AI & Accessibility

Accessibility means ensuring all learners, including students with disabilities and other challenges to learning, can access and engage with all course materials, activities, and assessments. Employing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help make your course more accessible. UDL is a teaching approach and course design framework that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners and can help eliminate unnecessary hurdles in the learning process. It’s important to ensure that your course materials can be used with a robust set of technologies to ensure that you are creating an equitable space for all learners. For ideas and guidance on how to make your course more accessible, see CTI’s Accessibility Guide.

The rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI)  technologies introduces a new facet to making courses accessible. In fact, when thoughtfully employed, generative AI can function as an accessibility resource. Below are a few examples of what that may look like, and how to ensure that generative AI is contributing to your creation of a more accessible course. 

Using Generative AI to create more accessible content

Adjusting your courses to address the potential use of generative AI tools does not necessarily mean backtracking on progress you may have made in creating a more accessible course. Instead, consider how you can leverage AI to help re-design elements of the course and to address academic integrity concerns, while still maintaining the flexibility and variety provided by the UDL framework.

Follow accessibility guidelines

It’s important to ensure that basic accessibility principles and practices are applied when using generative AI in the classroom. For example: 

  • AI-generated content should have alt text for images, headings to break up long chunks of text, and clear language, etc.
  • When learners are required to use AI for an assignment, the AI tool itself should be keyboard navigable and accessible to assistive technologies such as screen readers.

For more information about how to make your course materials accessible (e.g., documents, slides, videos, Canvas content, and more), review the CTI Accessibility Guide.

To determine whether an AI tool is accessible, there are a few things you can do: Conduct your own research (e.g., search for a VPAT) or have the tool reviewed for accessibility by the Cornell IT Web Accessibility Team by using the Vended Product Review Process.

Review all AI-generated content

Since generative AI is limited in the datasets that it uses, it may not include accurate representations of individuals not in the primary datasets, such as individuals with disabilities. Because of this, be sure to always review and revise content created by generative AI to check for the accuracy of content claims, biased language, and diverse representation.

Use Generative AI to expand, not restrict

A potential accessibility issue with generative AI is the instinct to restrict class activity out of fear of academic dishonesty, thus infringing upon UDL (Universal Design for Learning) advancement in the classroom. 

When confronted with the academic integrity questions generative AI poses, it may be tempting to consider a move (back) to more in-person assignments and assessments as a way to stifle potential generative AI use in students’ work. As you move forward with assignment design and set policies and practices in light of generative AI’s potential impact in your classroom, it’s important to consider how these moves to more in-person assignments and assessments could have a disproportionate impact on learners with disabilities and other marginalized learners. 

The gradual shift to more flexible online assignments and assessments over the years has improved accessibility and moved more courses toward a UDL Framework. These types of assignments increase access and even enhance the learning experience for many learners, including those who:

  • Need to convert assignments/assessments to different formats for assistive technologies.
  • Require fewer distractions to successfully complete assignments/assessments than a physical classroom allows.
  • Need time to read assignments/assessments multiple times to remember and process the tasks.
  • Cannot physically attend class all the time for various reasons.
  • Are English-language learners and may need more time to read instructions.

Reducing options and flexibility for assignments and assessments, and limiting them to an in-person context, could have a significant negative impact on these learners.