The Accessible Learning Conference (ALC) at Michigan State University is annual event designed to provide a range of sessions exploring universally accessible courses, websites, and content. What began as a one-day “Making Learning Accessible Conference,” has transformed into a two-day commitment to student involvement and opportunity. With hundreds of attendees from various universities and educational organizations, ALC works to help students, faculty, and community members provide an accessible Spartan education.
In November 2020, the ALC was held virtually for the first time, hosting around 640 attendees from 29 states, 2 US territories, and 11 countries. Student participation and university faculty presentations related to accessibility and disability studies captured the importance of accessibility in higher education. Thanks to the leadership provided by the 2020 ALC Co-Chairs Kate Sonka, Assistant Director of Inclusion & Academic Technology, MSU College of Arts & Letters, and Heidi Schroeder, Accessibility Coordinator at MSU Libraries, the conference shined a light on student needs and course accessibility with a variety of sessions.
One of the 2020 ALC Co-Chairs, Sonka, shares some impactful moments from the event:
“Our keynote speaker this year was Dr. Sami Schalk, an Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her fantastic presentation, Re-imagining Bodyminds and Access in Pandemic Times, explored how educators can take inspiration from speculative fiction visioning to re-imagine access in the wake of this coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Schalk’s keynote was definitely a highlight of ALC this year and we encourage folks to watch the recording.”
The plenary session featuring a panel of MSU students who utilize MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) was another excellent session. Moderated by Ashley Maloff from MSU RCPD, attendees heard firsthand from MSU students with disabilities how faculty, staff, and MSU broadly can best support all students. ALC attendees were able to submit their own questions to students as well and it was particularly interesting to hear what’s worked well (and not) during the pandemic for these students. One member of the ALC Planning Committee, Leslie Johnson, RCPD Assistant Director for Assistive Technology Innovation, also found the student panel to be a highlighting moment of the events, stating: “One of the most impactful sessions at the Accessible Learning Conference is always the RCPD student panel. We always get a variety of students that are registered with the RCPD at MSU to talk about their experiences—and that’s always impactful for the attendees, just because they can hear exactly what accessible practices have made their experience better and what hasn’t made their experience good, if things weren’t accessible or accommodating.”
As a sponsor of the event, the RCPD provided funding from the Emerging Opportunities Endowment.
With high engagement from the ALC Twitter account, conference participants were able to connect and collaborate further, using the hashtag “#a11y” or “#MSUa11y.” For those that aren’t familiar, “#a11y” is shorthand for accessibility, which has 11 letters between the ‘a’ and the ‘y’. According to Schroeder, “An estimated 20% of the population has a disability which means we come into contact with students, faculty, and staff at MSU on a regular basis who are disabled. We might not always know since the disability spectrum includes apparent (“visible”) and non-apparent (“invisible”) disabilities, so to be an ally in this work means making our materials, resources, and websites accessible from the start and continuing to review and revise.” So, in thinking about what it means to be an accessibility ally, user-generated tagging shows a commitment to incorporating this allyship, no matter your job title.
As MSU works toward developing another annual ALC event, Sonka and Schroeder hope to witness the Accessible Learning Conference become the Midwestern destination for discourse surrounding accessibility in higher education. Together, they share: “This certainly isn’t the only conference focused on these topics, but given resources across academia, it’s not always possible for people to travel across the country. Instead, having a Michigan-based conference, we’d love to make space for people who can easily get to campus once it’s open and safe again. Beyond that, our goal would be that accessibility is a consideration that everyone makes and is excited about doing.”
For individuals throughout the Spartan community and abroad who are interested in assisting in advocacy for a more accessible education and environment, it starts with researching what’s already happening in local communities, particularly the disability community, and supporting those efforts. If there isn’t anything already happening, finding other like-minded people who care about social justice is a good way to build networks as participation grows in this work toward greater accessibility.