Researchers with Disabilities, Accessibility, and UDL in Developing Countries

Nicholas Hoekstra (Nick) is a martial artist who somehow found himself at the University of Kansas, where he is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Special Education. He is also a program manager with Inclusive Development Partners, an advisory organization that works to ensure international development and humanitarian aid programs reach all members of society, especially persons with disabilities, women/girls, and other marginalized or vulnerable groups. His research interests focus on developing strategies for inclusive education in low-income and low-resource areas. Currently, his work is focused on supporting United States Agency for International Development (USAID) financed programs in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Liberia, Nigeria, and Paraguay.

The problem highlighted in this brief

This brief highlights the importance of creating and designing more accessible research in the field or in the works we publish to ensure access to all. As an individual with a disability, Hoekstra discusses barriers he and others have encountered as researchers with disabilities. Additionally, he discusses how UDL is implemented in countries around the world such as Liberia and Guatemala. Lastly, he discusses the implications of his work in developing countries on teacher preparation programs in the United States and how teacher educators can center their conversations around technology on accessibility and ease of use.

Why does this topic matter to teacher preparation?

First, as teacher educators in the field of special education, it is our role to model for our pre-service teachers good inclusive practices. To do this, we need to better understand the barriers people with disabilities face when in our courses. Second, though we focus a lot on shiny new technologies, not all schools and districts have the same resources. Hoekstra challenges teacher educators to consider various uses of technology and how to make the most of what one has, rather than always going for the newest device.

About This Brief

Hoekstra shares challenges and barriers researchers with disabilities face when in the field, analyzing data, and even consuming research articles. He shares about his experiences as a researcher with a disability and a graduate student with a disability and some of the elements that might be overlooked. Additionally, he discusses how he implements Universal Design for Learning in developing countries and the ways in which technology is utilized in these contexts.

Research and Practice Context

Accessibility involves considering the needs of individuals with disabilities with regard to things like planning events, designing products, or offering services (CDC, 2020). In the digital environment, considerations for accessibility include font size, font type, font color, and color contrast. Additionally, it is important to consider how people with disabilities would access the document or site. For instance, how would someone who uses a screen reader access it? Is the order of the text logical when read?

In this brief, we discuss barriers to research including those associated with getting into the field, the ways in which we collect and analyze data, the methods we publish journal articles and data. The APA Style Guide has developed standards for accessibility which include typography, headings, URLs, and color (APA 7, 2022). Additionally, the team behind ePub3, a type of digital document similar to a PDF, strives to create accessible materials that work seamlessly with screen readers.

The work Hoekstra does with organizations such as USAID focuses on bringing education to all. USAID provides solutions for education throughout the globe including more than 24 million children in over 50 countries. The Inclusive Development Partners, a woman-owned small business, works to provide expertise in education to developing countries throughout the world such as Cambodia, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Ghana. They have provided training in UDL in Ghana, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Additionally, they have worked with teachers in Ghana to integrate the UDL principles into remote learning.

The following are key insights shared by Hoekstra on this research. The interview focused on questions about researchers with disabilities, accessibility, and UDL in developing countries, as well as recommendations for teacher educators to incorporate these ideas.

Q1: Before we discuss your research areas or work, it is worth mentioning that you yourself are a researcher with a disability. Can you discuss the role that having a disability has played in your work?

Hoekstra shared that he had a great advisor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education– Thom Hehir – when he was getting his master’s degree. Dr. Hehir reminded him how important it was to use the experience he has as an individual with a disability. Hoekstra, who lost his sight at eight years old, personally understands the challenges that people with disabilities face.

The fact of the matter is that people with disabilities are significantly underrepresented within higher education and research. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one in four adults in the United States have some type of disability. NIH collects self-reported data on disabilities (Lauer, 2022).  Between 1999 and 2019, the percentage of academic scientists with disabilities grew from six percent to nine percent (Lauer, 2022). However, the number of Project Investigators with disabilities decreased between 2008 and 2022 from 2% to 1.3% (Lauer, 2022).

Hoekstra: “It really is important we think about the impact that our own personal characteristics have on our research; whether it be being a person with a disability or being a person from a marginalized background. Those things can shape your research interest. They can also help you, maybe connect better with certain populations of individuals.”

Q2: What are some of the major barriers, do you think, that prevent more people with disabilities from pursuing research, especially graduate degrees?

Hoekstra discussed three major barriers to research for people with disabilities.

This idea of doing research in the field can be extended to any study abroad program. Of the over 300,000 students who traveled aboard in 2017-2018, only 9.2% identified as having disabilities (MIUSA, 2023).

In a recent CIDDL blog, Hoekstra detailed three factors to increase study abroad: advocacy, accommodations, and accessibility (Hoekstra, 2023). Successful study abroad programs for students with disabilities rely on universities and students to collaborate within and outside of one another (Johnstone & Edwards, 2019).

Static PDFs are not accessible. Documents must be saved in an accessible format to be read by a screen reader. What’s a static PDF? Imagine you printed a document on your printer. The page that you hold in your hands is one solid image. That’s how a screen reader would see it. It would not pick up each letter, word, paragraph, etc. to read. Rather, it just sees it as a rectangle.

There are a few ways to make PDFs accessible. Adobe (2023) has directions to create accessible PDFs, which can be accessed here. Additionally, educational software such as Kami, provides ways to optimize PDFs to make them accessible.

Finally, Hoekstra reminds us that more is not better. Rather than constantly adding new technologies to our courses for our students, focus on the ones we have. Last summer, CIDDL created a series of blogs on the topic of the LMS, specifically highlighting the accessibility features. Learn more about them here.

Hoekstra: “ There can be challenges with going into the field to collect data. So me personally, how do I get to a field site? I can't drive. So that requires me to rely on other researchers or friends or taxis which would require, you know, an additional financial investment.”

Hoekstra: “Technology has given us so much access that we sometimes forget that technology itself isn't the solution for all problems. So, whereas I have a lot of technology on my computer, software that can read text aloud, it requires the data itself to be accessible. And unfortunately, what we see is that a lot of journals that publish articles, research articles? They publish PDF Files. They're not accessible.”

Hoekstra: “if you're asking students or coworkers to use a new software, and if the co-worker, or if a student without a disability may take, you know, 30 min to learn a new software. Someone with a disability may take twice as much time or longer, because that information about accessibility is something that's not necessarily easily available. They might have to dig for it. They might have to search forums for other people's advice. It's not always published,”

Q3: What resources would you recommend to help check accessibility, what should we keep in mind?

Hoekstra notes that APA 7 has developed guidelines for accessibility, and he also recommends the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There are four key principles for web accessibility: perceivable (the information is presented in a way that users and interfaces can understand), operable (User interfaces have to be able to navigate the site), understandable (users must be able to comprehend the information and how to access it with the use of an interface), and robust (Users must be able to access it with a variety of devices). Within the principle of perceivable are elements such as captions, text alternatives for non-text, contrast, and background audio. Operable considers elements such as the ability to use a keyboard to navigate the entire site, timed elements provide enough time before switching for users to access, ensuring media is not designed in a way that is known to cause seizures, and headings are used to help organize content. The principle of understandable looks for material to explain abbreviations and provide pronunciation assistance where needed. Additionally, it includes making web pages predictable. Finally, the robust principle includes ensuring that the webpage is compatible with assistive technologies.

Readers interested in learning more about accessibility can visit the APA 7 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Hoekstra: “I think one of the things that we always have to do when we're publishing is we need to be asking questions. We need to be asking journals, will this be published in accessible formats? Will things like my image descriptions carry over? If I enter this in the math Ml, will that be preserved during the publication process?”

Q4: What is a self-description? Why is it important?

To create inclusive spaces in meetings, presentations, or gatherings, whether in-person or in the digital space, it is important to provide self-descriptions for all members. These visual descriptions provide those with visual impairments or those who are blind important context in relation to those around them. Hoekstra told of a time he was in a Zoom meeting where everyone was commenting on how beautiful something was, without saying what the something they were commenting on was. This creates an access barrier for those who are blind or visually impaired. Thus, the recommendation is to provide a self-description at the start of meetings that includes a basic description and any other factors about you that may stick out. Hoekstra, for example, provided the audience with information about his beard, saying that it resembled the style of Hugh Jackman in his portrayal of Wolverine.

Though you want to include important details about yourself in your self-description, Vocal Eyes reminds us that it is a “thumbnail sketch, not an oil portrait” (2016). Suggestions of what to include in your description are gender, age, race/ethnicity, and hair color. Additionally, as evidenced by Hoekstra’s story, if you are wearing something such as statement jewelry or a fun tie, you might want to include that, too.

Hoekstra: “There are things that a sighted audience may immediately pick up on that somebody who's blind or visually impaired won’t immediately notice”

Q5: What implications do you see for future research, and what are some questions we might be asking?

The ethical implications of AI and machine learning are a hot topic that we’ve been discussing within CIDDL recently. The framework set forth by the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights (White House, 2022) contains five principles to consider which include safe and effective systems, algorithmic discrimination protections, data privacy, notice and explanation, and human alternatives. The full spectrum of ethical issues is obviously unknown, given this is a still developing field. What is important is that AI will change our roles as researchers, teacher-educators, teachers, and teachers, and the way in which we design our classrooms and assignments (Goldman, 2023)

Hoekstra: “When we're working in a context like Liberia, we still use the same 3 principles, multiple means of engagement, action and expression/representation. And we talk about that in terms of what's locally available.”

Q6: Can you talk about technology's role in your work?


Hoekstra shared that technology and environments vary so much from class to class and country to country. One strategy he shared was the use of dragon dictate to provide speech-to-text to a student with a hearing impairment. Though Dragon may not be perfect (boasting 99% accuracy; see, it provides an access point for students who would otherwise be without. Another example includes using a smartphone with a speech synthesizer to support students with visual impairments.

Hoekstra reminds us that some of the challenges he faces with technology in countries in Latin America or Africa are similar to challenges that certain school districts in the United States may face. He reminds us to think creatively about resources to support all students.

Hoekstra, N. J. (2021). Providing access to text for diverse students with the Epub3 format. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 54(1), 79-83.

Hoekstra, N. J. (2020). From war to peace and education for all. (Blog) Retrievedfrom

Lizotte, M. C., & Simplican, S. C. (2017). Doctoral students with disabilities: Challenges in academic programs and research methodology. Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education2, 181-193.

World Intellectual Property Organization. (2017, December 21). ABC explains: A digital file is not necessarily accessible (Video). Retrieved from


Accessibility settings. VocalEyes. (n.d.).

Creating accessible pdfs. Adobe Help Center. (n.d.).

Johnstone, C., & Edwards, P. (2020). Accommodations, Accessibility, and Culture: Increasing Access to Study Abroad for Students With Disabilities. Journal of Studies in International Education24(4), 424–439.

Lauer, M. (2022.). Data on researchers’ self-reported disability status. National Institutes of Health.

Statistics on U.S. college-level study abroad students
. MIUSA. (2022, August 15).,had%20disabilities%20in%202017%2F18

Suggested Citation

Goldman, S.R., Hoekstra, N., & the CIDDL Team. (2023). CIDDL Research and Practice Brief #19: Researchers with Disabilities, Accessibility, and UDL in Developing Countries with Nicholas Hoekstra. The Center for Innovation, Design, and Digital Learning.