The architecture and configuration of the physical classroom environment impacts the learning of all students, not only those we visually perceive to be experiencing disablement or disability.

Many aspects to a physical classroom environment can become barriers, such as issues related to:

  • Location;
  • Layout;
  • Sensory Quality and;
  • Air Quality.


  • Lines of sight from different classroom locations
  • Number and embodiment of students in the classroom per size of space
  • Existence and width of aisles and space between rows
  • Any sloping effects via stairs, ramps, or angle of the classroom; texture and grip of floors
  • Size, height, ergonomics, and left/right handedness of desk components; movability of chairs and desks and closeness of chairs to each other; availability of cushioned and wide seats
  • Fire exits, congestion, and speed at which class can evacuate
Seating in typical lecture halls has not been designed with accessibility in mind. The majority of desk components are built for right-handed users and are low, small, and hard, with little room between chairs and rows for larger bodies or efficient movement. While a student may have been able to take their own notes at a full-size, cushioned desk, they may need to rely on an instructor’s lecture notes for classes with lecture-style seating.

Sensory Quality

  • Type and quality of lighting
  • Size of projected material
  • Sound quality of the instructor during lecture, guest presenters, and of students during class discussion; availability of microphones and speakers
  • External distractions such as noises, smells, or temperature drafts
  • Colours of the classroom walls, furniture, flooring, and projected material
Students with low vision may experience difficulty discerning text on lecture slides when the classroom is dimly lit, as well as when slides use small fonts or low contrast between font colour and slide colour.

Air Quality

  • Temperature
  • Ventilation and circulation
  • Presence and density of chemicals and odors
A student or instructor with multiple chemical sensitivities, asthma, or other conditions might find it extremely difficult to be in a classroom with poor air circulation. The presence and density of chemicals and odors from cigarette smoke, hygiene products, and heated food can significantly influence air quality.

Case Study with Manifying Glass

CASE STUDY: Institutional Challenges
Barriers Related to Course Scheduling

It is important to be mindful of barriers that students may experience as a result of how your course has been scheduled, including which term of the year, day of the week, and time of the day the course will run, as well as the length of the class. Under favorable circumstances, a student may be fully able to attend, participate in, and learn during class; however, many students face physical and social barriers that can affect attendance and get in the way of effective in-class learning.

  • If scheduled during the winter, snow removal and the possibility of class being cancelled or difficult to access due to snow may be a very real concern for students, as Abdul (2014) and Zavarise (2015) describe in their articles for our school newspaper, The Silhouette.


  • Students may experience difficulty in morning, afternoon, or evening classes depending on:
    • their sleep patterns and needs; fasting and food requirements; clarity of focus over the course of a day; pain and pain management; medication or treatment side effects; as well as the
    • availability of affordable and accessible transportation; and/or caregiving or employment responsibilities, among other concerns.


  • Evening classes and being outdoors on campus in the dark may be a concern for students who have experienced assault or harassment (e.g. related to gender and/or gender expression, sexuality, race, faith, disability, etc.) and/or who are legitimately precautious about safety, especially those commuting home on public transportation.


Some suggested ways of mediating barriers to attendance and in-class participation are unpacked further in a subsequent section.

End of Case Study


Continue Your Learning Icon

Continue Your Learning

  • Listen to Dr. Robert Fleisig as he identifies physical and architectural constraints on teaching and learning.

  • Watch a short film clip and read more about (In)Accessibility Week at McMaster, a campaign launched by students with disabilities affiliated with the McMaster Students Union’s Maccess service (O’Rourke, 2016).

  • Learn about physically inaccessible areas of campus and alternative ways to get around in the 2016-2017 McMaster Accessibility Guide prepared by disabled students (MSU Maccess, 2016).
  • Review the detailed Accessibility Guidelines that have been developed for the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of physical facilities at McMaster University (2008).


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