Fear of Accessibility in Higher Education

Scrabble tiles spelling FEAR

Despite our advances in technology and social awareness, when it comes to disability awareness, the cruel ignorance of a bygone era lingers in our education system.

People with disabilities are still seen as tragic figures, and the concepts of digital accessibility are as alien to many as little green beings from Alpha Centauri.

Happily, things are changing and the fear of accessibility is being ushered out as a wave of awareness and new tools are being introduced into the curriculum.

Why is Accessibility Scary?

I actually don’t think accessibility is scary- even though I can often smell the fear on people.

In my time as an Accessibility Specialist I have encountered a lot of fear surrounding the topic. On the worst days, I have seen the fear of accessibility render otherwise intelligent and modern-thinking people into caricatures from an ignorant and darker period of human history.

Typically misplaced and unnecessary, fear of accessibility can be a difficult stumbling block. However, I believe this fear is mostly unfounded and misunderstood. In fact, it is largely fear of the unknown, not fear of accessibility.

Fear of the unknown is a natural and powerful emotion that can be useful in some cases, but in terms of accessibility, it is probably not serving you well.

Unchecked in the absence of knowledge, the fear of accessibility can run rampant through your mind, creating all kinds of false boogeymen, such as:

  • Accessibility is difficult.
  • Accessibility means ugly and plain content.
  • Accessibility means huge legal penalties for getting it wrong.
  • Accessibility is expensive.
  • Accessibility is something you feel you should know more about- but you’ve been hiding your shame for so long it would be professional suicide to reveal it…

Accessibility is beginning to be perceived as one of the basic skills and knowledge sets for modern professionals. Does that scare you?

Don’t let it scare you. Let it motivate you.

Happily, there are lots of free resources available to help with accessibility. In fact, you actually have a chance to become one of the more knowledgeable people in your organization when it comes to accessibility.

We are living in the sweet spot of history where it isn’t necessarily difficult to learn about accessibility, but it is still novel and rare to find someone with good accessibility skills in most organizations.

I encourage you to capitalize on this opportunity, and learn the skills that will help you do well by doing good for others.

Ignorance and Fear

One of the hardest parts of addressing the fear of accessibility surrounds our rapid cultural and societal growth and change over the past century. We don’t all find enlightenment at the same time, and many among us still drag their feet in different ways, lingering in the attitudes of the past.

It is still the case that awareness of accessibility is often limited to those who have a disability, or those who have a close friend or family member with a disability.

Most people are blissfully ignorant of what it means to have a disability, and even more ignorant of the concept of social responsibility that is necessary to ensure accessibility in a modern democratic society.

The concepts and techniques required to transform something inaccessible into something accessible can seem very intimidating as well. Technological standards often create their own fear in and of themselves.

Further, issues of legal sensitivity and disability etiquette can also blindside you. And yes, that is OK to say to someone who is blind or visually impaired.

Ultimately, I believe that people who are afraid of accessibility are simply ordinary people who are afraid of doing something wrong, afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, and afraid of letting people down.

Fortunately, ignorance of accessibility is a correctable condition.

Accessibility is NOT Difficult

Good news everyone!

I recognize this idea may be totally contrary to what you might have experienced in the past. There was a time when accessibility really was much more difficult. However, things have changed for the better.

Modern technology can be leveraged to help us communicate more effectively with each other and without requiring teams of translators and specialists.

I have found that accessibility in higher education is often not so difficult to deliver, with proper training and tools.

Best of all, it can bring faculty great relief (and even joy) when they learn how to create and deliver accessible content. They end up teaching better, and we find higher success rates for ALL students.

Typically, ensuring accessibility is really just adding a new awareness to your process. The first step is being aware and mindful of the fact that you have the power to make the change.

Your decisions and actions as an instructor also need to be supported by your institution. With proper support in terms of time, tools, and training, accessibility becomes a solvable problem.

Accessibility is NOT Ugly

 Of course, it is certainly possible to create an ugly and plain version of anything. But accessibility doesn’t have to be like that.

One reason this idea continues to come up is because of the abundance of inaccessible, yet visually attractive, information on the Internet.

Many times faculty will include digital content as part of their online course because it offers a means of “spicing up” their course, or making the content more engaging and approachable.

Oftentimes viewed as digital shortcuts for engagement, these technologies are focused around a specific aspect of digital communications, typically without accessibility in mind. Worse, there is often little proof these techniques actually work to increase student engagement.

These digital shortcuts are not necessary when faculty are properly supported in creating and delivering their courses.

Learning to use your tools to create accessible content means you can comfortably add whatever elements you know are going to enhance the learning experience. You don’t have to guess or worry about a student with a disability showing up. That’s not ugly, that’s beautiful!

The Only Thing to Fear is Telling Your Professor You’re Deaf

While I started out addressing the faculty perspective in this post, I realize there is another side of the issue to discuss- the fear of being a student with a disability in the midst of a culture of fear and avoidance.

Being on the receiving end of ignorance can feel like intolerance.

This issue deserves its own post, but in the meantime, consider how difficult it must be to be a student with a disability. Everything about your day is harder and takes longer than it does for others. Education might be your best if not only hope of rising out of poverty.

Do you really want to add yet another obstacle to their path? Do you really need to use that inaccessible content?

Of course not! I know you’re better than that, why else would you have read this far?

Bigger than You Alone

I find that once people have an understanding of digital accessibility, their next stumbling block is simply doing the work. While the processes may not be terribly difficult, the amount of work needing to be done creates a new problem.

In these cases the fear of accessibility is more likely the fear of an insurmountable workload. It is not fair to portray a lack of accessibility as fear of accessibility or lack of concern for students with disabilities when there is more work than can humanly be done.

Most of the faculty I know love to help students, and we need to empower them instead of shaming them.

Let’s try using the motivating power of fear to create a deeper understanding of what is needed for accessibility, and finding the support needed to make it less of a burden. I know faculty who have thrown away content they spent years working on because of the workload in addressing the accessibility challenges. This is tragic, and unnecessary.

Recommendations and Resources

Following are some resources and advice for increasing your ability and knowledge of accessibility.

But first, take a moment and recognize that you are a special individual if you read this far. Lots of people won’t. Even if you skipped all the preceding content and are searching for the resources, something has motivated you to care enough to find answers- and that is HUGE. Thank you!

I’m happy to tell you that showing up is often the hardest part of this. With the right tools, creating accessible digital content can be surprisingly easy.

What You Can Do Today

I recognize that “Don’t be afraid” isn’t all that helpful, but hopefully the following information is.

Text is Essential

All digital accessibility boils down to digital text at some point. Digital text is the most reliable and economical form of digital information. Digital text is the foundation that accessibility requires.

Here’s why text is so important: there are lots of different technologies and different levels of internet access used by your audience. In order to be CERTAIN the message you are trying to share can be spread through all of the different technologies used by your audience, there will need to be a textual version.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have graphics, audio, and videos/animations, but it does mean there will also need to be a textural version of that content.

Structured Text

The next thing you need after you have digital text is semantic structure.

Don’t freak out at the geekiness of the above statement, it just means you have to use the styles included with your authoring software.

Use the heading styles to create meaningful titles and introduce the major sections of your message.

This will go farther than you might realize in ensuring accessibility for individuals using assistive technologies such as screen readers, and it will help ALL students digest the information better.

Descriptions (more text)

As mentioned above, you can use all of the non-textual content (video, audio, animations, images, charts, graphs, maps, etc.) you want, you just need to include textual descriptions as well.

Depending on the software and media you are working with, there will usually be a process to include a textual description of the content.

Audio files require a text transcript, video/animations require closed captions and narrative descriptions, form fields need labels, and tables need headers.

Interactions

The interactivity of digital content provides capabilities that require much further discussion, but here is a simple guideline: If the only way to accomplish an interaction is with a mouse, there is an accessibility problem.

Learn how to use the keyboard to interact with your content. If you can’t interact via the keyboard, there is an accessibility problem.

Likewise, device-centric solutions to providing content are always questionable, and often dangerous approaches to ensuring accessibility.

Resources for Further Study

While I’m always happy to help you at idwerkz.com, there is much you can do on your own. Here are some resources you can turn to for more information on accessibility:

World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative: (w3.org/WAI/)
Literally the source of all web standards, and home of the legendary Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Don’t know what any of that is about? Visit this site and prepare to learn- lots.

WebAIM: (webaim.org)
The fine folks at WebAIM have been solving the world’s accessibility problems and sharing what they learn since 1999. They provide the WAVE toolbar, free helpful tutorials, and a listserv that is full of helpful and knowledgeable people who can be very helpful.

WebAXE: (webaxe.org)
Created and maintained by Dennis Lembree, creator of EasyChirp, an accessible Twitter client. This blog (and once podcast) has been a wealth of news and information about accessibility and the accessibility community since 2005.

Access Technologists Higher Education Network (ATHEN): (athenpro.org)
Some of the world’s most renowned and knowledgeable accessibility experts make up the ranks of ATHEN. Uncompromised, unapologetic, and unrivaled in addressing accessibility issues that affect students with disabilities in higher education.

CCCAccessibility Center: (cccaccessibility.org)
The California Community College system has been addressing accessibility issues in higher education for over four decades. They share training information, technology reviews, policy and planning resources, and more.

Caption Key: (captioningkey.org)
The Described and Captioned Media Program provides the definitive best practices for captioning and describing digital media. Funded by the US Department of Education and the National Association of the Deaf, their mission is to provide equal access to communication and learning through described and captioned educational media.