with is the expectation or entitlement of some students to my extra time and care. Many students find receiving critique or criticism difficult and experience feedback as an attack. Many of these students are white, ablebodied, cisgender students who are trained to expect extra resources to be given to them. At times, these students are unwilling to consider how their standpoint might make critical theory classes more difficult for them, or how they might need to work harder in order to unlearn the knowledge systems that they have grown up with. These are the students that many of us spend time trying to teach, struggling to get through to students who have never had to exercise critical thinking skills. In many ways, crip failure can be successful in my classroom, as it better lends itself to challenging systems of power. Fostering crip failure in the classroom can hopefully teach the ablebodied students why and how they have experienced success: through privilege.
In a response to Waitoller and Thorius (2016)'s article advocating for "cross-pollination" between UDL and CSP, a number of scholars (Alim, Baglieri, Ladson-Billings, Paris, Rose, and Valente 2019) came together to discuss why UDL and CSP need to be better implemented together, discussing the importance of viewing disability in an intersectional way. Alim, Baglieri, Ladson-Billings, Paris, Rose, and Valente (2019) argue that one of the major issues with UDL is that "UDL had… been creating better access to boredom, better access to oppression, better access to other bad things. And that this wasn't our goal" (23). David Rose emphasizes that expert learners, not the same kind of learner, was the main goal of UDL (23). Accessibility or universal access alone does not erase the oppressive power of education, especially for those that do not fit into the expected "default user". This idea of accessibility connects to conceptions of inclusion as not necessarily positive: "rhetorically, if it's read as neutral, as including people into an already oppressive system as opposed to a radical transformation of that system, then that's problematic" (19). Inclusion or accessibility to oppressive education, to white supremacist education, for example, is not radical or revolutionary, but merely continues the problems of exclusionary education. Part of this begins by turning away from students as forms of difference and acknowledging systems as oppressive:
So, again, culturally sustaining pedagogy depends on a critical emancipatory vision of schooling that redirects the object of critique away from our children—there's nothing wrong with our children—to oppressive systems, which, by their very definition, are flawed. (16).
UDL must be integrated with CSP in order to radically transform exclusionary education systems into culturally sustaining ones. This process needs to be taken outside of abstraction, however, and applied practically: "to think about ways in which we can ensure that when we talk about pedagogy, we're talking about things that are actually happening, real-life things that are happening in the classroom" (9). To this end, I turn to practical applications of UDL and CSP.
In order to be more practical in the application of UDL and CSP, the final section of this paper explores some practical assignments that I have applied in my classroom. My classes were between 140 and 170 students, so these practical applications could work in larger classes, not just smaller seminars or experiences. Given the size of my class, it was difficult to get to know the context of each and every student. I relied on UDL to help me set up my class in advance, so that fewer students would have to be addressed individually. Universalizing disability in my classroom and recognizing difference as a helpful knowledge base were also two other ways that I managed a class of this size, alongside TAs that were equally willing to extend empathy and care to the students.
Combining UDL and CSP in Your Classroom: An Assignment
This section presents two assignments: one for educators and one for students. If you are in the process of designing or conceptualizing an undergraduate course, I recommend that you first complete both, before assigning them to your students. The questions that I ask in these assignments are meant to help guide methods within the spectrum of UDL and CSP, while also helping you know your students a little more. I've included some questions that involve assessment methods, identity, and accessibility. I hope by answering these questions, you will have a better idea of what you can do to make your physical classroom and classroom methods more useful, accessible, and productive. If there are some questions that you cannot answer, or that you are having difficulty answering, discuss the questions with friends, community members, or faculty members. What makes these questions difficult?
Assignment 1: For Educators
Self-directed CSP and UDL introspective for educators
This assignment asks educators to answer a series of questions to begin thinking through how they are organizing their course and how CSP and UDL might be integrated into this teaching.
Remember, CSP and UDL can both be enacted through different teaching methods and with very different communities. There is no one right way to teach!
Where are you teaching? Whose traditional lands are located in the country/province/city you are teaching in? What is your relationship to this land? (Indigenous person, settler, immigrant, etc.) How does this relationship impact your teaching?
What are the physical limitations in your classroom? Is there an elevator nearby? Stairs? How are the seats in the classroom space; are they large and comfortable enough to seat larger bodies? Are there gender-neutral wheel-chair accessible washrooms nearby? Water fountains? How can you make your physical classroom more accessible?
How many people are you teaching? What level is the class (1st year? 4th year?)?
What supports have you been given by your faculty, department, etc. regarding your class? How many TAs do you have (if any)? Is your position associated with a union, if so, what privileges does the Collective Agreement give you as an educator? (If you're not sure, ask!)
What supports do you have outside of the educational institution? What family, friends, mental health services, and/or community do you turn to when you are stressed, overwhelmed, or frustrated? (If you're not sure, seek out support!)
What parts of your identity make your students take you seriously? (i.e. masculinity, gender-conformity, tallness, ablebodiedness, age, experience in education, whiteness, nationality, etc.)… how do these forms of difference make it more difficult for you to teach?
What parts of your identity make your students doubt your teaching? (i.e. femininity, gender-non-conformity, shortness, disability (be specific), inexperience in education, age, racial features, nationality, etc.)… how do these forms of difference help you teach?
What kinds of limitations do you have in your class? Do you need accommodations to physically enter into your classroom space? Do you need accommodations to read, distribute materials, or interact with your students?
What boundaries have you set in your classroom for your own emotional and mental well-being? (i.e. not answering classroom correspondence on weekends, not accepting late assignments after a certain date, not having your work email on your phone, limiting hours spent per week on planning or enacting classroom activities, etc.)
How will students have access to course materials? (i.e. they will need to purchase a textbook, access materials online, or refer to materials you hand out in class) What other ways can students access materials (i.e. if they can't afford to buy the textbook, don't have a strong internet connection, etc.)? What other formats do you have on hand in case a student requests it?
What kinds of support do your students have within the institution regarding disability, race, gender, and sexuality difference? (i.e. student disability support centre, mental health centres, women's resource centre, pride/LGBTQ centre, BIPOC centres, etc… if you're not sure, ask your department!)
What kinds of community supports do your students have outside of the institution? (i.e. community groups, religious support groups, crisis centres, etc… if you're not sure, ask around!)
How are you sharing these resources with your students?
How will your course be assessing your students? What kinds of skills do these assessments also assess outside of or above content? (i.e. essay writing, argumentation, following verbal and/or written instructions, research skills, etc.) How are you supporting these skills in your class?
If your course includes a participation assignment, how will this work for students unable to come to class for reasons relating to gender, race, class, sexuality or disability differences? What alternative methods of assessment are your prepared to offer your students? (extra credit? Etc.)
When are the deadlines for your course assignments? How flexible is your late assignment policy? How do you assign extensions? How can you make it easier for students without access to institutional proof of lateness to still submit their assignments?
What are some ways that your students might learn that will not be assessed? How are you giving them credit for their work outside of assessments?
What are your main methods of teaching (lectures, guest lectures, written and/or verbal activities, quizzes, videos, songs, stories, demonstrations, labs, etc.)? Why are you using these methods? What alternatives do you have for students who might not connect well with these methods? (i.e. posting lecture slides and/or lecture recordings, giving video or audio feedback on assignments, etc.)
What do you expect of your students regarding your teaching methods? (i.e. participation, silence, communication skills, writing skills, etc.)
What will your students be expecting of you regarding your teaching methods (i.e. Powerpoints, study aids, answering questions etc.)?
What tools are you using in the classroom to help your students learn? (i.e. Powerpoint, Brightspace (or some other online teaching platform), textbooks/readings, video-conferencing software, whiteboard/blackboard, videos, Google docs, etc.) Do your students know how to use these tools? If something goes wrong with these tools, are there alternatives you can use? If you are not sure what tools are available to you, can you reach out to your institution's teaching and learning resources for training?
What are your policies regarding sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, cissexism, and other forms of discrimination in your classroom? How have you made these policies clear to your students?
What content warnings have you given your students regarding difficult materials?
The assignment for educators encourages educators to be introspective about their teaching and to invest in multiple formats, multiple avenues, and multiple teaching methods. At the same time, the early questions about faculty and community supports acknowledge the limitations that might already be in place. Coming up with multiple methods, avenues, and formats is especially difficult when you do not have support. UDL and CSP need to be practical in their addition to teaching. The assignment for students, that follows, allows students to discuss their accessibility needs, their hopes for the course as whole, and their strengths in learning. This assignment should be assigned in the first few weeks of class, so that you have a better idea of how to change your classroom to adhere to the myriad of difference that is represented in your classroom. I allow my students to write this assignment anonymously, so that I can minimize as biases I might have.
Assignment 2: For Students
Accessibility and support check-in for students
This assignment asks students to answer a series of questions to begin thinking through how they might have difficulty accessing course material and/or how they might already have the tools to succeed!
What is your relationship to this land (settler, Indigenous person—what Nation/tribe do you belong to? Immigrant, etc.) How does this relationship affect your learning?
What are your needs regarding the classroom space? (i.e. do you need more light, bigger seats, more space, wheelchair accessibility, gender-neutral wheelchair accessible bathrooms nearby, etc.)
How do you access readings for this class?
How do you access assignments for this class? What are their deadlines? What are some practical steps you can take to make sure you complete them on time? What is the late assignment policy for this course? Do you know how to request an extension?
What are some things in your life that might impact your ability to hand in assignments on time? (i.e. religious holidays, working hours, children and/or other dependents, etc.)
In the past when you have taken courses similar to this one, what have been your main challenges?
In the past when you have taken courses similar to this one, what have been the main ways you have succeeded?
How do you prefer to communicate with your professor (emails, discussion forums, in class questions, after/before class conversations, office hours, etc.)?
What supports have you been given by your faculty, department, etc. regarding this class? (i.e. writing help centres, mental health support, peer mentoring programs etc.) If you're not sure, check the syllabus for support!
What supports do you have outside of the educational institution? What family, friends, mental health services, and/or community do you turn to when you are stressed, overwhelmed, or frustrated? (If you're not sure, seek out support—the syllabus has a few options!)
What parts of your identity make it easier for you to receive support in university? (for example masculinity, gender-conformity, tallness, ablebodiedness, age, experience in education, whiteness, nationality, etc.)… how do these forms of difference make it more difficult for you to learn?
What parts of your identity make it more difficult for you to receive support in university? (i.e. femininity, gender-non-conformity, shortness, disability (be specific), inexperience in education, age, racial features, nationality, etc.)… how do these forms of difference help you learn?
In a perfect world, what teaching methods would this class enact to make it best for you to learn (lectures, videos, quizzes, games, group in-class conversations etc.) ?
In a perfect world, what tools would this class use to make it best for you to learn? (Powerpoint, Brightspace (or some other online teaching platform), textbooks/readings, video-conferencing software, whiteboard/blackboard, videos, Google docs, etc.) I love hearing about new tools, feel free to recommend them!
How do you take notes in class? Have you considered writing your notes in a physical notebook rather than a laptop or other device? Why not?
Do you use a screen reader when accessing course material?
Do you use captions when watching videos?
Do you have any serious allergies and/or substance sensitivities that would make it difficult for you to learn in the classroom if someone were to bring it into the class?
In a perfect world, how could the professor/educator best support your learning in this class?
Think back to your favourite teacher or educator: what made them memorable to you?
What are you expecting to learn in this class? What would you like to learn?
Do you have anything else you'd like to share with your professor/educator, especially regarding accessibility needs?
These assignments have been developed in part through a survey that I asked my students to complete at the beginning of their course in Winter 2019 and Winter 2020, in order to see how I could better prepare my classroom for their needs. In doing this accessibility survey, I found that many students—more than I had expected—used screen readers, needed closed captions on videos, and had other accessibility needs that I could easily help with. I also developed an alternative to assigning a participation grade in the form of a "social media participation" grade that encouraged students to seek out course material in their own social media circles, as well as posting class notes in a shared Google document, so that I would not have to worry about assigning note-takers.
Creating a classroom space that acknowledges and encourages difference begins with introspection, both on the part of the educator and the student. I hope these assignments will encourage us to continue caring for our students within our capacity for care. By applying these assignments, I also hope that instructors can use the new knowledge that they have about their students in order to better support them in advance, enacting UDL from the beginning of the semester. I have had students tell me in my initial survey important information about their needs that I was able to use for the best interests of all my students. For example, in my classes I now have a Google doc where students can share their notes with their classmates in exchange for participation grades. These notes help students with a number of different disabilities and students who cannot attend class for any number of other equity-based reasons. Setting up this Google doc was important, in part because students filling out the survey told me that they benefit from receiving volunteer notes.
This article was initially drafted in April 2020, while the COVID-19 crisis was still ongoing. Since then, over a million Americans have died of COVID-19. In this article, I examined what pedagogical care might look like both in times of crises, and on a normal basis. For many a "normal basis" is also fraught with circumstances that make it difficult to learn and to apply learning. Pedagogical care recognizes that difficult conversations are necessary, but not equal within a classroom context. The accommodation process for students with disabilities at the University of Ottawa fits into a minoritizing view of disability, where disability is imagined as an exception to the academic rigour of non-disabled students. According to the institution's understanding of disability, it is not fluctuating, and does not connect or intersect with other forms of identity. Instead, disability is seen as a medically definable deficit existing in the body that limits learning and/or assessments. By integrating UDL with CSP, we can better imagine disability as a condition built into academic processes and expected in university classrooms, as well as other learning environments. For example, online/distance learning creates conditions that make access different for those with disabilities. Screen-readers create different ways of accessing information, potentially creating new kinds of knowledge processes in classes.
Both UDL and CSP advocate for teaching to begin in order to best augment the learning and knowledge creation of those most affected by oppressive systems. What this means is that we need to be attuned to who we are as educators and how our standpoints impact our teaching. When the University of Ottawa changed its final grade policies and its accommodation structure because of COVID-19, it was enacting interest convergence, where the ablebodied majority's needs were finally affected enough to create change that disabled students had been requesting before this crisis. As educators, we need to be careful not to do the same in our classrooms, only swayed to change our accessibility measures when the majority is affected. Instead, we should be implementing these measures in advance, with the knowledge that what helps those most impacted by oppression also helped the other students learn. Because learning is collective and fluctuating, a process not unlike disability itself, we need to be ready to change our classrooms in order to make them more encouraging for learning based on the differences in our classrooms.
I ended with a number of recommendations to better implement CSP and UDL into university classes. For example, content warnings, accessibility surveys, and alternative kinds of assessments create new opportunities for students to learn within and beyond classroom spaces. These changes are imperfect methods of integrating UDL and CSP, imperfect because they are only as successful as their contextual application. No one method of teaching is necessarily more productive or helpful. It is rather an educator who is willing to take the time to understand their students and to be willing to unlearn alongside these students who will best implement CSP and UDL. Expecting difference in our classrooms, rather than imagining that expert knowledge comes from the powerful professor, has the radical potential to change a white supremacist, ableist structure, like a university, into a place of change. In the first few classes of any course I teach, I make sure to emphasize that I am expecting to be wrong, I am expecting to learn from my students, and I am expecting to experience the classroom as a learning space, just as much as my students are. Pedagogical care can take place in the form of critique, criticism, and encouragement through negative feedback. However, this negative feedback must also come with understanding and encouragement that learning fluctuates, changes, and acts as a process rather than as a stagnant knowledge.
Thank you to Kathryn Trevenen for her work in editing this article. No funding was received for this research.
- Academic Regulation I-16- Academic Accommodations. (N.d.). uOttawa. Accessed August 27, 2020 from https://www.uottawa.ca/administration-and-governance/academic-regulation-i-16-academic-accommodations
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At the time that this article was written, I was still in the process of completing my PhD as a doctoral candidate.
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Robert McRuer (2006) argues that narratives of flexibility "again works both ways: heterosexual, able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, dis- abled minorities flexibly comply" (18). In similar ways, we can see how online learning environments may encourage similar movement for those already able to fit into conventional classrooms, while depending on the compliance of disabled BIPOC students.
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