Romance Studies Spotlight

Although the idea of making courses accessible to students with disabilities may at first seem challenging, in French and Francophone Studies, we found that the strategies we put in place ended up helping all of our students learn more efficiently and think more deeply about the issues addressed in our courses.

Our class materials did not change, but the way in which we presented materials was modified in order to make them accessible. Because we had two blind students in courses centered on language, culture, and literature in the French program, we focused on going beyond sight as a principal means of instruction. With the help of Student Accessibility Services, staff members in our department (Romance Studies), and dedicated professors in our program, we were able to transform assignments initially accessible only to sighted students (such as readings, the creation of the portrait of a friend or family member, films, news and music videos, the exploration of websites) into activities that fully engaged all of our students regardless of their challenges. In these efforts, members of Student Accessibility Services researched books used in our courses to see whether accessible versions were already available; University staff members supplied descriptions to films used in our classes; our department staff members transformed inaccessible materials into readable documents; and professors rethought their teaching strategies in order to present concepts in ways that went beyond mere visual access.

The classroom became a place of intellectual and sensory stimulation not limited to sight, and this approach helped all students more completely and more accurately grasp ideas under consideration. For example, when writing on the board or typing on a projected computer screen, professors restated what they had written, which acted as a powerful comprehension check for everyone in the class. Images from films, videos, photographs of artwork, and so on, were described out loud, a technique that helped even sighted students become more aware of what they were seeing and the importance of certain details that composed the images; this type of articulation brought out elements that many students would have otherwise missed or would have merely assumed (rightly or wrongly) to have understood. This process of explication, which served to clarify and reinforce materials for students with and without documented learning challenges, played a fundamental role in enriching the understanding and learning of all students in the classroom. Moreover, in our discussions, when describing people, things, events, feelings, and so on, the class focused not only on visual qualities but also on elements of sound, taste, touch, and smell when appropriate. These added sensory cues deepened the connection of all students to the materials that we were studying. These expanded teaching strategies helped all students analyze course materials more effectively and efficiently because they enabled all of us to better articulate the highly complex processes of interpretation and the creation of meaning that results.

An integral part of the mission of social justice at Brandeis University, inclusive teaching should be an essential element of the learning process that we promote. In the classroom, inclusivity builds a strong sense of collaboration among students, helping them to come together as an interactive and interconnected group in which all participants contribute to the learning of their peers, and quite frequently to that of their professors.

Prepared by Hollie Harder