Genetic Counseling Spotlight

In retrospect, inclusion and accessibility are things that we should have been thinking about from the start. However, the key motivating factor was for us was the enrollment of a student with hearing loss in our program. We were concerned that our student was not able to access the same information or have an equivalent experience to their classmates. This was an important starting point because it was a place from which to being thinking critically about what inclusion actually means, and eventually build more inclusive practices for all our students.

What does it mean to be inclusive?

Being inclusive is not only about students with disabilities in our classes, but it is about ensuring that all students have the best learning experience possible. We quickly realized that ensuring this goal not only involved changing practices, but it also involved changing our mindset and approach. We realized that inclusion meant considering the needs of all our learners while still being flexible to student needs as they came up.

What are some key ways that you consider inclusion and accessibility in your courses?

There are a whole lot of ways that we have started to think about inclusion for our students. Though there were some larger changes we made, often it was little changes that made the biggest difference for the experiences of our students. In terms of our overall approach, we have seen that communication and advanced planning have been most helpful.

Openness and Communication

Being open to communicating with students directly about their learning and learning needs has proved vital. Regardless of disability labels, students might encounter barriers to their learning, and talking with students about what those barriers might be has been useful. For instance, something as simple as a student saying they prefer to have feedback written in a different color on their paper can change students’ overall experience.

Likewise, it has been important to keep the conversation going over time and to not make any assumptions about the student experience. Asking for feedback about how things have gone and if there is anything that could be improved has helped us think more about how we can improve learner experiences, but also how we can proactively plan for needs in the future.

Proactive Planning

Proactive planning is another important way that we have considered inclusion. One of our long-term goals is that instead of being reactive, we want to create classrooms that are prepared for all learners and flexible enough to account for things we did not previously consider. Part of how we have already started to think about proactive planning is by analyzing our learning goals and what types of things we expect students to do in our current courses. For instance, we have asked ourselves:

  • What are my learning goals and objectives and will learners encounter any barriers in meeting them?
  • How do learners access content (videos, lectures, readings, Latte)?
  • What types of activities do learners engage in within class (discussions, role-playing, small-groups)?
  • Are there other ways that students can meet goals and objectives that will benefit all students?
  • Are there a variety of means of engaging in learning?
  • Have we considered all barriers students might encounter or strengths they might have?

When we began asking these questions. we focused on how we might answer these questions with our one particular student in mind, but our goal is to ask them for all students.

What are some practical examples of how you implemented more inclusive practices?

We have changed our practices quite a lot, but we also know that inclusion is always a work in progress. One of the key things we focused on at the start was captions, but we have since incorporated a range of other practices too.

Practical Example: Captions

One particular issue that came up right away was the use of videos and whether those videos had captions or not. We used a few different content area videos for students that needed captions and we also recorded some of our own videos that needed captions.

For videos we created, we connected with Student Accessibility Support (SAS) and Media Technology Services (MTS) to ensure a process was in place for ensuring content was captioned. They helped us put together a process for making sure videos had captions.

For online videos, we started by doing two different things. First, we looked for videos that already had captions. This proved harder than we thought as we quickly realized that YouTube auto captions are not always accurate. This meant that we had to watch more of the videos with the captions on to ensure that the captions were appropriate. Second, we decided that we will only use videos that have appropriate captions in the first place. If the video is not accessible to all our learners, then it is not a video that we will use.

During this captioning process we had an important realization about inclusion. It was not just our student with hearing loss that would benefit from captions, but all students benefited. This was an important step for us as it led us from thinking about accessibility and inclusion of one student to accessibility and inclusion for all students.

We also thought about captions in terms of a particular assignment. This assignment involved students recording a genetic counseling session and then analyzing and reflecting on the session with the help of their colleagues. An important part of the assignment is recording their work and reflecting with classmates. Captions were important to include so there were multiple means of accessing the content, but we realized that captions could also be a way to help students reflect on what they had said in a more granular way. Because of this we decided that students should create their own captions. It was important for them to learn how to caption, but captioning also served an important professional and learning goal as well. In the end, we realized that even if we don’t have a student with hearing loss in our classrooms, we would still have students caption because it was such a useful exercise on so many levels.

Other Practical Examples
  • Creating an inclusive space: We also thought about our classrooms and what it means to have an inclusive space. In particular, what does it mean to have a welcoming space that creates trust and fosters dialogue? For instance, we decided that since one of our classes included discussion a U-shape setup would be most appropriate as it would be easier for everyone to access the discussion and observe their peers.
  • Reiteration of questions in class: We also have started to reiterate questions when asked by students. This has helped all students because students are often taking notes and it helps them if they missed the initial question.
  • Encouraging students to speak up in class: We realized that sometimes there are quiet students in our classes that are difficult to hear by anyone let alone a student with a hearing loss. As such, we always try to encourage all students to speak up in class as a general practice. We have found that it also helps students who might not be as confident speaking up in the classroom as it encourages a space for them to have their voice heard in a safe way.
  • Variation in groups during group work: We also have thought more deliberately about how we create groups during small group work. We wanted to ensure that all our students had a wide variety of learning experiences with other students.
  • Advanced access to content: We have started to share powerpoints, agendas, videos, and other resources that might be used in class ahead of time to all students. This has helped all students become more engaged and thoughtful during class discussions.

What advice do you have for faculty about where to start?

One of the key things that is important to do it to use your resources on campus. In starting this process, we quickly realized that we were not alone in our efforts to become more inclusive. There were lots of important resources right here at Brandeis that we could access.

  1. Connect with colleagues: We found that other faculty members were vital resources because they are often asking the same questions or have already had similar experiences. They were able to share important strategies to meet the needs of a range of learners.
  2. Connect with SAS: schedule a meeting with Student Accessibility Support (SAS) right away to talk more about the needs of particular students in your classes, but also what inclusion is and what it can look like in your courses. Inclusion can seem overwhelming at first, but there are great resources right here on campus to help you get started and guide you through your experiences.
  3. Connect with your students: Talking directly with students was also very important. All students have been in classrooms before and, to some extent, have reflected on their own learning. Students were a great resource in thinking about what can be different. Connecting early is also a great way to ensure communication stays open throughout the class.
  4. Start with learning goals and objectives: Think about what you expect students to do and how you expect them to meet your learning goals and objectives. Having a clear sense of where you are going will help you think about how you can be flexible in helping students get there. This can also be helpful to know when collaborating with colleagues as it will help them give more pointed advice about what can be done to be more inclusive.
  5. Know the goal isn’t perfection, so don’t be overwhelmed or nervous: It can be very overwhelming to start thinking about ensuring your classrooms are accessible and inclusive. It is very important to know that your goal is not perfection. Rather the goal is to have incremental improvements over time. There might be more important changes to make right away and accommodations to implement, but it is a process that happens over time. Don’t be too overwhelmed. You will get there.

Prepared by Terri Queler, Lauren Lichten, and Scott Lapinski