Accessibility Framing and “for all” Discourse



Two college students collaborating in an outdoor workspace.

Many accessibility conversations around pedagogy, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and inclusive education usually use the words “for all.” I have read many tweets that express things such as: “Use UDL because it will ensure accessibility for all students” or articles that suggest “keeping these strategies in mind will guarantee your educational space will be open to all.” Though I can very much appreciate that the desire to use “for all” framing comes from a place of wanting to be more inclusive, and support any student who may be part of our educational spaces, it could in fact do the opposite. This “for all” framing is part of the same discussion had about the “universal” in UDL that can cause interest convergence (for more on this see Dolmage, 2015). Thus, what “for all” framing can end up doing instead is:

  1. Making potential strategies a check list item with no nuance When suggestions are provided as being for all without specification, this does not suggest to instructors or students that there may be ways to modify the strategies that would be appropriate to particular course context depending on the number of students or the discipline, for example.

  2. Creating situations when a student requires specific accommodation Two things can happen here: the instructor may say, “well I did implement these strategies and this was supposed to be good enough for all because that is what the resource said.” Alternatively, the student can feel uncomfortable asking for something that will support their learning because “for all” has been so embedded in the discourse around the strategies in the course.


Because the words we use have power, and educational environments are spaces in particular where power dynamics and discourse are analyzed, a reframing of how we talk about inclusive and accessible strategies could help a lot. So what could we do instead?


  1. Instead of making overarching declarations that implementing a good practice will be useful for absolutely everyone, make sure that context is kept in mind in the design of a course, an assessment, or an activity.

  2. In the syllabus, make it clear that even though there may be some inclusive strategies used in the course design, the instructor is open to discussions of further support that can be put in place in the course.

Ultimately the use of “for all”, like the use of “best,” comes from a place of wanting to be more inclusive and to flag the course, the design, and the instructor as aware of accessibility in the educational environment. However, this use may inadvertently exclude students from the very space where they should be welcomed. Like everything in education, design suggestions and accessible strategies are iterative and contextual. The more we frame how we speak of our pedagogical strategies using words like “contextual” and “inclusive” instead of “all” the more we can avoid building in the very barriers we want to tear down.


In this series, Ann Gagne offers practical advice for how to best support faculty in making their course materials and pedagogy accessible to learners.


Ann Gagné is an Educational Developer with a focus on Universal Design for Learning at the University of Toronto-Mississauga and a sessional instructor at George Brown College. She is passionate about inclusive and ethical pedagogical strategies and works with instructors to ensure pedagogical and curricular accessibility.

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