Fostering Accessible Teaching and Learning

The Accessibility Context at U of T

The University of Toronto is home to a very diverse student population of over 76,000 undergraduate students. Many of these students may face barriers to full participation in elements of university life. Some students may be physically impaired, while others may contend with learning disabilities or mental health issues. Of the nearly 3,000 students registered with Accessibility Services at the St. George Campus in 2014-2015, 47% had mental health issues, 19% had learning disabilities, 11% had ADHD, 10% had mobility limitations, and 14% had chronic illnesses, acquired brain injuries, or sensory impairments.

In addition to these physical, mental and psychological barriers, many students also negotiate financial responsibilities (e.g., working part- or full-time) and/or family commitments (e.g., children, elder care, etc.). These and other students may be unfamiliar with university culture, policies and resources. For example, 25% of University of Toronto undergraduates are the first in their family to attend university, while almost 23,000 are international students, many of whom are English Language Learners and may struggle to communicate with their peers and instructors.

The University of Toronto is an institution committed to “fostering academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.” As such, it is dedicated to reducing barriers that prevent people from completing degree programs and participating in the activities of this community. At the University of Toronto, accommodation is granted on the basis of religion and disability. Because of their close relationship and sustained interaction with students, teaching assistants (TAs) can play a vital role in reducing many unnecessary barriers to participation in the University’s learning environments.

This resource advocates the principles of universal instructional design (UID) as a straightforward way to maximize accessibility for all students. The aim is to design learning experiences that meet the needs of people from a variety of backgrounds, abilities and learning styles. Such an approach improves all the students’ learning and “reduces the work associated with arranging individual and specialized accommodations” (Accessible Campus).

How Accessibility Services Work at the University of Toronto

Each University of Toronto campus has an office dedicated to anticipating and responding to the accessibility needs of students in accordance with the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and the University’s own Statement of Commitment to Persons with Disabilities. Some services provided by these offices include arranging test and exam accommodations, determining and negotiating appropriate accommodations, and helping students develop various strategies to improve their academic skills. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 3,128 students registered with Accessibility Services at the St. George Campus.

Registering with Accessibility Services

In order to register with Accessibility Services, a student must first complete and submit a registration package that describes their disability and includes any relevant medical/psychological documentation. Once the registration package has been submitted, the student meets with a Disability Counsellor. Decisions regarding accommodations are then made by the student’s Disability Counsellor on the basis of the following information: the student’s medical documentation from a licensed health care professional qualified in the relevant discipline; an interview with the student; and provincial guidelines for accommodation in universities. Students with permanent disabilities must provide appropriate documentation from their primary health provider, while students with temporary disabilities or impairments are registered on a term-by-term basis. Students are responsible for keeping their counsellor updated about any changes and challenges they face, and must re-register with Accessibility Services every year. Students are also responsible for informing Course Instructors (and in many instances, their Teaching Assistants) of any accommodations they may require. At the St. George campus, registered students are able to generate automated Letters of Accommodation which inform Course Instructors of the necessary accommodations.

Once a student is registered with Accessibility Services, he or she will be assigned a Disability Counsellor who will work with them to determine what accommodations are necessary. At the University of Toronto, academic accommodations are defined as those that support the student’s ability to fully participate in the academic environment.

Privacy and Confidentiality

Accessibility Services places significant importance on student privacy and confidentiality in accordance with University of Toronto policy and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA). As such, Letters of Accommodation do not disclose the specific nature of students’ disabilities. Students may share their Letter of Accommodation with their TA, or may ask the Course Instructor to communicate with you about what they need in order to learn effectively. This can be a great opportunity to have a conversation with the student and/or Course Instructor about how you can contribute to the student’s success. Because Accessibility Services does not typically communicate directly with TAs, there may be occasions when you may not have important information about necessary accommodations. For this reason it is a good idea to check in with the Course Instructor at the beginning of the term or well before assignment due dates to ensure that everything is in order. Remember that confidentiality ensures that the conversation is on the impact(s) and accommodation(s), not on the disability. Students are not obliged (and should never be pressured) to disclose their disability condition/diagnosis to anyone outside Accessibility Services.

Granting Accommodation

There is a wide range of accommodation needed by students at the University of Toronto. Some of the most common are extensions on course work, writing tests or exams outside of the classroom (such as in a test or exam centre), and the use of computerized or peer note-taking services. Some students’ Letters of Accommodation may include extension requests for term work of up to one week. If they need an extension beyond one week, students need to obtain an Extension Request Form from their disability counsellor. If there is conflict between providing accommodation(s) and maintaining essential courses requirements—on assignments, participation in course activities (e.g., labs, tutorials, etc.)—you must speak with the instructor (who may have to consult with Accessibility Services).

What is Universal Instructional Design

Accessible education aims to reduce dependence on the accommodation approach and move toward inclusion.


  • Access is a problem for the individual and should be addressed by that person and the disability service program.
  • Access is achieved through special accommodation and/or retrofitting existing requirements.
  • Access is reactive.
  • Access is often provided in a separate location or through special treatment.
  • Access must be reconsidered each time a new individual uses the system.

Accessible Education

  • Access issues stem from poorly designed environments and should be addressed by the designer.
  • As much as possible, the system or environment is designed to be used by all.
  • Access is proactive.
  • Access is inclusive.
  • Access, as part of the course design and curriculum, is sustainable.

(Accessible Campus)

Universal Instructional Design (UID) is becoming increasingly popular as a framework that promotes accessibility for all students, faculty and staff in educational institutions. The central idea behind universal instructional design is that maximizing the usability of products, services or environments for all people, to the extent that it is possible, enhances inclusion of everyone by minimizing the need to make specialized adaptations. Unlike the principle of accommodation, which reactively seeks to provide access to an individual, universal design emphasizes proactive approaches that enhance learning for a wide range of participants. While some accommodations may need to be made on a case-by-case basis, approaching teaching with universal design in mind makes it easier for people with and without disabilities and impairments to participate. The default focus therefore shifts from the individual or the disability to the promotion of inclusion as a general goal.

In the university context, universal instructional design involves prioritizing accessibility in matters of curriculum development, learning activities, and assessment. Ideally, it will provide all students, not just those registered with Accessibility Services, with ample opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in various formats and methods of expression. Teaching Assistants may have no or little input into the design of a course, but they can be mindful of how we apply universal instructional design in a way that will increase accessibility for all students, not just those with documented needs for accommodation.

Seven principles of UID

All students should be able to use the same means to fulfill course requirements – identical if possible, equivalent when not. As a TA, you may not have the opportunity to design assignments. However, you will likely be in a position to talk to students how to approach the assignment.

Ask yourself: What assumptions – about prior knowledge, access to technology, institutional experience, etc. – are reflected in course content? Would any students have difficulty participating in the essential activities related to the tutorial?

Learning is most effective when it is multimodal: when content is presented in multiple forms, and when students have multiple means of demonstrating their knowledge. Instruction is flexible when it is designed to meet the needs of a broad range of learner preferences and when students can interact regularly with the TA and their peers.

Ask yourself: Does the tutorial offer enough choices in how content is presented so that any student could, to a certain extent, participate in a way that suited their needs and abilities?

Instruction is designed in a clear and straightforward manner, consistent with institutional and student expectations. Unnecessary complexity or distractions that may detract from the learning material or tasks are reduced or eliminated.

Ask yourself: Are students being evaluated on the same subjects and skills that the tutorial is intended to teach them? Does the instruction provided in the tutorial match both those learning objectives and the methods of evaluation?

Tutorial expectations should be transparent and instructions should be easy to understand. All forms of communication (e.g., lab instructions,, readings, presentations, etc.) should reinforce one another and, when possible, be presented in multiple forms.

Ask yourself: Are there obstacles to receiving or understanding the information and resources needed in this tutorial?

Instruction anticipates that students will make mistakes. While instruction recognizes that errors are necessary, and if handled properly present powerful learning opportunities, it tries to minimize hazards that can lead to irreversible errors and failures. This type of instruction also recognizes that systems will fail and things can go wrong; backups are prepared, so learning will not be interrupted.

Ask yourself: Do students feel respected as persons, welcome to express their thoughts, and able to explore new ideas in this tutorial or lab?

Instruction is designed to minimize non-essential physical effort (i.e., not related to a learning outcome) in order to allow maximum attention to learning.

Ask yourself: While students participate in this tutorial, are there physical challenges or obstacles that could be avoided?

The learning space is accessible and the environment supports multiple instructional strategies.

Ask yourself: Does the tutorial learning space support the type of learning activities that I’m asking students to engage in? If not, can anything be done to change either the environment or the activity?

Putting the Principles of UID into Practice: Guidelines and Best Practices for Tutorials and Labs

Before the course begins

Accessibility Services will inform the Course Instructor of any necessary accommodations, but they may not involve your tutorial. In some cases accommodation may be required but the Course Instructor may forget to tell you. It is a good idea to be proactive and clarify if there is any information you need to know in order to make tutorials accessible, while keeping in mind that you will not necessarily know which student needs what type of accommodation.

In some cases TAs may be responsible for providing additional readings or resources to students, or engaging students in a variety of activities. Making these materials available as soon as possible is advisable so that students who need to transform them into different formats have enough time to do so. If you are distributing scanned material or photocopies, try to make sure that they are clean (e.g., without marginal notes, etc.) and as clear as possible so that character recognition software can read it. With permission of the Course Instructor, you could use the course organization in Quercus in order to deliver materials or content in alternative formats.

Going to look at tutorial rooms in advance can help you determine what modifications can be made well in advance. If you can, try to go in person. On the St. George campus, Learning Space Management provides a convenient list of many (but not all) room descriptions, including photographs. Determine whether the room is accessible to individuals with a wide range of physical abilities. Think ahead and consider how adaptive furniture or service providers could be utilized in the classroom with least disruption to learning.

For example, you could simply state that “Students with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome in this course. Please feel free to approach me or Accessibility Services so we can assist you in achieving academic success in this course.” Setting clear learning outcomes will also assist students and Accessibility Services with determining and recommending appropriate accommodations.

Keep in mind the following issues:

  • If you have not received a Letter of Accommodation, you can confirm with the Course Instructor on behalf of the student.
  • You are required to take care to avoid asking the student about his/her disability.
  • Avoid speaking about a student’s disability in public.
  • Avoid disclosing the student’s personal disability information without the student’s permission to other TAs, faculty or staff.
  • Avoid leaving written information regarding the student’s disability in a public place or in plain view.
  • Avoid using a student’s name when discussing general disability issues in the tutorial.
  • Clarify the required accommodation with the Course Instructor.

During the term

The best way to create an inclusive environment is by including a statement on your tutorial handout or mentioning this in your first tutorial. Invite your students to feel comfortable about talking to you about accommodation while emphasizing that you maintain high confidentiality standards. Provide students with an effective orientation to the course by explaining the inclusive nature of your tutorial. This may include an invitation for students to speak to you if they have any concerns about their ability to succeed in the course. This may also include guidelines for participation and interaction to establish an inclusive tutorial atmosphere.

Remember other students are watching how you approach issues of accessibility and accommodation. If you act respectfully towards students with accessibility needs, in general or in particular, it is more likely that other students will follow suit. Demonstrate your commitment to accessibility not just with words, but also with action.

Your students will be more likely to discuss accessibility issues and their experiences in your classroom if you have a good relationship. The aim is not to get them to disclose details about their disability but rather for your tutorial to become an inclusive environment in which all students are welcome. Talk with them casually before and after class, and remind them that they are always welcome at your office hours.

If you use PowerPoint or Prezi, try to make sure your slides meet accessibility standards regarding font, colour, text size, and images. Useful guidelines include the Using PowerPoint resource developed by the Canadian Council for Universities and the Web Content Accessibility Guide Checklist. If you use PowerPoint, consider using the Accessibility Checker. If you show films or video clips, enable closed captioning whenever it is available.

Giving students an informal and anonymous opportunity to provide you with feedback about the course can be a great way for them to flag any outstanding accessibility issues that are interfering with their learning experience.

Preparing the tutorial room or lab

Upon entering a room sometimes people will need space to maneuver their mobility devices. Move trash receptacles, recycling bins, and other items away from the immediate vicinity of doorways. When possible, create wide aisles between desks, chairs and other furniture so people can comfortably use mobility devices to move about the room. Ideally everyone should be able to reach all areas of the classroom as needed (chalkboards, etc.) When possible, try to move electrical cords or cables out of the way so people can move about safely.

Turn on the lights in rooms that are naturally dark, and be aware of instances where the light may be too bright. If there are objects blocking chalkboards, projectors, or other areas of the room where students’ attention will be focused, whether in whole or in part, try to remove them.

Encourage your students to come to class without perfumes, colognes, or other scented products.

To the extent possible, place equipment, chemicals, and safety equipment at a height that can be reached from a seated position. You may consult the Physical Accessibility Checklist: Making Science Laboratories Accessible for Students with Disabilities, developed by the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), which relates to dry and wet teaching and research laboratories.

During each tutorial or lab

Define what you want to accomplish that day and tell students what you expect to accomplish together. This will help keep you and the students focused on the tasks at hand.

Tell students what the structure of the tutorial or lab will be: what you will do first, second, third. As you go through the class, clearly identify or label major sections (verbally or visually) so that students can understand the relative importance as well as the sequence of topics.

Use a variety of presentation styles and media, including graphics, to appeal to different learning styles. Mix verbal, visual, and tactile instruction to the extent possible. Employ studentcentered and active learning strategies. Highlight key concepts, emphasizing the reason for their importance.

Try to eliminate as much background noise (chatting students, hallway noises) or visual disruption (unrelated websites on laptops) as possible. Ask students to help create an environment where everyone can concentrate on the class content and activities.

Many students appreciate having a moment to think about how to respond before they volunteer to participate. Allowing a few moments to pass before taking up answers can reduce students’ anxiety about speaking or participating. Rephrasing and repeating questions can also help students better understand what you are asking. Recognize that students can express understanding of course content in multiple ways such as discussion, writing, online postings, etc.

Select materials that all student can use and make them available online in a variety of formats. Explain assignment and exam requirements while taking into consideration different learning styles.

Grading TAs

If you have the opportunity to talk to the students whose work you will be grading, acknowledge any anxiety that they may have about the assignment and provide strategies for handling it. For example, encourage students to begin their assignments early so that they may consult with you if need be, or to focus on only one part of the assignment at a time.

Even if you don’t have tutorials, it can be a good idea to hold office hours so students can consult with you directly. This is something you can discuss with the Course Instructor when you fill out your DDAH. Try to meet or email any student who doesn’t do well on graded work to explore potential reasons and strategies for improving.

In classes where different people grade students’ work throughout the term, establish mechanisms for ensuring transparency and consistency. Benchmarking sessions can be a great way to accomplish this, as can having students hand in work previously graded by another TA or Course Instructor. For example, if another TA graded a student’s essay proposal, it may be useful for you to have access to it when you mark the paper.

Rubrics provide a visual presentation of assessment that can help students assess their strengths and areas where they might improve. They also help ensure consistency between grades. With the knowledge or assistance of the Course Instructor you may choose to develop your own or you may adapt an existing rubric.

Head TAs

Have a conversation about accessibility with the Course Instructor before the term starts, and continue to check in as the semester progresses. The Course Instructor may not know what accessibility or accommodation requests are necessary at the beginning of the term, but they can keep you updated prior to assignment due dates. Remember that you may not be privy to the specific accessibility or accommodation needs of particular students, and that the Course Instructor may choose not to involve you in managing these issues.

Check in with TAs after the first tutorial and throughout the term to see if there are any accessibility issues that need to be addressed. Some TAs may find it helpful if you help prepare the classroom from week to week or make other accommodations for specific students.

Ensure that your TAs are aware of the institutional standards regarding accessibility, including the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Provide TAs with general resources and, if appropriate, information specific to a particular type of disability or impairment. Let them know they can always come to you if they have questions or concerns.

Despite your best efforts, sometimes you may be in need of immediate assistance to resolve a barrier to accessibility. Keeping key contacts in your phone can lead to the speedy resolution of any problems that might pop up. These numbers include:

St. George Campus:
Campus Police: 416-978-2323
Classroom Technology Support: 416-978-0423
Facilities and Services (Caretaking): 416-978-6252

University of Toronto at Scarborough:
Campus Police: 416-287-7398 (general) 416-287-7333 (emergencies)
Classroom Technology Support: 416-287-7618
Facilities and Services: 416-287-7579 (emergency maintenance support)

University of Toronto at Mississauga:
Campus Police: 905-828-5200 (general) and 905-569-4333 (emergencies)
Classroom Technology Support: 905-569-4300
Facilitates Management: 905-828-5300

Common Scenarios and Frequently Asked Questions

Can I refer a student to Accessibility Services?

University students are adults, and TAs cannot require them to access resources. Depending on the relationship that you have with a student, you think is struggling you may wish to initiate a private conversation where you can share information about campus resources. Remember, at no point should you ask if a student has a disability. There may be students that area already registered with Accessibility Services and have supports in place. In other cases they may not want to register for a variety of reasons (stigma, etc.). Some students may be offended or hurt if you bring up the subject up. However, because TAs are often the first and most significant point of contact with students in a given course, you may be in a better position to discuss this issue with the student than the Course Instructor to ensure that you are sensitive to the student’s situation, ask open questions that allow the student to volunteer details that they are comfortable disclosing.

A student approached me about a need for accommodation, but does not feel comfortable speaking to the Course Instructor.

Sometimes students find it easier to approach TAs about personal issues than they do instructors. While this often allows the TA to make many minor accommodations, in some cases (such as assignment extensions), significant accommodations may need to be made by the Course Instructor. Some Course Instructors will give TAs significant discretion about resolving such matters, while others will prefer to deal with all such requests directly. If a student gives you permission you may bring the matter up with the Course Instructor yourself to try to find an appropriate accommodation. If this is not possible, students can make an appointment at Health Services or their Registrar’s Office. A note from Health Services (or another medical professional) may be enough to arrange for extensions or similar accommodations. If more significant shortor long-term accommodations are required, students may then find it useful to contact Accessibility Services.

I suspect a student is using their disability as an excuse to get special treatment.

In most cases you will not be privy to the details about students’ accessibility needs or the nature of accommodations granted by Accessibility Services. If you have a concern, speak with the Course Instructor.

Other students act inappropriately toward another student based on their race, religion, sex, gender, or disability.

Sometimes other students can avoid, tease, or otherwise discriminate against students based on their perceived or actual race, religion, sex, gender, or disability. It is your responsibility to make sure that the classroom is inclusive and that all students treat each other respectfully. If you become aware of such dynamics or behaviour, think about what an appropriate response might be. Remember that you model appropriate behaviour.

My classroom isn’t accessible to one of my students.

Tell your Course Instructor. The instructor will make arrangements with the University and with the student to arrive at a satisfactory solution.

I am willing and happy to accommodate a student, but my Declaration of Duties and Allocation of Hours (DDAH) form doesn’t afford me the extra time to do so.

Incorporating principles of universal instructional design can help save time by increasing overall accessibility in the learning environment, but sometimes additional accommodations may entail more work than what is stipulated in your DDAH. If this becomes an issue, talk to your Course Instructor.

A student has asked that I provide them with my tutorial notes (and/or other resources). I don’t feel comfortable doing this.

You are not required to share your teaching materials with students. Likewise, students cannot record you or the class without your knowledge and permission. If a student asks for such materials and communicates an accessibility issue, you may work with them (and/or their disability counsellor) to find a compromise.

Further Resources

The University of Toronto has many resources that directly or indirectly address accommodation and accessibility. Important institutional policies intended to promote accessibility for members of the university community, including the Governing Council’s Statement on Human Rights, Statement of Commitment Regarding Persons with Disabilities, and Statement on Equity, Diversity and Excellence.

Further Resources on Accessibility

  • Good2Talk, a dedicated helpline for post-secondary students in Ontario (1-866-925-5454).
  • Council of Ontario Universities’ Accessible Campus Resource, a comprehensive guide to accessibility across the province. See especially the Resources for Educators section.
  • Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM) offers detailed information on how to create accessible PowerPoint presentations.
  • Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) is a non-profit education research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals through Universal Design for Learning.
  • Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT Centre) is dedicated to empowering people with disabilities through technology and education. It promotes awareness and accessibility—in both the classroom and the workplace—to maximize the potential of individuals with disabilities and make our communities more vibrant, diverse, and inclusive. Offers lots of free resources.
  • OCAD University Greg Gay’s Accessibility in e-Learning: What You Need to Know (2014) looks at what you need to know as an educator about the accessibility of online courses, course materials, and other web-based learning activities and tools as part of teaching and learning at post-secondary institutions in Ontario. Check out the entire series of resources provided on e-learning.
  • Explore Queen’s University’s Accessibility Hub which features a variety of resources such as creating accessible documents, using alternate formats, website accessibility, social media accessibility, video accessibility, and email accessibility.

Further Resources on Universal Instructional Design

  • National Center on Universal Design for Learning is supports the effective implementation of UDL by connecting stakeholders in the field and providing resources and information about UDL.
  • UID Project at the University of Guelph offers a variety of resources and reports from a working group devoted to UID.
  • UDL-Universe: A Comprehensive Universal Design for Learning Faculty Development Guide supports postsecondary faculty and staff by providing resources and examples to improve postsecondary education for all students, including those with disabilities. UDL-U is designed to be useful for individual inquiries related to small UDL topics, issues, or problems, as well as scalable to larger faculty development efforts (e.g., Faculty Learning Communities).
  • The Center for Universal Design is a NC State University is a national information, technical assistance, and research center that evaluates, develops, and promotes accessible and universal design in housing, commercial and public facilities, outdoor environments, and products.
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