Supporting FIU Students with Disabilities

A woman using the mousepad on a laptop.

This webinar was presented by the Online Quality Manager at FIU Online, Jessica Rodriguez, who highlighted the importance of subject matter experts and instructional designers creating accessible online content with strategies that provide the best learning experience for all learners.

Instant Replay: Collaborate to Comply – Supporting Students with Disabilities

In Fall 2020, we had approximately 7000 Disability Resource Center (DRC) registered students and 1500 unique students registered for Online, Hybrid, or Remote Courses. Jessica Rodriguez offers a solution to mitigating the barriers to success by utilizing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. This entails the design of a course and the learning environment appeals to the largest number of learners and a wide variety of characteristics. Concerning UDL, Rodriguez affirmed that “a disability can be just one of the characteristics that a student could possess. For example, one student could be an excellent reader, primarily a visual learner and deaf”. The UDL framework supports students with disabilities by encouraging three different design principles.

Universal Design Principles

There are 3 Universal Design Principles: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression. 

Principle 1 – Multiple Means of Engagement

Under Principle 1 – Multiple Means of Engagement, Rodriguez is referring to the different opportunities to create student involvement within a course. The key factor of the engagement principle is to gather factual information to see, hear, and read. For instance, a course can offer multiple ways for students to engage with one another using discussion activities or conducting peer-review assignments. For example, in Figure 1, Rodriguez provided a breakdown of some examples to put the engagement principle into practice.

The three principles of Universal Design are Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression. They each represent the why, the what, and the how of learning that help support students with disabilities.
Figure 1: There are 3 Universal Design Principles – Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression.

In short, allowing students the choice to choose their course content is a way of aligning with the principle of engagement. The instructor can provide an optional unit in the course or give the student the freedom to select a topic of their choice to present on.

Finally, the final component of the engagement principle is self-regulation & motivation. For example, this includes rubrics, task lists, and practice assessments. These items should give students enough feedback throughout the semester. This way they can show improvement and have some way of being able to track their progress.

Principle 2 – Multiple Means of Representation

Multiple Means of Representation is the second Universal Design Principle, which embodies the planning and performing of tasks. This stage provides learners various ways to access and engage with course materials. Also, this is where learners can express their ideas. For instance, this can be completed by having the learners conduct research, acquiring new knowledge, and applying that knowledge in an essay format. The learner must be able to present their abilities to actually understand new concepts they learned within their course. To summarize, there are further examples that show how to put representation into practice in Figure 2.

Different examples of how to make course materials accessible in order to help students with disabilities. For instances, different file formats, alt-tags, including a glossary of terms, and practice exercises are just a few examples.
Figure 2: Principle 2 – Representation

Furthermore, Principle 2 dives deeper into accessibility and the accommodation pieces of the course because it ensures that learners have access to various course materials that are accessible. This is accomplished by providing multiple file-formats for learners, tagging alternative text for images, captioning for multimedia videos, transcripts for audio files, etc.

Supporting Students with Disabilities with Multiple Means of Representation

As a result, it is imperative to know that content received from publishers such as PowerPoints or e-books are typically provided with accessible options. Rodriguez mentioned that instructors should be mindful of making sure that their content is accessible when they are the ones creating their own content.

Also, Rodriguez said, “Remember, simple is best”. Instructors should use easily readable fonts. After that, instructors should use clean and consistent formatting throughout the document. It is recommended that when using Open Educational Resources documents they are accessible to all learners.

Principle 3 – Multiple Means of Expression

The third principle for Universal Design Principle is Multiple Means of Expression. This principle encourages students to demonstrate their learning through various forms. In other words, the main objective is to keep learners engaged and motivated within a course. This principle keeps students challenged or interested in topics through different platforms or options. Consequently, this way they can continue to demonstrate what they know or have learned. In Figure 3, Rodriguez provided more examples of how to put Principle 3 into practice.

Different examples of how to put multiple means of expression into practice to ensure students with disabilities can succeed. For example, various question types in assessments, peer evaluations, choice of topic, student sample templates, and student presentations are just some examples.
Figure 3: Principle 3 – Multiple Means of Expression
Supporting Students with Disabilities with Multiples Means of Expression

Furthermore, incorporating a variety of question types in exams gives learners the opportunity to showcase their understanding of the content. Rodriguez gave the example of a Geography course where students can take an exam and pinpoint hotspots on the screen to select their answers. For example, students can also complete presentations, solo or in groups to demonstrate that they have learned new skills. They can do this by role-playing, debating, or having a class discussion too.

Of course, the instructor plays a crucial role in providing feedback through practice quizzes, rubrics, and office hours. This will give learners the opportunity to improve throughout the semester. Certainly, student choice is imperative too. For example, a student can decide they want to do a presentation instead of writing a 10-page paper. Instead of doing a 50 question final exam, the student might have the opportunity to do a research paper.

Additionally, the instructor can calm down assessment anxiety by providing learners with clear assignment guidelines and expectations. Likewise, they can provide previous student samples and assignment templates to give learners a clear understanding of what is expected.

Accessibility and Policy – The UDL Connection

The Universal Design Principles and accessibility do come full circle in conjunction with policies. Thus, Rodriguez summarized that when students do not face barriers to accessing materials their engagement increases. Firstly, remember to make sure students have access to all the materials by offering alternatives to text, audio, and visual information. Secondly, allow the use of multiple tools and modes for students to communicate their knowledge. This way students are engaging with other students, the content, and can fully communicate their knowledge back to the instructor.

Functional Definition of Accessibility

Moreover, Rodriguez said that the functional definition of accessibility is to provide students the opportunity to (1) acquire the same information, (2) engage in the same interactions, (3) enjoy the same services, as the students without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use.

The functional definition of accessibility is broken down to support students with disabilities an opportunity to: acquire the same information, engage in interactions, and enjoy the same services.
Figure 4: Functional Definition of Accessibility

Rodriguez briefly talked about how instructors do not need to completely revamp their courses to use UDL to their benefit. Therefore, if an instructor is considering improving their course when thinking about diversity to include all different types of learners then they can start implementing UDL principles in small ways.

Firstly, they can start by looking at what is working with the current content, the current instructional materials, and resources. Secondly, they can identify where the opportunities lie in these areas to understand where improvements in the course need to be made. Rodriguez said that the main thing to keep in mind is to be flexible with yourself, with the subject matter, and with your learners. 

The Role of Support Teams

Finally, who do you call for help and support? How do I make my course accessible? Am I alone in making my course accessible? Many teams play a crucial role in supporting accessibility at FIU. The Disability Resource Center, FIU Online, the instructor, and the Instructional Designer, all play a crucial role in making sure that a course is accessible. Rodriguez provided a great resource that shows the roles and responsibilities of who is responsible for accessibility for online courses.

The different responsibilities for accessibility are outlined for each department: DRC, FIU Online, Instructor, Instructional Designer.

FIU Resources

UDL Resources

Free Open Resources

Instructor Webinars

To learn more about supporting students with disabilities, you’ll want to watch the webinar recording yourself. Insider has archived this webinar alongside all of the FIU Online Instructor Webinars.

If you have any ideas for future webinar topics, we’d love to hear them. Contact Christina Schettini ( to share your ideas for future webinar topics. 

Jo A. Perez was an Instructional Design Assistant with FIU Online. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and a Master of Education in Learning Design & Technology from Arizona State University. Jo loves to solve problems because it allows him the opportunity to learn from the experience. He enjoys learning about new edtech tools, microlearning, and gamification. Jo loves his three dogs and her new cat, Milo.

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