Four Access Environments for Learners

24 Feb

Learning (and) the Four Access Environments:
Physical, Informational, Programmatic and Attitudinal

The ideas about learning environments embedded in these four “access talking points” are based “on an interactional model of disability in which the locus of disability-related barriers and access solutions is found in society, rather than in the disabled individual.”

Additionally, the authors of the study work from a perspective that values the infusing of disability perspectives across all aspects of teaching and learning life – recognizing the dual importance of doing better by the students right in front of us as we create robust accessible learning activities, and of teaching in ways that dismantle societal barriers rather than recreating them.

Some disabilities are visible, others invisible.  Some college students choose to work officially with Disability Services as part of claiming an education; others leave behind their high school practice of officially registering with DS offices.  Still others discover or acquire disabilities in adulthood and must navigate higher education with new particularities. 

As a learner, I was one of those “late discovery of learning disability” folks –  with a colleague possessing the appropriate clinical training we dissected the impact of dyspraxia on my learning life.  In that 1980s time period, I learned to untangle my own personal learning snags to remake new practices through the support of colleagues who taught rhetoric courses – reading, writing and speaking. 

In that same time period, I was careful to let advisors in my academic department glimpse only what I was putting into place as a teacher: A pedagogically changed attitude toward the role of college teachers in creating classroom atmospheres, aims, activities and assessments in anticipation of the students with disabilities who might just enroll in our courses.  I spoke about my students motivated by the student I had been and the learner I was becoming.

Funny thing, as much scholarship of teaching and learning research bears out, the adaptations and accommodations I made and advocated benefitted a broad range of students, not “just” the students with disabilities.  I stopped saving speaking about accommodations and making “curb cuts” – or “kerb cuts,” if you will – for when I might get an official accommodation request.

In lately being reintroduced to the work that further expands upon the Four Access Environments descriptions – Accessing Student Life: Steps to Improve the Campus Climate for Disabled Students, I began incorporating a one-page version into teaching and consulting about learning in higher education. 

In the four segments below, I’ve excerpted passages from the Four Environments documents. Each quoted excerpt is followed by a short list of questions that recent “Teaching in Higher Education” students have posed while considering how they would set up access environments in their classrooms.

As a final introductory note, I’ve kept the original authors’ organization of the fours areas.  The list opens with the two areas most talked about and sometimes perceived as easiest to address: Physical and Informational environments.  As teachers, we can often attend to these dimensions on our own, sometimes working out the particulars with a peer or teaching consultant, or disabilities services staff member.  The list closes with Programmatic and Attitudinal Access. Think of these alongside the higher level learning outcomes in Bloom’s Taxonomy, as vitally important to address for longterm and transformational learning, and change best undertaken in collaboration with allies across our academic and personal lives.

Physical Environment

“Elements of this environment are most often thought of when discussing disability-related access. Curb cuts, ramps and elevators are some of the more visible additions to physical environments since the implementation of accessibility laws.  Additionally, raised print and braille signage in elevators and outside offices, along with visual alarms, are adaptations to the physical environment, which make it more accessible to people with sensory disabilities (e.g. blind/visually impaired and deaf/hard of hearing).”

Additional considerations in classrooms that feature “active learning” small group and whole class strategies for peer learning and interaction:  

  • How will you orchestrate movement into formal or informal small groups – at the start of a class session, or during a class session? 
  • What seating and/or room arrangements can best accommodate full participation for students and their sign language interpreters, guide dogs, and other student learning assistants in the classroom? 
  • How and when might levels of “noise” – sound and visual – need be moderated or masked during activities to minimize distractibility? 

Informational Environment  

“This environment encompasses print materials, oral communications, and information technologies. Access to the informational environment can occur through the creation of materials in alternate formats (braille, large print, audio tape and digital format texts, captioned and voice over videos, embedded image and diagram descriptions), the provision of sign language interpreters, and the incorporation of design elements in information technology systems that are friendly to adaptive technology.”

Additional considerations in classrooms that feature digital course materials: 

  • Are materials shared as PDFs readable by assistive software?  (PDF materials created from scanned documents are not, overall, accessible to screen readers, and are even difficult to make bigger with zoom functions.) 
  • Can the electronic books you’ve selected be manipulated to increase type size and will such changes affect the overall formatting of a document in positive or negative ways?  
  • Are the URLs that you provide to students visible within printed and/or electronic handouts – or buried under hyperlinks that a screen to voice scanner will not be able to read? 

Programmatic/Policy Environment

“This environment involves maximizing participation opportunities for all through the design of accessible programs. It also includes the development of policies that eliminate barriers to programs, such as adapting eligibility requirements for participation in out-of-the-classroom course activities – required and supplementary (site visits, field trips, course-related performances, community events),establishing equal opportunity policies that include the protection of people with disabilities  eg, building internship requirements that anticipate participation of a broad range of students, including a broad range of students with disabilities), and the designation of a key person to consult with regarding / to be accountable for disability-related access.”

Additional outside-of-the-classroom & programmatic considerations:

  • If are which events/activities/sites to visit outside of class, have you communicated with program/staff at those sites to communicate access needs and accommodation requests they might anticipate?
  • How will you determine what resources are available on site to support student learning – headphones for listeners/microphones for speakers in large auditoriums, site resource materials in alternative form (eg, museum or site guides in braille or audio formats)?
  • Have you worked with disability services as well as disciplinary consultants to create robust internship opportunities for a broad range of students, including a broad range of students with disabilities?
  • Who will be able to address students access and accommodations questions before they venture to an outside-of-the-classroom course or programmatic activity? While they are at the event/site? If they return with concerns yet to be addressed?

Attitudinal Environment  

“This environment is the most intangible of the four, primarily because it involves human behavior and perception. Attitudinal barriers include the prevailing negative assumptions perpetuated by society about people with disabilities, such as the portrayal of disabled people as helpless victims or ‘inspirational.'”  Changes in the attitudinal environment, for teachers and student peers alike, typically take place through small scale, time on task, interdependent interactions.  And communication matters: (1) Language that puts people first (students with disabilities, not “disabled students” or “the physically challenged”) can semantically shift an environment; and (2) Incorporation of course materials pertaining to students with disabilities – whether policy statements or core course reading – as integral elements of course documents makes a different statement from adding on such information as an optional/supplementary document or FYI link that may be clicked.  

The most important pair of questions a teacher can address in making courses accessible – whether prompted by a single student’s official request for accommodations to support learning, or a goal to design courses that spark and support learning for a broad range of students – are these:

What really are the essential and desired learning outcomes and processes/practices for learning in this course – and what might be the multiple ways that students can demonstrate their mastery of the essential outcomes?

How might I draw on what I know – about my course, about “real world” practitioners, about learning processes, about how others’ approach accessibility and learning – to create new pathways for learning in my courses?   

Additional consideration for reflective practice:

  • Attitudinal Considerations on Informational & Policy Environments: “Making a Statement.”  Mark Pedalty.  Abstract: After participating in the Curriculum Transformation and Disability (CTAD) workshop, the author began presenting a concerted oral accommodation and access statement on the first day of class. The results were immediate and positive, as illustrated with three examples. The author argues that individual accommodations, like those illustrated here, are an essential part of the process of developing Universal Instructional Design (UID) courses.  Available at
  • Attitudinal Considerations on Programmatic Environment: Creating an Inclusive Fieldwork Curriculum is one focus of “Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities”:
  • Attitudinal Considerations on Determining Essential Requirements for Courses & Programs, Stanford University:

 Resources Cited

  • “Four Access Environments,” the one-page handout quoted in this post, is available at
  • Accessing Student Life: Steps to Improve the Campus Climate for Disabled Students.  Composed by Gene Chelberg, Wendy Harbour and Roberta Juarez, this original publication of the Disability Services office at the University of Minnesota is available a

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