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Creating accessible learning environments – Content Warnings as an accessibility practice

Have you ever thought about using content warnings and trigger warnings to make your teaching practice more accessible? Our Digital Accessibility Specialist discusses the differences between content and trigger warnings and shares some tips on how to become a great accessibility ally by applying content warnings in your teaching. 

Content warnings and trigger warnings 

Content warnings and trigger warnings are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Content warnings are verbal or written notices preceding content that could potentially disturb some people. Warning viewers of potentially disturbing content is a widespread practice in the film industry. For example, a warning is often present to flag content such as self-harm, violence or sexual abuse, etc., to allow readers, listeners and viewers to prepare themselves to engage (or even disengage) with these kinds of contents for their well-being.

On the other hand, trigger warnings are a specific group of content warning aimed at forewarning readers, listeners and viewers of content that may cause intense distress for people who have been exposed to traumatic experiences, such as people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.

Content warnings in the higher education landscape 

Applying content warnings to higher education first appeared in the late 90s. Still, in the past 5–10 years, this movement has taken off with universities worldwide drafting guidelines and including content warnings in their teaching practices. Around the same time, heated debates on whether or not content notifications were helpful to students also started to pop up. 

Con-warning rationales included the assumption that content warning is not necessary nor helpful as shielding students from the often harsh realities of the world may do them a disservice; when in fact, a higher-education institution’s primary goal was to expose their students to these realities in the hope that they may one day propose solutions for the world’s biggest issues. Others may argue that disruptions and discomfort are a factor of life and that students should be able to deal with their emotions while being challenged to engage with provocative course materials.

On the other hand, avid advocates of pro-warning rationales support the use of content warnings to empower students to have autonomy over their learning – a key accessibility principle. To them, certain course materials can impact the well being and academic performance of students who have experienced similar or corresponding traumas in their own lives. Having content warnings allows students to avoid contact with potentially disturbing content in the first instance, allowing them to set up the necessary resources, such as support and counselling, before engaging with it again. Even if students are capable of dealing with potentially distressing content, they may still benefit from a forewarning in order to prepare themselves emotionally for engaging with or discussing a graphic video in a classroom. Finally, content warnings reassure students that their course conveners, lecturers and other teaching staff care about their well-being.

Creating an accessible learning and teaching space with content warnings and beyond

Content warnings can be included in course summaries and outlines as preliminary statements. They can also be introduced verbally in class before potentially disturbing topics are discussed, or even added to written reading material or course sites.

Although extremely important, content and trigger warnings are not the only answer to addressing potentially disturbing content. Below are some strategies you can consider that will assist your students when approaching challenging material.

  • Be upfront with students about what to expect from your course (topics, content, readings, screenings, etc.) and give  them as much advance notice as possible about potentially disturbing content. Remind students to consider the same when preparing for class presentations.
  • Allow students to engage with potentially disturbing content from where they feel most comfortable. They may feel safer studying these topics in the comfort and safety of their homes rather than during a whole class discussion.
  • If possible, allow students to engage with the content in different formats. Reading about a topic might be less confronting than watching a video about it. Captions and transcripts can make a difference here.
  • Try “staggering” a potentially disturbing topic in small increments, allowing students time to process the content. For instance, when discussing possibly problematic issues, start by setting the scene and introducing written information before graphic content, such as images and videos.
  • Check in with your students when discussing disturbing content. For example, ask them how they are and if they need a break from time to time.
  • Assist your students in understanding the differences between emotional trauma (physiological and psychological distress) and intellectual discomfort (which is fundamental to university education) and allow them to decide how they feel about different content.
  • Be ready to offer alternative learning experiences, such as course content or learning activities, if a student discloses feeling triggered and unwell when working with specific topics.
  • In case of distress, offer information on services and support systems available to students as well as information on coping strategies and self-care.

July 2023

Bruna Contro Pretero (she/her), Digital Accessibility Specialist, Student First Program and Information Technology Services

Trigger Warnings guidelines from the University of Waterloo (opens a new page)
Content Warning best-practice by the Edith Cowan University (opens a new page)
An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings (opens a new page)
The Trouble with Trigger Warnings (opens a new page)