When it comes to the accessibility of online information, the standard is pretty high – and measurable. However, the path to an accessible institution is not always so obvious or easy to travel. This is fertile ground where inspired guidance can do a lot towards making inroads for positive change.
If you look at the entirety of what is required for accessibility in online education, it becomes clear that ensuring accessibility is beyond the scope of a single person. It takes a team to make online learning happen, even if it is just the teacher and parents working together.
For best results, accessibility requires a concerted effort from all the people involved.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to be an accessibility expert, but they should know how to perform their role correctly.
Every individual needs to be aware of how their job impacts accessibility, and how to perform their job in a way that makes that impact a positive one.
It is important to recognize this aspect of accessibility in order to provide the proper support and accountability required to affect awareness and change.
It is not fair, reasonable, and certainly not effective, to lay all of the responsibility for accessibility on the shoulders of teachers.
When everyone understands accessibility as a matter of basic quality control, accessibility simply becomes part of doing a good job.
When managed appropriately, accessibility becomes evidence of an organization that is trained, knowledgeable, well-resourced, and performing at an optimum level.
You might have recognized that accessibility happens across a spectrum of detail and capability.
There is a simple and essential accessibility in having the ability to open a digital file and perceive the contents. On the other end of the spectrum is a polished document with detailed formatting and consideration given to the concepts of universal design and equitable experience.
In the midst of an accessibility breakdown, the first priority is to establish reliable communications.
Ensure that the essential learning objectives can be taught accessibly, even if it is just through simple text.
Enhancing engagement becomes a secondary concern when a student can’t even access the information to try and engage with it.
Making your instructional content as accessible as possible for future cohorts of students is still a priority, it is just secondary to ensuring essential access.
Doing it Right the First Time Saves You Pain and Expense
The logistics of accommodating an individual who is not physically located at your institution present numerous challenges.
There are simply too many unforeseeable variables to provide effective accommodations in response to users in real time as they are notifying you they have a need.
We have to ensure effective access for all individuals in advance of courses being offered. This is the only way to avoid students with disabilities getting stuck in a situation where they need to be accommodated in order to proceed and succeed.
As challenging as it might be at times, the time and resources spent making content accessible in advance will always save you money when compared to the cost of responding to a legal complaint over inaccessible content.
Usability vs Technical Accessibility
Even though the two concepts are very closely related, there is a big difference between usability and accessibility in practice.
Usability is the determination of whether or not something is actually functional and useable by an individual with a disability.
Accessibility is a measure of quantifiable criteria, according to a specific standard.
Often the adoption of Accessibility standards will lead to usability, but not always.
Online accessibility needs to be established in concert with a high degree of verified usability in order to ensure effective access for individuals with disabilities.
Content that is not usable is unacceptable, regardless of how well it measures up to any technical standard.
100% Accessible is a Myth
The fact is, 100% Pure and Total Accessible does not truly exist in the wild.
Whatever content you create, given the extreme diversity and sheer mass of humanity occupying the planet, it is inevitable that someone can be found for whom your content will be unusable and inaccessible.
The truth is, we are making things adaptable when we say they are accessible. This is because often the specialized needs of one individual require content to be formatted in a way that makes the content inaccessible according to another individual’s specialized needs.
In designating something as accessible, there is an expected element of flexibility and adaptability that prevents anything being nailed down too rigidly.
Accessibility does not mean you deliver 100% usability so much as you deliver content that is as open to customization/personalization as possible.
Additional adjustments are expected by individual user technologies, and thus the final rendering of the information is not in your purview.
“Technology-Agnostic” content is a term for content that can be rendered accessibly across different hardware and software platforms. Well-formatted, technology-agnostic content is what is necessary for the greatest usability scenario.
Accessibility is Adaptability
In the social model of accessibility, it is not the individual who is “lacking” anything because of a disability. It is the environment that is lacking the appropriate design elements to make it usable by the citizenry.
The transferable idea for online learning is that technology can be managed in a way that provides the necessary customization of the digital landscape for each individual as needed.
It is understood that everyone will show up with their own unique skillset and abilities. We all meet in the middle, leveraging our technology to ensure access where necessary.
We don’t need to anticipate every potential usage scenario. We just need to maintain an environment with as few obstacles to people using it in the manner they need to.
We can deliver the most effective instruction when each individual is able to configure their interface and information delivery to meet their needs.
True responsive design happens when the content has the appropriate structure to provide consistent meaning while retaining the ability to flow into whatever specialized technology a student might be using.
For example, MS Word is a powerful editing tool for digital content. Even so, it is not always the best digital container to present information in.
However, the content created in Word can be styled and formatted in a way that enables it to be easily converted into any alternate format you need. It is easy to convert content from MS Word to be presented in many different digital frameworks.
This enables one source document to be created that can be delivered to an entire class of individuals with differing needs and specialized software, and each of the students will get the customized rendering of the content in the format they are able to interact with.
You don’t have to make any of these formats, you just make the one master file in a way that allows the technology to convert the information into the appropriate format for each student.
These capabilities are the result of technological standards such as Section 508 and WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). These standards identify the essential considerations for making your content accessible enough to be usable in most conceivable situations.
However, even when you meet all the technical standards, your content is not 100% accessible. The best you can say is that your content is conformant with the Section 508 standards and WCAG.
There is always a chance that tomorrow some individual with a unique set of skills might show up to educate you further in the amazing diversity of humankind.
You Make the Difference
Leadership is the element that brings this vision to reality, and it is critical to realize that leadership is not reserved for management. Sometimes the most effective leadership is that inspiring example you provide by simply doing the best you can.
You have the ability to inform and inspire your colleagues by setting the right example, and by speaking up and sharing what you know.
If you are involved in governance committees at your institution, make sure that accessibility is discussed and addressed. Providing awareness of accessibility is the first step towards affecting change.
When the entire institution is informed and empowered to do their best work, accessibility can happen as a result of people simply doing their job right.
Informed and effective management can ensure employees are properly trained and held accountable. The creation, delivery, and maintenance of accessible infrastructure and processes becomes an accepted aspect of basic operations.
Remember that accessibility is not just the right thing to do according to the law, it is the right thing to do for delivering truly effective education, and the right thing to do for the people in your community.
Think about this – we all benefit when the education system is more accessible to the people who need it.
Thanks for doing your part, and thanks for reading!