Universal Design in the Law School Classroom—a Few Thoughts

One of the many things that most of us teaching in universities, very much including law schools, lack by way of training is any overview of how living with a disability affects learning, let alone what interventions might make a difference.

At best, some of us have second hand knowledge through the experience of friends and relatives (My Mom was a Speech Pathologist) who have that training or perhaps their children who are recipients of such instruction in grade school.   So no matter how willingly we provide the “accommodations” ordered by often overwhelmed university offices tasked with meeting the institution’s legal obligations, we do so without an underlying understanding of what those accommodations are supposed to achieve.  Or how they are supposed to achieve them.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to get a degree in teaching and learning to acquire a basic proficiency in how to teach in ways that make it more accessible to all students and as well as to work with experts to address the specific needs of individual students.

The resources below reflect a variety of sources for information as well as some ideas about universal design that would make learning more accessible to everyone.  It’s also helpful, in general, to be open to the idea that learning and sensory perception is different for everyone—and it’s probably better to let students make their own decisions about things like where in the room they want to sit than to adhere to traditions like pre-assigned seating.

To preview an article I’m working on, it is also important for us to realize that many of the common tasks assigned to law students, especially in classes intended to teach the crucial skills of legal research and writing, depend on levels of Executive Function rather than intelligence or knowledge basis or even ability to “think like a lawyer.”

Here are some resources:

Preparing Accessible Documents and here

An article from Diversability Magazine, Navigating Learning Disabilities in Law School.  https://www.diverseabilitymagazine.com/2017/04/navigate-learning-disabilities-law-school/

This information from Vanderbilt covers a lot of ground, and offers very practical suggestions in the section titled, “Strategies for Creating Accessible Learning Environments”

A recent survey of medical students seeking input on what would enhance their learning was a plea for no more blue slides with yellow text.   These links are helpful to make sure that we are not making life harder for students when we design slides. https://www.yorksj.ac.uk/media/content-assets/student-services/documents/A-Guide-to-Dyslexia-(PowerPoint)-A5.pdf

Here are some practical suggestions that we might offer all our students dealing with pages of dense text in small print-https://www.ws.edu/student-services/disability/teaching/learning.shtm

Hearing impairment is very common and sometimes comes on so gradually that people don’t even notice. It’s fair to assume that everyone would benefit from things like not just the Prof. using a microphone but passing one around so that students can here each other.  Here are some things to keep in mind about students with hearing impairments-including a very helpful point that no assistive device “restores” hearing and that we should respect a student’s own assessment of where in the classroom works best for them.  https://www3.gallaudet.edu/Documents/Clerc/TIPSTOGO-2.pdf

A Few Practical Classroom Resources For The Weeks Ahead: Accessibility, Clarity, And Inclusivity

By this point in August, all faculty, no matter how long you’ve teaching, come to the realization that your class is probably as ready as it is ever going to be.  For those of us particularly interested in teaching law students, it’s also the time to get realistic about the extent to which we can incorporate all the best practices that we know should be in our classes to provide the best possible experiences for our students.  So, what are some practical things you can do right now?  This helpful information from WVU for faculty teaching for the first time can be a helpful checklist.

These are a few high yield resources that I find particularly helpful for turning these intentions into action.

  1. Accessibility

One of the most basic issues we all face is whether the material we provide our students is accessible to them.  Fortunately, there are excellent resources to help use principles of universal design—and not only is it a good idea to follow these principles, it’s actually the law. 

For that reason, it’s likely that your own university already has materials but here are some examples to get you started.  An overview from Cornell,  WVU advice specific to PowerPoints, a comprehensive resource from Colorado and some more pointers about PowerPoint from Blackboard.    Often forgotten is the accessibility of video material—here’s some good advice.

Finally, here is a barebones checklist for documents from the U.S. Govt that could be helpful as a last step before releasing a more substantial document to the class.

  • Clarity of Content

We all want to be clear—and it turns out there are some best practices for doing that.  Here’s one to get started with. (more later)

  • Inclusivity—a few thoughts on names

We all want our classrooms to be a welcoming learning environment for all of our students.  A first step to doing that is just to remember that we all see the world through our own experiences and it’s likely that other people will see it differently.  And luckily there are experts both within the field of legal education, law, and more generally higher education who can help us achieve that goal.   My first advice is to seek out experts starting on your own campus.  Beyond that—are a few resources and a warm invitation to include more in the comments.   

The American Association of Colleges and Universities, a compendium of resources specific to GLBTQ inclusivity, and some information from the ABA

Much is written regarding best practices in calling students by whatever name they choose—and maybe more on how to make that happen later.  

But here’s something less discussed– the names we use for the many hypotheticals we end up writing.   While it seems fun at the beginning to write the “stories” on which subsequent legal analysis is based, it turns out that naming our characters can be something of a minefield.   It’s never a good idea to use the names of the student themselves or people they know—for one thing it can be distracting at best and depending on the hypothetical, perhaps even distressing. 

Beyond that, Names are very powerful, and by choosing to name our plaintiffs, defendants, judges, and witnesses, we are sending messages about how we see the world and our students’ place in it.  At this point, we are all conscious of avoiding offense by not making all the crime and accident victims women and all the judges men, let alone engage in racial, ethnic, sexist, abelist, sanist (please avoid the word “crazy” as hard as that is), homophobic or regional stereotyping [even when it’s in the context of ribbing sports rivals].

But there’s a next step beyond avoiding offense—and that’s truly inviting the larger world into our classroom by drawing names from a variety of cultures and regions.  Where do we find these names?  Baby naming sites! Here are two of my favorites baby name wizard and nameberry.   You probably have your own to add in the comments.

Both of these sites have lists of contemporary popular names in different regions.  At bare minimum, it opens up your fund of knowledge and allows for variety.   But even better, it can help your classroom better reflect the diversity of our country. 

To make it onto a top ten list, these are names that have probably been circulating for a while. Students may well have a cousin or a nephew with one of these names.

 And as a side benefit for pure learning theory, having access to so many names avoid the inherent confusion of a hypo involve Paul, Peter, and Polly.

They can also help you avoid falling into gender traps—here are 150 gender neutral English language names.   Caution.  After doing this, it is essential to proof-read yourself so that you have not fallen into the trap such as making all the defendants Swedish and all the crime victims Norwegian.  Caution 2: If you use these resources enough you may get a lot of diaper ads.

Recap—this post has a deliberately spare list of resources to help make your classroom more accessible and inclusive.

Have a great first week of class–

Jennifer S. Bard, J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., Visiting Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law

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