Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements

Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements

The start of the semester is just about upon us, which probably means you are rapidly ditching your best laid plans to lovingly craft your syllabus into a gleaming gem of radical pedagogical genius and coming to terms with the Winnicottian spirit of “good enough.” Welcome back.

The good news is that there is one easy addition that can make every syllabus shine a little brighter, something every good enough syllabus needs (and every kick ass syllabus has) that, thanks to the handy examples below, will take mere minutes to add if it’s missing from yours: An accessibility or disability inclusion statement.

Annie Seggara "The future is accessible"
A friendly head’s up from Annie Segarra, LGBT Latinx disability activist and ambulatory wheelchair user: “The future is accessible”

Generally, accessibility statements inform students of university resources and policies for accommodating disabilities, accommodations that are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is why many universities require them. But that is not why you should have one.

You should have one because a thoughtful accessibility statement is an opening to a pedagogical practice that offers a small but powerful push against the ways college and university systems exacerbate rather than rectify social inequalities by calling out the ableism of the academy and creating an experience that is more just and accessible for all students. Granted, if your school has a boilerplate accessibility statement (check the student disability services office or teaching support office to find out) it probably doesn’t do that. It is probably legalistic, perhaps unwelcoming, and almost certainly not informed by principles of disability justice or universal design, both of which see access as an opportunity to address social and structural inequity and marginalization by centering disability while pushing at its presumed edges.

To help you make your accessibility statement the best it can be, I’ve crowdsourced some examples from our wonderful colleagues in the Disability Research Interest Group, the subsection of the Society for Medical Anthropology that brought us such treasures as these guidelines for accessible AAA presentations, and this survey about in/accessibility at the AAA meetings (if you haven’t taken the survey, get to it…ALL of you!). I’ve separated the institutional boilerplates from those customized with critical disability politics in mind. The significance of the difference should be pretty damn apparent.

"Did you check the syllabus" coffee mug
“Did you check the syllabus?” coffee mug. That perennial response to students’ questions about our courses is good advice for us as well: Check your syllabus.

Finally, the most important thing about the accessibility statement may be what you do with it.

Just as decolonization at the level of the text is not itself decolonization (as Faye Harrison, Lila Abu Lughod, Jafari Allen, and other anthros of color continue to remind us), a great accessibility statement does not sufficiently address ableism in one’s pedagogy, classroom, or institution. Read the statement with students on the first day of class, remind them throughout the semester of your commitment to access, and most importantly, look for ways to practice access throughout the semester in your pedagogy and in your classroom (in any room, really). For more on how to do that, check out this fabulous tip sheet on feminist disability pedagogy (which also includes syllabus statement tips) or look for resources on Universal Design in Education. Though STEM focused, Washington University’s DO-IT Center has great Universal Design resources (like the info graphic on page 14 of this publication).

Boilerplate Accessibility Statements (you can do better)

Case Western Reserve University:

In accordance with federal law, if you have a documented disability, you may be eligible to request accommodations from Disability Resources. In order to be considered for accommodations you must present a memo from disability resources. Please contact their office to register at 216.368.5230 or get more information on how to begin the process. Please keep in mind that accommodations are not retroactive.

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill facilitates the implementation of reasonable accommodations, including resources and services, for students with disabilities, chronic medical conditions, a temporary disability or pregnancy complications resulting in difficulties with accessing learning opportunities.

All accommodations are coordinated through the Accessibility Resources and Service Office. See the ARS Website for contact information: accessibillity.unc.edu.

Relevant policy documents as they relation to registration and accommodations determinations and the student registration form are available on the ARS website under the About ARS tab.

College of William & Mary:

William & Mary accommodates students with disabilities in accordance with federal laws and university policy. Any student who feels they may need an accommodation based on the impact of a learning, psychiatric, physical, or chronic health diagnosis should contact Student Accessibility Services staff at 757-221-2512 or at [email protected] to determine if accommodations are warranted and to obtain an official letter of accommodation. For more information, please visit /www.wm.edu/sas.

Rice University:

Disability Support Services
If you have a documented disability or other condition that may affect academic performance you should: 1) make sure this documentation is on file with Disability Support Services (Allen Center, Room 111 / [email protected] / x5841) to determine the accommodations you need; and 2) talk with me to discuss your accommodation needs.

Critical Accessibility Statements (better than ‘good enough’!)

Professor at a large public research university

Class Accessibility and Inclusion
If you need a reasonable (or even unreasonable) accommodation, please let me know and I’ll try make it happen. This goes triply for folks with non-visible disabilities or who pass or mask or compensate. No need to do that here.

Zoë Wool, Rice University

This course is intended for all Rice students, including those with mental, physical, or cognitive disabilities, illness, injuries, impairments, or any other condition that tends to negatively affect one’s equal access to education. If, at any point in the term, you find yourself not able to fully access the space, content, and experience of this course, you are welcome (and not required) to contact me by email, phone, or during office hours to discuss your specific needs. I also encourage you to contact the Office of Disability Support Services (Allen Center, Room 111/ [email protected]/ x5841/ https://dss.rice.edu). If you have a diagnosis, ODSS can help you document your needs and create an accommodation plan. By making a plan through ODSS, you can insure appropriate accommodations without disclosing your condition or diagnosis to course instructors. 

Professor at a mid-sized public research university

If you have a disability or a personal circumstance that will affect your learning in this course, please let me know as soon as possible so that we can discuss the best ways to meet your needs. (Any student who needs accommodation for disabilities should also contact Student Accessibility Services at [email protected] to obtain an official letter of accommodation for all their courses.)

[The author of this statement also says: “I emphasize my willingness to help with accommodations aloud on the first day of class. I also give a questionnaire in which I ask about accommodations, allergies, pronouns, planned travel, etc. so that I can be in touch with individual students about their needs in the class”.] 

Universal Design for Learning at McGill University’s Office for Students with Disabilities

As the instructor of this course I endeavor to provide an inclusive learning environment. However, if you experience barriers to learning in this course, do not hesitate to discuss them with me and the Office for Students with Disabilities, 514-398-6009.

Lydia Brown (AKA Autistic Hoya)

Accommodations for Disabilities: 
If you have any kind of disability, whether apparent or non-apparent, learning, emotional, physical, or cognitive, and you need some accommodations or alternatives to lectures, assignments, or exams, please feel free to contact me to discuss reasonable accommodations for your access needs.

[Lydia Brown also notes: “Standard headers for this section generally say, ‘Special Accommodations’ or even avoid the word disability altogether in favor of euphemisms like learning differences or challenges.

Professors, you can make a strong statement for access and inclusion from the beginning of the course. You can, without saying or signing anything at all, make students like me feel immensely safer from the start.”] 

Michele Friedner, University of Chicago

I am committed to meeting the needs of all seminar participants. To arrange class-related accommodations, please see Student Disability Services: http://disabilities.uchicago.edu/accommodations. I am happy to meet with students to discuss ways of expanding access in the classroom that are not only mandated by law. Please feel free to make an appointment with me to discuss. 

Mara Green, Barnard College

Disability accommodations: For disability and other learning-related needs and accommodations, please communicate with me during the first week of class, whether in person or through email. Of course if concerns arise later in the semester, let me know as well. Disability-based services are provided through Barnard’s Office of Disability Services, located in 008 Milbank Hall ([email protected]) and through Columbia’s Disability Services (https://health.columbia.edu/disability-services). I am committed to working with you, so do not hesitate to come talk with me. 

Cassandra Hartblay, University of Toronto, Scarborough

Accommodations: Please assert requests for accommodations often and early. It is never too late to request accommodations – our bodies and circumstances are continuously changing. You will be asked to make use of formal accessibility services on campus; however, you will not be asked to disclose personal medical information. If there are ways in which the overall structure of the course and general classroom interactions could be adapted to facilitate full participation, please do not hesitate to raise your ideas with the instructor: comments and suggestions about the format of readings, lectures, and class discussions are welcome.

A note on basic needs:

Finally, Jessica Waggoner at the University of Houston turned me on to the basic needs statement, something that took on additional importance for their classes in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey (which hit Houston at the start of last year’s fall semester). They learned about it from this post on basic needs in/security in higher education, which suggests this syllabus statement:

Basic Needs: Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

Zoë Wool is assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Rice university. Zoë works at the intersection of (medical) anthropology, critical disability studies, STS, and queer theory. Most of her ethnographic work explores the intimacies, socialities, and materialities of life making among injured US soldiers and veterans. She’s also been thinking about new feminist, queer, and cripistemological histories of neurology…among other things.

3 Replies to “Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements”

  1. Great post! Thank you. I also think that boilerplate statements don’t have to be so bad. As a former staff member in the disability service office, I would have loved to have faculty advocate for a more progressive statement that did not send the message that the only reason students are accommodated is because the law requires it.

    Here’s another example of a statement I like:

    Usability, disability and design: I am committed to creating a course that is inclusive in its design. If you encounter barriers, please let me know immediately so that we can determine if there is a design adjustment that can be made or if an accommodation might be needed to overcome the limitations of the design. I am always happy to consider creative solutions as long as they do not compromise the intent of the assessment or learning activity. You are also welcome to contact the disability resources office to begin this conversation or to establish accommodations for this or other courses. I welcome feedback that will assist me in improving the usability and experience for all students.

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