Disability Visibility and Inclusive Design in STEM Pedagogy

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Taormina Lepore, Integrative Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022

Teaching is most effective when it reaches students in an equitable way. One issue I’ve

encountered in my teaching is that individual accommodations are provided for disabled

students, but very often, disability accessibility isn’t included as a core facet of our pedagogy

from the outset. I’ve taught at UC Berkeley and as a high school instructor, and throughout

these experiences I’ve wondered: how do students define diversity? Might they consider disability to be a part of the broader concept of human diversity? And if we teach them how to use concepts of inclusive design, which increases accessibility for people with disabilities–and indeed, all people–how might those perceptions of human diversity change?

I’m a graduate student with a number of invisible disabilities, including panic disorder, agoraphobia, and vision deficits, and I became really curious about these questions from a personal and professional perspective. I want to share my example of a pedagogical implementation with others to help encourage inclusive design as a teaching methodology.

During summer and fall 2020 I designed a 6-week-long digital media project in the course where I was a GSI. During this culminating project, students were challenged with the task of producing a digital product–a video, podcast, or series of curated social media posts–that explained an academic paper. But in addition to their broader science communication goals, students also had to incorporate an aspect of inclusive design such as closed captioning for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences, audio narration for blind or low vision audiences, colorblind accessible palettes, or alt text for social media posts. Students were provided with pedagogical scaffolding to introduce them to inclusive design concepts and methods of implementing them. While this has since become a part of my dissertation, the project was initially designed as a pedagogical intervention to help students apply inclusive design.

Based on student post-course Likert-scale reflections (N=336): over 96% of students strongly or somewhat agreed that they had “grown in [their] awareness of disability and accessibility accommodation”; 93.5% agreed they had “grown in [their] sense of compassion for others”; 94% felt they were “more motivated to advocate for disability accommodation in the future”; and 93.8% shared that they “now consider disability to be a part of human diversity more than before this project or course.” In addition, 85.5% of student respondents shared that they agreed with the statement, “as a student, I feel more included in science because of this project or course.”

When we teach, we unavoidably bring our own life experiences, biases, and prior knowledge into every lesson. We choose how to focus our learning objectives and, accordingly, what voices we center for our students. If we’re dedicated to becoming truly equitable teachers, we must strive to supplement our own life experiences and prior knowledge with the experiences and knowledge of people, places, and traditions that differ from our own. Using digital media projects that incorporate inclusive design, we can center the disability community in our STEM classes and help more students feel welcome in STEM fields. Ultimately, having more frequent dialogue about disability accessibility and diversity in STEM courses can really make a difference in creating a more just and equitable learning experience for every one of our students.