“I’ve learned an invaluable amount about what it means to have accessibility and equal opportunity, from my students.”

Chris Motz had bright purple socks peeking out between brown leather boots and dark jeans, when I sat down with him to talk about what it looks like to have a post-secondary classroom that is accessible to everyone. “I couldn’t imagine not trying to facilitate equal opportunity,” he explained plainly. Chris Motz is a psychology professor at Carleton University, with an office in one of the four Loeb Building towers—I even managed to make it there to meet with him without getting lost.

For Motz, there did not need to be a particular trigger, event, or inspiration to make accessibility the assumption rather than the exception. He was a Teaching Assistant (at Carleton) before becoming a professor and was taught from the start that it was how things should be done. Now that he runs classrooms of his own he takes accessibility as an opportunity to grow as an instructor, rather than seeing it as an obstacle. “What I really like about [having to modify lessons and assessments]—” he noted, talking about all of the moving pieces involved in the development of a course he is getting ready to teach in an upcoming semester, and how exciting it is to have the opportunity to build some of those pieces. “—is that it really asks you to determine what your learning outcomes are.  What we’re asking [the students] to grapple with and understand.”

Having listened to Motz speak to incoming PMC students at the annual orientation event for the past three years, I can’t say I was surprised by his sentiments. I also wasn’t surprised by the Marauder’s Map, jazz saxophonist Joe Henderson poster, or map of Middle Earth hanging on the wall. But surprising or not, those things were still just as delightful and his answers were still just as encouraging.

Have there been any parts [of working towards accessibility] that were unexpected?

Motz: It’s been unexpectedly easy *laughs*, which I don’t think is quite what you were looking for.

No, no! Say more about that.

Motz: With much thanks to the PMC staff, everything really has been fairly easy. Lots of work, but not hard because it’s been a conversation.

That conversation was a recurring theme during our chat. “It’s a team effort.” Motz got to the heart of the matter before I even had the chance to ask. Making change that will last, that will grow, that will be impactful starts with everyone around the table having a voice that gets heard. “The student is part of the team; the faculty is part of the team; and PMC is part of the team; and if we play as a team, it’s easy.” And sometimes making sure everyone around the table has an audible voice means giving it back to someone who [perhaps] has not had it in every situation they should have.

Carleton makes practical the importance of that conversation on an institutional level, exemplified with the READ Initiative (Research, Education, Accessibility, and Design) mandated “to highlight, celebrate, and cultivate Carleton’s expertise, leadership and collaboration with the community to create greater accessibility and a more inclusive world.” The existence of a department like READ, and the weight with which it is regarded, emphasizes the support-system professors like Motz have, complete with a Coordinated Accessibility Strategy which serves a framework to bring together all members of the Carleton community (students, faculty, and the institution itself) for a single goal.

“[That] end-goal is a fantastic thing,” Motz remained concise and pointed in the discussion of accessibility being the norm [in his classrooms and as an expectation]. “Equal opportunity to participate in their education.”

The pain-points come when the conversation starts to turn towards an argument and needs to be brought back into context. “It has not always been a totally smooth road,” Motz admitted candidly. “And I have not always, necessarily, made the most correct decisions in every situation. But it has always been paved with good intent,” and with a faculty, DSO (Disability Services Office), and larger university community willing to offer support.

Even in the middle of talking about how smooth it has often seemed for himself, Motz was gracious to his counterparts. He took the time to iterate that many professors, especially contract, do not have the privilege of paid course-development time. “Out-of-classroom hours can be monumental, and often overwhelming. The ability to make a classroom accessible is often dependent on the learning outcomes and how those are developed.” When instructors are given the time and space to develop their courses with learning outcomes in mind it can become much more streamlined to figure out what adapting to a variety of needs looks like.

At the risk of asking the obvious, why is accessibility important (to you)?

Motz: Having an educated citizenry is crucial to a democracy [being able to function], especially in our day and age. Accessibility asks instructors to really reflect on what it is we do in the classroom.

And, this question is always my favourite, what do you get out of it?

Motz: I really think that having an opportunity at an education, any education, is…it matters. And getting to be a part of that journey gives me purpose and meaning.

Lynette Wilson
Carleton University
Published Wednesday, December 11, 2019