The essential capabilities that allow a student with disabilities to acquire digital information begin with the technology you use as an educator, and continue along a chain of technology used to store, distribute, and ultimately receive the information by the student.
There are many links in this chain that are beyond your control, but the technology you start with will ultimately determine what and how your students are able to learn via your online education efforts.
If your tools are not able to deliver the information in a format that your students can receive, then you are not going to be able to deliver effective or accessible instructional content from a distance – plain and simple.
This is why most modern democratic societies have put in place some sort of requirements for technology and digital information to make sure the public institutions are providing services that are truly accessible and available to all people. Here in the US we have Section 508, and globally we have WCAG.
Whether or not you are a public institution, it is the collection of requirements and guidelines used by the public institutions that serve as the best metric to quantifiably measure the accessibility of digital content. These are the standards and guidelines that have already been blessed by the courts, so they should be able to help you stay on the right side of the law, if nothing else.
Having said this, the ultimate test for accessibility is actual usability by the end user – but usability does not lend itself as well to a checklist format as the 508 and WCAG.
So we have a foundation-level of accessibility requirements for technology and digital information. That is great news, but don’t get too excited yet.
It turns out that the required level of accessibility is often insufficient to ensure that effective access is provided to people with disabilities. Even with the requirements and guidelines in place, many people are missing the opportunity to participate in our society as fully and effectively as their non-disabled peers.
These issues are constantly being sorted out in the courts, and you often find that it is not a question of when your institution is going to be sued, but a question of how many lawsuits does it already have going on…
Accessibility exists on a spectrum, and because of this, managing accessibility becomes a risk mitigation issue, much like network security.
Accessibility is not impossible to establish as standard operating procedure, though it is not a simple issue to address. Ultimately, the solution to institutional accessibility is the same solution for how to eat an elephant – take it one bite at a time.
What to DO
Policies & Procedures, Technology, Training, Testing – rinse and repeat.
If you are seeking to create institutional change, make training available for everyone who creates or selects digital content.
If you have tricky unions or difficult faculty associations who refuse mandatory trainings, then be strategic about how you communicate and remember that training is a resource that often costs people a lot of money. I’m just saying…
If you’re faculty and reading this, then thank you for being one of the good ones. Seriously. We need your help to support the effort, to participate seriously and fully, and shame your colleagues who do not attend trainings or support the cause.
We need to establish a culture of intolerance for laziness and ignorance among the people who are in the front lines of this effort.
Faculty should be given the support and encouragement they need to succeed and teach as effectively as possible, for all students.
That is how the revolution will be won, and it will be driven by technology and administrators who increasingly demand and deliver conformance with accessibility guidelines. Technology is not going to replace teachers, but teachers who can use technology will replace teachers who do not know how to use technology.
Bottom line needs to be a simple matter of quality control: Inaccessible content is substandard content. If you don’t address the accessibility issues with your course, you won’t get to put it online.
Policies and Procedures
It is important to address these things according to the law of the land – meaning your institutional policies. People may scoff at the law of the State and Federal government, but they tend to respect the laws that govern whether or not a paycheck will show up for them. Make the law of the land fair, make it known, and make it real through consistent enforcement.
Address institutional processes and communications protocols to ensure that individuals with disabilities who require assistance or have any accessibility questions are responded to within a 24 hour period.
Section 508 guidelines: https://www.section508.gov/
- Make sure to use the appropriate sections for your procurement processes. That is where Section 508 actually makes a difference in things across your institution.
- For content creation concerns, insert references to Section 508 in the acceptable web use policy for your institution as well as the obvious curriculum development and non-discrimination policies.
WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines): https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/
Use the WCAG for developing policies and trainings, and establishing criteria for, and monitoring of, the accessibility of digital content. It is the best advice and guidance you can find for web accessibility, from the people who bring you the technology that drives the Internet, and it is free.
Students Need Support Too
Remember there is a chain of technology between the teacher and the student. Huge equity issues persist with students not having adequate access to computers and internet connections.
In both rural areas and inner cities, students are faced with incredible challenges in terms of having access to internet and the technology required to open and make use of the content being delivered from the school and teacher.
While you can’t solve all of these problems yourself, you can avoid making things worse.
Don’t use the most cutting edge technology as the exclusive means of delivering your course. This includes video or fancy multimedia, which are often problematic for bad internet connections and older technologies.
Likewise, don’t add another cost for students by just using a publisher pack of content that is also full of accessibility problems. Students deserve better from you, and you should have more pride in your work. Step up your game, your students need you!
Pay attention to issues like minimum technology standards when you design your instruction and remember to ask the students who are using the technology how the experience is working for them. Call out specific issues about technology and internet access, don’t assume that students are going to feel compelled to volunteer such things without being prompted.
While it is easy to get caught up in the challenges that we face as educators, it is essential to remember the students and make sure we are focused on the right things for the right reasons.
So good on you for being the kind of person who takes the time to read accessibility blogs. 😉
Keeping accessibility in mind as you practice online education is more than the hallmark of a modern professional who knows how to take care of business – it is simply the right thing to do for your community.
Thank you, and thanks for reading!