On Paddling into Headwinds: Reducing Campus Learning Barriers

12 Oct



“Just keep swimming.”

DoryFinding Nemo

by Scott Marshall, Associate Director
University of Minnesota Disability Resource Center


Lake Headwinds

A week ago a friend and I were in the Boundary Waters. On our second day we set off on a day trip. We paddled on calm water and into a morning fog that hadn’t yet burned off. As we made our way the wind picked up and the long, narrow lakes became tunnels turning the breeze into a headwind.

After a break for lunch we headed back toward camp – paddling now into a fierce headwind. When we came out of our final portage, onto the lake on which we were camped, we realized the worst was yet to come. We found whitecaps and nerve-wracking swells and knew the only way to make it “home” was to stay as straight into the wind as possible. And, in that, not to roll the canoe.

As we paddled up Pine Lake we joked with each other. “Not again! You’ve got to be kidding!” Every lake had been worse than the last and this is the WORST one, and we’re so tired, and don’t say what you’re thinking about the danger lurking in those swells lest the danger come to reality and pitch us overboard. Best not to bring that up. We knew that if we let our guard down for one minute, we could find ourselves sideways to the wind, pushed into shore and pinned there, disallowed from making progress toward camp.

We looked ahead and saw a point coming out into the lake. Pretty sure camp is just around that point. We got this. Exhausted we made our way around the point and saw the other point. The next point – the point 500 yards up the lake. The point, around which was our campsite. “I’m not sure I can make it. I’m exhausted. I wish I could just snap my fingers and BE IN CAMP!”

Campus Headwinds

Imagine your privilege creates headwinds. Imagine many students with disabilities experiencing these headwinds – these fiercely persistent, doubt-inducing, shame-filling, fear-filled, barriers – in our classes (our materials), our offices (our physical space arrangement), our expectations (software we ask or require students to use), our responses (our attitudes), and our choices (our priorities).

What is it like, I wonder, to constantly paddle into these headwinds?

What is it like, I wonder, to not have the tailwind my privileges grant me in navigating learning and life on campus?

What is it like, I wonder, to be told over and over again, “No, I’m sorry…”

Students and staff we work with in the Disability Resource Center (DRC) are often fighting multiple headwinds. They are not able to fully experience the University and the University isn’t able to fully experience them. My work in the DRC tells me these headwinds aren’t likely to stop blowing any time soon. Yet we can each do something to reduce the wind, the currents, and other environmental barriers.

None of us can know or do it all – each of us has gifts that we must contribute if we’re going to stop the headwind. Here are some resources and strategies we use in the DRC – I invite you to check them out and post a comment about how you’ve worked with others while incorporating universal design for learning practices into your courses:

Navigating the Headwinds
with Our Students & Colleagues

Creating Accessible Course Materials

  • Ensure your videos are captioned. (Watch for an upcoming blog post on this)
  • Visit webaim.org for all kinds of accessibility related info and opportunities.
  • Work with an instructional designer (from your college and/or the Center for Educational Innovation), as well as instructional technology experts (through your college and/or through Academic Technology Support Services) specifically on the accessibility of your course materials/media, website, and pedagogy.

Accessibility of Department Resources

  • Inquire about the accessibility of your department’s Web site. Ask that it be assessed and fixed where necessary. (Try out, for example, AInspector Sidebar for Firefox http://ainspector.github.io/.)
  • Consult with technology accessibility experts in the Disability Resource Center.

Improving Accessibility –
Learning & Collaboration Opportunities

  • Check out accessibility.umn.edu for a variety of resources.
  • Contribute your gifts to improving accessibility.umn.edu. (Email cap@umn.edu.)
  • Learn about accessibility best practices by attending a monthly gathering of the Web & Tech Accessibility Community of Practice. (Email Scott Marshall to learn more.)

Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” What are two ways you can contribute to reducing or eliminating headwinds and currents that learners might be experiencing in classrooms on campus and online?




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