Person lecturing on accessibility and running a training session.
Faculty attend a training on accessibility led by Philippe Ernewein, Director of Education at Denver Academy.

Making CU Denver More Accessible Friendly 

The Accessibility Operations Team begins to roll out new resources, events . 

April 8, 2024

CU Denver is committed to becoming an equity-serving institution, which means making the campus accessible and inviting for all. Several groups across campus are working on various projects that will aid in delivering instruction to our students. The multi-pronged approach includes bringing new online resources to aid in delivering curriculum, providing tools to help make digital documents and content accessible, and creating events to help build a stronger sense of belonging. Much of the work is being led by the Accessibility Operations Team (AOT) out of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  

Certificate Program  

A new certificate in Accessibility Practices is now available thanks to the collaboration between AOT and the Center for Faculty Development and Advancement (CFDA).  

The certificate is one of several programs and tools the campus community will see over the next year, thanks to the efforts of AOT. The Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion launched the AOT in 2023 with the goal of improving accessibility on campus to support our students’ and employees’ success. AOT was started by members of the Faculty Assembly Disability Committee who were looking for more ways to be impactful on campus after the success of the Disability, Intersectionality, and Social Justice Symposium they hosted in November 2022.   

The AOT team began by going through data, talking to stakeholders, reviewing the resources already available through the CU system, CU Denver, and our tri-institutional partners, and developing plans for imagining and creating a more accessible campus. 

In the past year, the team has contacted the CFDA, Faculty Assembly, Disability Resources and Services, Human Resources, and many other groups that represent faculty, staff, and students, as well as individuals across campus who could contribute to the conversation—many of whom are joining AOT’s efforts.  

The Accessibility Practices Certificate is earned after completing three courses that help educate faculty about some of the challenges people with disabilities of all types face. The courses also provide tools and practices to incorporate into faculty teaching and mentoring. About 15 faculty members have already completed the first course, which focused on ableism, which was offered in February and will be offered again on April 16.  

Another dozen people completed a half-day course on executive functioning in March. A course on document accessibility took place earlier this month. The program will continue in the fall, and various topics will be offered throughout the year.  

“We are so excited to be offering this for the first time,” said English Professor Colleen Donnelly, who leads the AOT. “We’ve been working with various partners across campus to identify issues and come up with solutions. We know there is a lot to do. This is the first of many efforts our community will be seeing over the next year.”  

Donnelly said the phased approach will include training opportunities for faculty in ableism, accessibility, executive functioning, and UDL, workshops for students, access to new resources such as Anthology Ally and SensusAccess (a tool to help faculty with PDFs and other content development), and events aimed at raising awareness and building community on campus.  

Student Impact  

“As a disabled student, I’m personally invested in this work,” said Cornelius Hecker, a psychology major who is an AOT member. “I have a lot of different disabilities, and running up against barriers is frustrating.”  

Not all disabilities are visible, and people often forget that, Hecker said. In addition to his work with the AOT, Hecker helped start a tri-institutional club for students with disabilities called Auraria Cross-Disability Alliance in February 2023. The group’s mission is to “create space for cross-campus community building that serves the cultural needs of disabled students and is grounded in the principles of disability justice.” The club is open to all disabled students and those exploring their relationships to a disability, regardless of whether or not they are using Disability Resources Services. Allies are also welcome.  

Hecker said he is committed to continuing to work with the AOT because those with various disabilities within the community play an important role in identifying barriers and ways to remove them. His passion for this work is reflected in his career aspirations. After graduating from CU Denver, he hopes to become a psychologist who works with families with disabled children.   

Training and Technology  

Adjusting curriculum can help many students with visible and invisible disabilities succeed. For example, many individuals have challenges with executive function. This is the ability to plan, set goals, manage time, complete projects, and stay focused on a continual basis. The accessibility practices course offered focused on the impact the inability to successfully manage all these elements has on students and the skills and resources available to help them overcome these barriers to education.  

Philippe Ernewein, the Director of Education at Denver Academy, led an engaging all-day seminar hosted by the AOT as one of the courses in accessibility this semester. The Colorado Council for Learning Disabilities recognized Ernewein with the 2017 Professional of the Year Award for his performance and commitment to enhancing the professional learning of others and impacting the lives of individuals with learning disabilities.  

Through several exercises, Ernewein gave faculty who participated an opportunity to feel what it’s like to struggle with memory recall, multitasking, and more. Among the many recommendations and book suggestions, Ernewein shared that, like all students, those who feel teachers believe in them tend to do better despite obstacles. The AOT plans to work with faculty attending this session to roll out workshops to help faculty design for executive functioning and for students to help manage their executive functioning challenges.  

Because making websites and other tech accessible is not just a CU Denver endeavor, the university’s Office of Information Technology is looking at a comprehensive approach with the CU System Office and the Digital Accessibility Office from CU Boulder. A working group with representatives from the schools and colleges will be created. The group’s first task will be to develop a master list of software and programs being used on campus that will need to be made compliant. OIT is already working with the Office of University Communications to help identify websites that need to be updated.   

The AOT spearheaded the launch of Anthology Ally in all Canvas courses this semester and sponsored Ally Ambassadors for the colleges. With Anthology Ally, students can download alternative formats of Canvas content, and faculty receive detailed feedback on improving their content’s accessibility. The Division for Teaching Innovation and Program Strategy (TIPS) provides training and support for Anthology Ally. Faculty can attend trainings or schedule a one-on-one consultation with an Instructional Accessibility Specialist to improve their course’s accessibility.   

This month, a series of Anthology Ally workshops will be offered, and a new feature will allow you to directly ask questions about Anthology Ally or accessibility in general. Click here for details.   

In addition, TIPS is in the process of acquiring a new tool to help faculty make PDFs and other content more accessible. The Operations Team is paying for SensusAccess, which TIPS expects to begin offering in Fall 2024. Training and support will be available to all faculty when it is rolled out.  

Building Community  

Training and resources are one thing, but raising the awareness of accessibility and building community is key to successfully creating an inclusive, equity-serving campus, Donnelly said. That’s why the Operations Team is also working on bringing events to campus, especially those that appeal to students.  

For example, in March, the Wheelchair Sports Camp performed at the Lawrence Street Center on campus. The free event featured alum Kalyn Rose Heffernan, ’09, a unique artist and activist. She was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta and uses a wheelchair. Like many performers, she reflects on her personal experience in her music.  

“Access is awesome for everyone, disabled or not,” said Heffernan. “But I’m really excited to know that there are accessible events at CU Denver that want to celebrate disability, which I find so sexy. There are so many folks on campus who I know would really value meeting other cool disabled people. Events like these are so important to so many and haven’t always been encouraged or celebrated.”  

Heffernan graduated from CU Denver’s Music Entertainment Industry Studies program in the College of Arts & Media. She’s been active in the music scene and recently launched an album and a seven-inch vinyl record. 

“The years I studied at CU Denver completely shaped me as a musician,” she said. “I was just getting ready to cut my teeth in the Denver scene, fresh out of high school with no formal musicianship or training, just the passion to make more of my productions. Wheelchair Sports Camp started in those formative years, and I’m so grateful for my scholarship, which allowed me the experience of a lifetime.”  

The Accessibility Operations Team is also finalizing plans for a May event, just before finals, to help students de-stress, Donnelly said.  

The Future  

“There is much work to be done to become a truly equity-serving institution,” said Antonio Farias, Vice Chancellor for DEI. “It means working to ensure that all members of our CU Denver community have a voice, opportunities, and access to impact on our campus. We need to make changes in the accessibility space to support the academic success of our students.”  

Farias said the work of the AOT is a great start and that an Institutional Accessibility Steering Committee is being assembled to oversee institutional practices, put in place a working strategy for long-term change, and bridge between necessary compliance and the goal of a fully embedded universal design.