The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Accommodations 2.0: Reflecting on the future of post-secondary accommodations in a UDL landscape

Dr Frederic Fovet

Assistant Professor, School of Education, Thompson Rivers University


About the Author

Introduction and Context

Over the last decade there has been considerable momentum around the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the tertiary sector across all Global North countries (Timus et al., 2023).  The pandemic online pivot has also encouraged faculty to embrace their role as designer and highlighted opportunities for UDL development in online and hybrid teaching and learning (Fovet, 2023; Rogers & Gronseth, 2021). The COVID lockdowns have clearly made instructors much more receptive to UDL and inclusive design (Seymour, 2023).  The development of UDL practices purports to ease the pressure on accessibility services and hopes to reduce reliance on conventional accommodations.  In this post-COVID landscape of accelerated UDL adoption, it appears important to reformulate and clarify the scope of accommodations, their ongoing purpose, and their transformed ongoing relevance.

Accommodations represent individual occurrences of retrofitting; they do not represent an effort to make teaching and learning more inclusive per se but represent instead a legal protection against discrimination (Edwards et al., 2022; Fossey et al., 2017).  They amount to a suite of interventions and services that are offered outside the class, that translate into action legislative protections for students with disabilities that guarantee access to learning (NEADS, 2018).  In essence, these accommodations are radically distinct from current efforts to make the whole classroom more inclusive through a deep reflection on learner diversity in teaching and learning.  How will both these processes cohabit within the 21st century post-secondary sector, when they are grounded in radically opposite theoretical lenses and values?  How do these individual accommodations, of a legal nature, evolve and become meaningfully reshaped in an environment where an increasing amount of UDL and inclusive design is being implemented in the tertiary classroom?    

Literature Overview

A brief scan of the current literature on UDL, accessibility, and accommodations is required in order to solidly ground this reflection within the contemporary concerns of practitioners and to acknowledge a rapidly evolving awareness of tension in accessibility processes. The aim, in this short article, is not to produce a comprehensive literature review, but rather to highlight important recent developments.

Universal Design in the Tertiary Sector

There are exciting new developments in the way UDL is being promoted and adopted in the post-secondary sector (Houghton, 2022; Nseibo et al., 2023).  There is evidence the COVID pandemic and the online pivot have triggered wider interest in UDL and more buy-in from faculty (Seymour, 2023).  There is also nuanced work being carried out to examine the various ways UDL can be translated into classroom practice in environments that go beyond the conventional lecture hall (Fovet, 2020). UDL is also permeating through to all levels of tertiary and supporting UDL adoption and rich redesigns of teaching practices in further, trades, and vocational education (Johnston & Castine, 2019). There have furthermore been exciting initiatives globally to create funding envelopes that might serve as an impetus for the rapid integration of UDL in teaching and learning, including the Path 4 project support in Ireland (Thompson, 2023).  

Impact of UDL on Reliance on Accommodations in the Tertiary Sector

There is growing interest in prioritizing UDL implementation over accommodations in the tertiary sector (Shimala, 2023).  The COVID pandemic has triggered a renewed awareness around inclusive design (Kim, 2021); it has also demonstrated that inclusive design was relevant to a much wider proportion of the student body than just students with disabilities (Millikin, 2023). There is growing pressure currently for tertiary campuses to target Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) as core values, and to translate them into a tangible reality when it comes to teaching and learning (Fox et al., 2023).  There have been wide societal changes that make campuses feel under pressure to keep up with the pace of transformation for social justice (Umeh et al., 2023).  More stakeholders therefore now prioritize UDL over accommodations, as UDL may benefit a much wider spectrum of diverse learners who may not be legally entitled to reasonable accommodations but definitely experience barriers in learning (Kieran & Anderson, 2019).

Current Legal Approach to Accommodations and Emerging Frustration

While reasonable accommodations have been in place in the tertiary sector in most jurisdictions for over three decades, there is growing unease with many ways the current process of service provisions might be failing to adapt to the current reality of the post-secondary sector.  Although accommodations exist as a legal right for students with disabilities, many complain about the delays in accessing services (Roberto, 2023), feel frustration about faculty push-back against accommodations (Yarbrough & Welch, 2021), challenge the over-reliance on costly diagnostic documentation (Eren, 2023), and criticize the lack of clarity that persists within many non-traditional teaching spaces as to what accommodations might amount to (Bartolo et al., 2023).  Many students also highlight the fact that programs offer accommodations but may frequently impose full course load requirements that implicitly exclude students with disabilities (Gertsman et al., 2023).     

Pressure for Reform of Tertiary Accessibility Services Provision

Current issues which are placing pressure on the existing model of service delivery include: bottlenecks and delays in service provisions (OHRC, n.d.), challenges in attracting and retaining qualified staff (Borkin, 2023), the siloed mode of operation of these units which fails to acknowledge intersectionality (Tevis & Griffen, 2014), as well as the large costs of these units and their failures to attain sustainable balance in their development (Thompson, 2018).  There is clear evidence that most jurisdictions, as well as individual campuses around the world, are seeking more effective and sustainable ways to offer accessibility services.         

Theoretical Stance and Methodological Reflection

The study uses a broad post-modern paradigm as a lens when examining impairment and disability.  It focuses more specifically on the social model of disability, which is a paradigm frequently seen as grounded in post-modern thought.  The social model of disability challenges the bio-medical concept of disability and positions it instead as a social construct (Goering, 2015).  The social model aligns within a wider post-modern tradition which challenges the hegemonic shaping of public discourse and perpetuation of beliefs through discourse (Carling-Jenkins, 2009).  Post-modern thought encourages individuals to reject interpretations of social phenomena that are perpetuated by hegemonic public discourse (Campbell, 2018).  The social model of disability instead argues that while impairment is a biological and medical reality, disability itself is the result of the tension which exists between personal embodiments and spaces, environments, products, and experiences which are not designed to cater for the full diversity of users (Lawson & Beckett, 2021). 

The methodological stance adopted in this article is auto-ethnography.  Auto-ethnography is increasingly used in educational research to articulate and structure the analysis of the professional experiences of educators (Hamilton et al., 2008).  Professionals involved in teaching and learning have access to ample amounts of data routinely collected in the carrying out of their duties that they can review and analyze (Golombek & Johnson, 2021).  The same is true for many student services and student affairs professionals in the tertiary sector (Cornelius & Mitchell, 2023).  The examination of data emerging from the daily navigation of complex professional contexts in higher education represents a rich methodological process.  The author has a dual stance in the tertiary sector. On the one hand, he has had a role as head of an accessibility service on a large Canadian campus for a period of 4 years.  He continues to act as a consultant to this sector, both domestically and internationally.  He has also been an instructor for over 10 years and held several leadership roles within which he has had to support contract faculty.  He reflects here on his experiences in both capacities, over the last 5 years since before the beginning of the pandemic. The data reviewed and analyzed includes responses to client briefs, consultancy projects, evolving professional development (PD) requests, journaling on the transformation and reshaping of PD content he has created and developed, and personal notes related to ongoing requests for assistance from field partners.   


The main assertions of this article are presented along the lines of the coding categories which were used to analyze and organize the auto-ethnographic data which was used for this study, spanning from 2018 to 2023.

Faculty Frustration with Communication Around Accommodations Letters

There is growing uneasiness in the post-secondary sector around the format, objective, and use of accommodation letters.  Accommodation letters are a formality which is usually required, in most jurisdictions, to notify an instructor that a student within their classroom requires accommodations (Algonquin College, 2023).  It may generically indicate the broad nature of accommodation required but must also protect the confidentiality of the student (Mohawk College, 2023).  The letter therefore inherently usually remains vague and general.  It can leave instructors feeling confused, puzzled, or even disempowered since it provides no clear guidance as to the specific transformation that must occur within their pedagogy.  For many, the letter of accommodation borders on the absurd and is evidence of the fact that campuses acknowledge their legal duty to avoid discrimination in access to learning but have few processes in place to secure meaningful enactment of inclusive policies (Jezik, 2022; Student Life, n.d.).   

Instructors’ Perception of Lack of Clarity around Legal Accommodations

In many jurisdictions, it is not clear to instructors who has responsibility for the provision of reasonable accommodations.  In Canada for example, even though the legal imperative to offer students with disabilities accommodations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is clear, it is only succinctly explained in this constitutional document itself.  To obtain further clarity on the ways this principle is applied in practice, or to gain guidance on what amounts to a reasonable accommodation in context, one would need to examine the case law generated in the last decade by provincial court and the Canada Supreme Court.  Few tertiary instructors have access to this case law within their context of employment or possess the skills necessary to interpret the precedents it formulates.  The only time when a faculty member might be offered this knowledge is when a human rights complaint has been lodged and they are approached by independent university counsel for support.  Many instructors believe that the duty to provide accommodations lies with the university and are shocked to learn that they will nominally and individually be named in any human rights complaint lodged for discrimination in access in learning.  This leads to situations where faculty can often challenge the requests made to them for accommodation on the belief that the issue is the responsibility of the campus (Barry, 2022).   

Perpetuation of Medical Model Approaches in Current Accommodation Processes

Even though accessibility services personnel have historically supported UDL implementation and have been early advocates, a tension increasingly grows as accommodation processes remain deeply rooted in medical model approaches.  They are granted only on the condition of disclosure and of production of diagnostic information, and this reinforces deficit model assumptions.  They are provided outside the class itself, through a reliance on support services, and therefore inherently label students with disabilities and run the risk of stigmatizing them.  Many students are in fact reluctant to approach or use accessibility services for this very reason (Blakstad Bjørnerås et al., 2023).  Many faculty members may also be ambivalent about the institutional processes related to accommodations and may be reluctant to become active partners in a collaboration that they see as contradicting many of their views and perceptions on inclusion.  

Impact of Medical Model Funding on Availability of Accommodation   

The impact of funding models that have become obsolete weighs heavily on the way the accommodation process evolves or fails to evolve.  The restrictions placed as parameters around the provision of accommodations are frequently the direct and logical conclusion of funding regulations, rather than the product of any comprehensive, transformative, or student-centered approach to inclusion.  In most jurisdictions, accessibility services require documentation before they can meet a student to discuss reasonable accommodations.  From the get-go, the accommodation process is therefore rooted in a bio-medical approach that many see in fact as a deficit model perspective.  Accommodations are dependent on funding, and funding is limited to students with documented diagnosis.  It is impossible for students to access support without disclosing and complying with a burdensome process of evidencing diagnosis.  This closes the door on many emerging and transformative discussions or innovations that would be aligned with the social model of disability instead.  In the most disturbing examples, certain accommodations may be unavailable to international students in some provinces of Canada because they are excluded from the funding envelope that corresponds to this tertiary service.

Tension between Accommodation Processes and UDL Implementation  

Many faculty members report being conflicted between best practices supporting reasonable accommodations and mandates to develop UDL within teaching and learning.  Although both these approaches target the creation of inclusive classrooms, they do so in very distinct ways.  For an instructor, this may mean radically opposite and sometimes contradictory modus operandi.  One set of guidelines promotes a hyper-personalized intervention that is mostly supported from outside the classroom itself.  UDL, on the other hand, encourages instructors to redesign for the needs of all their learners and discourages processes that identify or stigmatize diverse learners.  Inclusion specialists may be able to navigate this tangible tension and this theoretical divergence, but few tertiary instructors are pedagogical experts; they are usually seen as content experts and few will have the training and competencies to navigate with ease the dual messaging generated by their institution.  To add to this confusion, on many campuses, the messaging encouraging the provision of legal accommodations is generated by accessibility services, while the material and training supporting UDL adoption may be sent out by teaching and learning units.  Many instructors perceive this as contradictory messaging or support.     

Outcomes and Implications

The assertions showcased in this paper lead to urgent and powerful implications and calls for action.

Urgency of Need for Innovative Funding Models

There has been growing unease over the past decade in relation to the insurmountable tension that exists when the disability service provision model in the tertiary sector supports and advocates for inclusive design but perpetuates a bureaucracy that is grounded firmly in deficit model beliefs (Brown, 2020; Zohri & Bogotch, 2023).  Just as is the case in the K-12 sector (Li, 2021; Sigafoos et al., 2010), the tertiary environment has become aware of the need for a funding model that is proportionate to global campus sizes and no longer requires individual interventions – or disclosure, diagnostic information, or individual applications for the financial support that is associated (Chambers et al., 2010; Chiwandire & Vincent, 2019).  Instead, tertiary institutions would be able to manage a global envelope that would be proportionate to their overall size, and they would be free to support with it, transformative work towards more inclusive pedagogy.   

Importance of Carving a Space for UDL within the Provision of Legal Accommodations

There is a degree of tension which is emerging around the way UDL can be implemented in meaningful ways in the tertiary classroom without clashing with the imperative for reasonable accommodations.  As both processes are distinct in objective, theoretical lens, and process, UDL and accommodations have thus far been operating independently and the interaction of these two approaches has not been explicitly analyzed by practitioners or researchers.  This cohabitation is in fact not an easy one: in recent years there have been examples of educators – in both the K-12 and post-secondary sectors – feeling uneasy when they receive requests for accommodations even though they have already carried out a thorough UDL reflection on their pedagogy.  As an example, an instructor may be implementing UDL approaches to time constraints in in-class assessments, offering all students extra time where needed.  Despite this redesign, the faculty member could receive a request for reasonable accommodations and for the provision of further extra time to individual students.  Such occurrences are now frequent in the tertiary sector and they cause unease.  These contradictions in processes lead to absurd implications but can also place instructors in situations where they are accused of refusing a request for accommodation when in fact a flexible redesign is being implemented for all learners in the class.  There can even be fear among instructors that they risk accusation of breach of the accessibility legislation although they are deeply and authentically engaged in the UDL redesign of all their pedagogical practices.  This has in some instances been extremely detrimental to campus efforts to roll out UDL implementation. There is a need to reframe the way legal accommodations are requested and offered across campuses, in order to acknowledge on-going whole classes approaches to flexibility and inclusive redesign.  

Need for Clarity in Communications related to Accommodations

There has been discomfort for several decades now, within higher education teaching and learning, with the historical heritance of early accessibility legislation and of the Civil Rights movement as it relates to disability.  The point of friction is, as has been discussed in this article, the way notification to instructors of a need to accommodate specific students is perceived as disempowering because such notification contains no clear guidance and does not detail the barriers the student might be facing in the classroom space. The dichotomy is powerfully tangible: on the one hand the legal concept of reasonable accommodation requires notification to faculty, but on the other hand the model of service provision requires protection of the student’s confidentiality (Keane, n.d.). This amounts to a contradictory process which has done much to harm the work of accessibility services across campuses and the way these units are perceived by other stakeholders (Ramirez, 2019).  There is an urgent need to rationalize the communication process between accessibility services and faculty, to address its inherent contradictions, and to carve out in this communication process the possibility of acknowledging inclusive design principles that have already been embedded in the classroom space.  There is great urgency for the objectives, format, and parameters of these notifications to become sustainable, empowering, and meaningful.     

Growing Demand for Professional Development for Faculty in Relation to Accommodations and UDL

The literature indicates pressing needs, across campuses globally, for wider awareness among faculty of their legal duties in relation to accessibility and inclusion.  In a landscape where academic freedom is seen as a cornerstone value and where PD related to teaching and learning is as a rule never framed as compulsory, there has been a tendency to accept as an immutable reality of the sector that many instructors may simply never access resources and training, and therefore have minimal understanding of their responsibilities with regards to access.  As a result, funding attached to faculty PD related to inclusion is slim and opportunities few and far between (Mag et al., 2017; Ristad et al., 2024).

Similarly, the scholarship on UDL implementation and growth evidences that globally it becomes very challenging for campuses and individual instructors to sustain momentum when rich, pertinent, nuanced, and scaffolded training resources and PD are still rare.  There are few sustainable strategies in place in the tertiary sector to ensure a systematic exposure of faculty to UDL or to resources that may support their career-long experimentation with it.  A scan of the landscape also demonstrates that – in the area of inclusion and student access - there is a degree of isolation and misunderstanding between faculty on the one hand, and student services, student affairs and senior management on the other hand – with each stakeholder developing a unique lived experience of the process of inclusion but having few opportunities to understand the differing views of other stakeholders (Fovet, 2023b). This chapter is a call for action to encourage tertiary institutions to address the pressing need for instructor PD on both UDL and accommodations that might be meaningful, sustainable, and effective.


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