You can build more inclusive spaces

Students notice when you ask about their access needs, implement Universal Design for Learning principles and work with them to create flexibility in the classroom. When we remove barriers for students, they can focus on learning—and everyone benefits.

There can be many reasons why students may experience barriers in accessing learning opportunities, such as family obligations, learning English as an additional language, disability, and learning differences, to name just a few. While the institution has dedicated services mandated to address the needs of some members of the community, such as SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL), the following tips are ways that we can help meet the needs of all members of SFU’s diverse learning community. 

Ask students about their access needs

Building inclusive spaces extends beyond physical spaces. Proactively asking students about their access needs—whether in a classroom or before a meeting or event—helps create an environment where everyone feels comfortable.

“Access needs” can be broadly defined as something a person needs to communicate, learn or take part in an activity. Access needs can be physical, such as ramps and elevators, but can also include things like dimmed lighting, keeping one’s camera off during a Zoom meeting, fragrance-free spaces, options for translation and more.

Everyone has access needs, and creating an inclusive campus community means making sure that people's access needs are met so that they can be fully included in activities, whether inside or outside the classroom. However, it can be scary for students to communicate their access needs, especially at the beginning of the semester. You can take the first step by opening up a conversation—and by working with students to help meet their needs.

Here are some ways to incorporate asking about access needs into your regular routine:

  • When meeting with someone for the first time, include a note about access needs in your meeting invitation to see if you can do anything to help them participate fully in the meeting
  • Include language about access needs on your syllabus and/or during your first class of the semester, encouraging students to contact you to discuss how you can best support their learning during the semester
  • When planning an event, include a question about access needs in the registration form to ensure your event will meet the access needs of all attendees (and for a full list of ways to ensure your event is as inclusive as possible, follow SFU's Inclusive Events Checklist!)

For more info about proactively meeting any access needs that students might have, check out this tip sheet from SFU's Centre for Accessible Learning.

Embrace flexibility inside the classroom

Students can face a variety of challenges—physical, mental, and emotional—that impact their health, well-being and stress levels. When possible, work with students to provide flexibility that can improve their ability to engage with course materials, assignments and more.

You can embrace flexibility in your course design by:

  • Giving students a choice in assessment activities (e.g. taking a quiz or submitting a written assignment)
  • Allowing assignment resubmissions
  • Letting students choose their own topics when it comes to papers or presentations

Increased flexibility in the classroom means that students get to learn in the way that works best for them, and makes space for the understanding that school is just one aspect of their lives. For more suggestion on flexible learning, check out this resource on Assignment and Assessment Design by SFU Faculty of Education associate professor Dan Laitsch.

Remove barriers in advance

While asking students about their access needs is important, we can take a bigger step towards creating more inclusive spaces by thinking ahead and removing barriers in advance—so that any changes students might have requested are already met by the time they show up. Whether designing a Canvas course, planning an event or creating a presentation, you can make your work more inclusive by keeping accessibility in mind from day one.

Questions to consider when thinking about removing barriers in advance:

  • Am I writing in clear, plain language that will be easily understood by a wide range of readers?
  • Am I creating alternatives for processing visual information, such as text or spoken descriptions of images/graphics/animations?
  • Am I creating alternatives for processing auditory information, such as live captions, speech-to-text or transcripts?
  • Am I providing accessibility information about the event, classroom or meeting space to all participants ahead of time?
  • Am I providing multiple means for engagement in activities to help meet the comfort levels and learning styles of all participants?

Removing barriers for students is one of the core considerations under Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a pedagogical framework that aims to create more inclusive learning spaces by accommodating the needs, backgrounds, interests and learning styles of all students.

For a deep dive into UDL, check out this resource from SFU’s Centre for Educational Excellence. And for an in-depth, step-by-step guide to creating a more accessible learning environment, check out this guide shared by SFU Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies assistant professor Coleman Nye.

Additional resources

Some additional resources and supports that are dedicated to helping you create more inclusive spaces: