Caring, Connection, and Community: How to Design Accessible Learning Professional Development

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session Equity and Inclusion

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Sure you think about accessibility in classroom spaces, but how do you handle it in professional development situations? Join us for a lively conversation about how Michigan State University implements accessible practices in the Accessible Learning Conference and beyond. Expect to come away with action items for your own institution.

Sponsored By


Kate Sonka is the Assistant Director of Academic Technology at the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University. She is interested in second language acquisition, the role of language in identity development, and the intersection of accessibility and experiential learning. Her instructional experience includes a first-year writing course for non-native English speakers; a study abroad on language acquisition and global English in China; a study away to Los Angeles for students to explore and meet leaders in the film and creative industries; and a study away to Silicon Valley for students to engage and build relationships with tech companies around accessibility. Kate is the Executive Director of Teach Access, has consulted with the U.S. Department of Labor on accessible hiring practices, and is the founder and director of the Accessible Learning Conference at Michigan State University.
Mad scientist specializing in faculty support, student focus, digital spaces and human experience As the interim Senior Manager of Instructional Technology and Development for MSU Information Technology I lead a talented team of staff and postdoctoral scholars to support faculty and academic staff in creating quality, caring, and exemplary digital experiences at Michigan State University. We're builders, tinkerers, researchers, collaborators, fixers, and figurers. Mister Rogers told us to look for the helpers. We took that to heart, and work to be the helpers partnering with you to leverage academic technologies to build the best digital learning experiences for MSU students. I have worked in information technology since 1998, spanning the private and academic sectors. I live in Lansing with my pretty amazing partner Ryan and has spent more perfectly good hours playing video games than I am comfortable admitting in polite company. All that aside, I love thinking, reading, volunteering, rolling around on things with wheels, gardening, tinkering, and learning new things.

Extended Abstract

Many institutions have policies in place for how faculty can meet digital accessibility standards in the classroom. But what about other learning spaces like conferences or professional development workshops? What can be done to make those events more inclusive and more accessible to people with disabilities?

As the Accessible Learning Conference has evolved from a small, departmentally-focused even to a regional attraction, the conference designers have incorporated intentional design and assessment sprints each year, assessing how well needs were met for presenters, attendees, and exhibitors alike. As an example, after the 2017 conference, a need was identified to offer more options for neurodivergent presenters and attendees. So, starting in 2018, we implemented varying levels of presentation engagement: light, medium, and heavy. The idea being that presenters could indicate how interactive they wanted to be and also signal to audience members what to expect and think about what they were comfortable with. Additionally, presenters could choose to match those levels of engagement to a time length that worked for them: 15, 30, or 45 minutes. These small changes resulted in big gains for reported feelings of inclusion and comfort in a conference environment - a professional development scenario that many already find to be outside of their comfort zone.

This session will begin with a 30 minute description of how Michigan State University continues to create accessible learning experiences through the Accessible Learning Conference and other general workshops. We will then pose a series of questions for attendees to consider and reflect on how they can adopt these practices in their own learning spaces. These questions include:

  • Are there any strategies we’ve discussed that you could easily implement into current PD workshops you offer at your institution? How? What about ones you could not implement? What stands in the way? Let’s troubleshoot together

  • Let’s apply what we’ve talked about together. Consider your experience at the OLC Innovate conference this week - how could this event be made more accessible and inclusive?

This session will conclude with 10 minutes of Q&A and sharing, as well as group discussion with guidance on creating action items that you can apply at your home institution and initiatives.