This project began during a faculty seminar on diversity at Tulane University. Everyone shared course materials, and the leader took one look at my syllabus, 15 pages of small dense prose, and said, “My son has ADD. He would never pick this thing up and read it.” I had worked to make the course content diverse and accessible but had ignored the document that facilitates that content. Her comment led to two insights that frame the recommendations of this site:
- The syllabus needs to take into account its audience.
- The syllabus needs to reach more students, particularly those with disabilities.
To achieve these goals, I turned to the scholarly field of rhetoric, specifically technical writing and disability studies, which both shed light on accessible texts.
One shift in technical writing is to think of students as users rather than readers to remind us that they interact with text. They don’t sit down to read the syllabus all at once, rather, they approach it as a type of user-guide. They pull it out to see if a bad test grade will tank their average or to plan their schedule. They use it when they need it. Miles Kimball and Ann Hawkins, authors of Document Design, theorize the major characteristics of users:
- Users are real people with real problems to solve.
- Users do not want to read documents; they want to do things.
- Users often approach documents already feeling frustrated.
- When users do read documents, they rarely read all the way through.
These principles teach us about users as a group, but disability studies shows us that users are also unique people with various abilities. To reach diverse people, scholars recommend texts that are redundant and multimodal, meaning that they reach users through multiple senses (“Multimodality in Motion”). For example, a video lecture includes closed captioning to reach students through sight and hearing. Closed-captioning provides basic access for deaf students at the same time that it allows students to watch in a quiet library. This versatility is a fundamental principle of universal design: inclusive design is better design.
Based on these design principles, our website offers recommendations for remaking syllabi. These tips will depend on the abilities of the instructor as well as the students, so each syllabus will look unique.
Accessible design is an ongoing process. We welcome collaboration and critique.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the conversation with #accessiblesyllabus.