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Inaccessible curriculum: How do we respond?

Photo of two hands typing on a computer keyboard that has yellow, Braille keys.

  By: Christelene Loots-van Aardt

Access challenges

What are your challenges relating to inaccessibility? Many of us have them but for some, it is a daily and deep struggle. I am lucky enough not to be deeply affected by it, but every so often the struggle rears its head.


HEP - Knock knock short tall

Photo of a shorter woman with a surprised look on her face,
with her hand above the head of a much taller man.

My own, meagre experience with inaccessibility is this: When I visit my husband's tall family, I usually only see my forehead in the mirror. I cannot access the microwave as it sits on top of the refrigerator. You see, I am a short person. And, in these situations, I feel more dependent. I must ask someone whether the food in the microwave is overheating, and I need to fetch a stepladder to reach condiments that are stored up high. Then, when we all go for a walk, I tend to fall behind due to taking short steps!

However, my personal examples of such situations are not as serious as when a teaching environment, teaching instruction, and teaching content are inaccessible. This problem usually pops up when the assumption is made that all learners think and learn in the same manner. 

This is, however, not the case and one should rather be aware of the fact that learner variability needs to be taken into account when designing curricula. We should take accessibility into account from the very beginning. Plan and conceptualise curriculum design with this in mind.


Defining Accessibility in Education

Inaccessibility in any educational setting (whether face-to-face or electronically) has negative consequences for students and, in the end, it creates more work for teaching staff. “In education, the term ‘access’ typically refers to how educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education.” (Glossary of Education Reform, 2022). In other words, education is inaccessible if equal and equitable opportunities are not provided.


When inaccessibility is unacceptable

An event relayed to me by one of my students had a massive impact on my life. I was a facilitator of the module ’Teaching English for Academic Purposes’ at a local university and at the time, I was working on an impact study on embedding Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into supplementary tutorial classes for students with disabilities. One of the visually impaired students shared the following experience with me.

HEP Accessibility

Photo of a woman standing in front of a chalk blackboard
solving mathematical problems on the board.

She was an excellent mathematics student and had a knack for the subject. The lecturer wrote the equation on the board when she attended her Mathematics class. And, assuming all students in the class could see or access the information, the lecturer started asking questions and referencing the written sum. The sum was not read aloud, and the information the student could access via her hearing was not sufficient for meaningful participation. As a result, she did not have the same opportunity as the others to engage with the learning content, and her aptitude for mathematics went unnoticed.

The above sentiments are echoed by a student now studying online at one of HEP Africa’s partner universities. SW Malan shared the following with our team: “For me, online learning was life-changing as I suffer from low vision, which means I do not have to sit in classes where I couldn't make out what's written on the board or projected. Also, the way the course is structured is brilliant!!!”

In the latter situation, a student also struggling with visual challenges had an entirely different educational experience. Despite his low vision, he was provided with accessibility not only in the e-learning context but also in the way that HEP Africa assisted in course design. This, in turn, created independence for him to learn.


The aftermath of inaccessibility

Based on the above cases, the consequences of inaccessible curricula can be formulated as follows: inaccessibility in education = more student dependence = more work for lecturers.

So, if I create a micro-lecture with diagrams but do not include a transcript of the video or detailed descriptors for the diagrams, students who cannot access all of the audio-visual information will have no option but to ask me to provide it in some other form.

This is assuming students will speak up. Others might continue to struggle without it, while some might not need it, but will use it if it is made available. I, for example, use subtitles to watch series even though I do not wear a hearing device. While conducting my impact study on UDL, I came across research findings stating that video captions benefit everyone including people watching videos in their non-native language, highly literate adults, adults and children still learning to read, as well as people who are hard of hearing or D/deaf. It is therefore better to plan for access from the outset than needing to remedy it afterwards.


Fixing the curricula faux pas

So, how do we fix our inaccessible curricula faux pas and plan for access? Whether you are a lecturer, instructional designer, or involved with students in the higher education context, it may be wise and serve you well to ask yourself these questions: “How many alternative pathways or options am I currently providing to students when presenting my content?” and “How many alternatives or pathways am I providing to them when they must express what they’ve learned?”


Practical ways to start fixing the mess

A practical way is to start on a small scale by embedding access in curricula following Tobin and Behling's (2018:134) Plus-One thinking approach. Plus-One thinking enables academics and module authors to start making small changes to the big issues in their courses by providing students more access to learning. This can be done by following the steps below:

Step 1

Answer the following prompts:

  • Where do your students always have questions?
  • Where do they always get things wrong on tests or assignments?
  • Where do they always ask for more explanations?

These are called “pinch points”; this is how we adopt Plus-One thinking in our teaching. We start small by focusing on the bigger problem areas.

Step 2

Now, take the answers to your above questions and add one more way for students to access each of those pinch points. For example, in my recorded micro-lecture I show students diagrams, but when referring to them, I use the words “see here” and “look at this”. However, a student who does not use their vision to access the information will be lost.

Plus One

I can apply Plus One to the above scenario in the following way: If I use my own voice to describe what we are looking at in the micro-lecture before discussing it, students can access the knowledge via audio instead of only accessing it visually. For example: "This Universal Design for Learning diagram shows three columns, namely Multiple means of Engagement, Multiple Means of Representation and Multiple Means of Action and Expression.” The latter example is much more accessible than “see here” or “look at this”.

Apart from disability, there may be other reasons for not being able to access information visually. For example, a student with a broken phone or laptop screen, a student with motion sickness listening to the content on a bus, or a parent listening to an online lecture while caring for children may all experience challenges in accessing visual content.

In addition, some students may struggle to express what they’ve learned in a particular way, for example writing an academic essay. However, by providing a Plus-One alternative for students to express what they’ve learned, e.g., through oral presentation, one can ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their understanding.

HEP Accessibility - oral presentationPhoto of a smartly dressed man doing an oral presentation
on his work which is displayed on a flip chart to his right. 

Exceptions to the Rule

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. Some concepts depend on their formats, such as writing an academic essay. In this case, we do not tell students that they can choose between an essay and an oral presentation. But, we can scaffold the content and teaching knowledge to better support the process.



Ultimately, many of us experience inaccessible situations in one form or another. This is because, in essence, there are no average learners, so our perspectives need to shift toward planning for variability. Providing multiple pathways for students to access and express what they have learned creates an inclusive and accessible learning environment. And, if you do it from the outset of the course design, you will have less fixing to do later on.

So, if you have not yet started thinking in this manner, you know where to begin – with Plus-One thinking.

Please excuse me as I now have to take my stepladder to the kitchen; I hear the microwave beeping.



Gernsbacher, M. A. (2015). Video Captions Benefit Everyone. Policy insights from the behavioral and brain sciences2(1), 195. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732215602130

Glossary for Education Reform. 2022. Accessed on 10 March 2023. Available at https://www.edglossary.org/

Tobin, T.J. & Behling, K. 2018. Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone. Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

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