Recently I came across an NPR article headline that immediately caught my attention – “Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away”. While the article contained great information about a study published in Psychological Science that demonstrated that taking notes by hand increased recall of the information taught when tested later, it left out one important consideration. Accessibility.
Yes, handwriting notes can be an excellent way to absorb information and increase processing of what is being taught instead of just recording it. The research is useful for many students and educators and the article isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. My immediate concern when I read articles like this one is that educators will take this research and use it to justify policies prohibiting the use of laptops or phones in class. This is becoming a common phenomenon in higher education, and it is absolutely ableist – whether the instructors enforcing these policies realize it or not. Most educators are concerned about electronics in class creating distractions and reducing attention, negatively affecting class participation and sabotaging learning by turning students into transcriptionists instead of learners. While these are valid concerns, banning electronics in the classroom isn’t pedagogically feasible when accessibility is considered.
I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and I can only write for a few minutes at a time without significant pain in my hand. I’ve dislocated fingers while writing by hand, and continuing to do it results in swelling and longer healing times. Typing on a sensitive keyboard is MUCH easier on my hands. While I’m certainly capable of taking handwritten notes when necessary, limiting handwriting protects my joints and reduces my pain, which is important and a call I should be able to make based on what I know my body to be capable of on any given day.
All things considered, my physical disability is rather minor. For other folks with physical disabilities, handwriting may be downright impossible or exceptionally difficult which creates an obvious barrier for learning without electronic note taking options.
There are MANY disabilities where writing is difficult or impossible due to coordination, fatigue, shaking hands, etc. Some of these might be visible and constant, others might be invisible and needs might vary depending on the day. Students know the limits of their own bodies. Policing their ability to take notes in the way that best serves their needs is ableist and unacceptable. Period.
There’s a reason many autistic people are on our phones a lot during social situations or lectures – it’s an accessibility device. It HELPS us absorb information. Looking at a screen instead of a speaker CAN be a tool for comprehension, and this is true for more than just autistic people. Many people with ADHD and other attention or learning disabilities find that an electronic device supports learning.
When I attend classes or workshops in smaller groups where having my laptop in front of me to take notes isn’t appropriate/allowed, I frequently get asked by the teacher “What’s wrong?” or “Are you ok, are you feeling lost? Can I help explain something?” because I’m fidgeting (stimming) and not looking at them while they teach. This very recently happened to me at a midwifery conference in a small breakout session. When this occurs, I’m left in the extremely awkward position of being put on the spot in the classroom and I get very uncomfortable which affects my ability to engage even more. I don’t expect every instructor to fully understand the body language of autistic people, but understanding the importance of laptops/phones as accessibility devices for some students massively cuts down on this issue. Trust disabled students to know how they learn best.
If you’re an educator you might be thinking “Ok, I see how electronics can serve as accessibility devices in class for disabled students. I’ll just allow an exception for those who qualify.” This is the most common route that most higher education institutions take, but in this particular scenario it doesn’t actually serve disabled students well at all.
First off, we have diagnosis disparities and disclosure concerns. I’m not going into these in depth here because they are covered in other posts, but these are valid reasons to carefully consider how you approach accessibility issues as an educator.
Beyond that, this is an exceptionally visible exception in a classroom where electronics are otherwise banned. This opens up students who may already face discrimination and isolation to experiencing resentment from other students. It often leads to invasive questioning about why we get a special exception, prying into the details of our disabilities and personal health histories. All around, it’s placing an additional barrier between the disabled student and their integration into a comfortable and productive learning space.
If your goal is an accessible classroom that is welcoming and appropriate for all students and creates a positive and productive learning environment, consider completely changing your approach from ground zero. Taking an existing pedagogical approach and trying to find ways to fit disabled students into that construct is rarely effective – a paradigm shift is necessary. Break down your teaching style and consider alternative approaches that will integrate different learning styles and abilities into one space, without singling out or failing students who don’t fit the existing box of your classroom. There are many neurodiverse and disabled educators with incredible resources for helping you find ways to do this, and I’m happy to provide consulting to brainstorm approaches and solutions that will benefit ALL the students in your classroom.