I have agreed to take on the challenge of blogging about accessibility for 31 days in a row.
I’ve decided to make this more than a personal challenge about building a writing habit. I will be writing for the specific audience of educators who are dealing with online education.
The goal is to provide peace of mind by sharing helpful information and motivation, and taking away the mystery of online accessibility. I want to help you be more successful in teaching online by sharing the essential considerations for making your online materials accessible to all of your students.
I will be sharing what I have come to understand as the fundamentals for digital accessibility, and advice on how to define your own workflow to make your materials accessible with as little headache as possible.
From the ground up, we will cover the basic aspects of accessibility theory, to the step by step practices for your authoring tools that result in materials that are usable by all of your students.
The Big Idea
Here is a sampling of some of the topics I will be covering:
The concepts of digital accessibility, and the ways these concepts translate into specific access strategies for digital media.
How different digital document types and specific document formats can affect accessibility.
How to use your authoring tools in a way that creates an accessible experience for your students.
Different ways to assess the accessibility of your digital content.
Explanations of the guidelines and standards for digital accessibility, and how your tools help you satisfy accessibility requirements.
Aspects of learning management systems that affect accessibility.
Digital Video and Closed Captioning.
Digital document formats such as PowerPoint, PDF, HTML, and MS Word.
Assistive Technologies and how they provide access to the content you create.
Complex and interactive media.
Forums, Quizzes, and other assessments.
Along the way, I hope to share some insight into why accessibility matters not only for students with disabilities, but how it can also help you work smarter and more efficiently.
31 days is not as long as it seems when you start breaking down all of the different parts of making an online course accessible. You will still have work to do after 31 days of following along, but you will have a manageable plan and a realistic chance of making things accessible.
What to Expect
Each day I will write a short post on a focused accessibility topic, with the intended reading time being about three and a half to five minutes per post.
You can post responses to articles with questions and feedback, and share examples of how you have addressed a problem.
Occasionally I will challenge you to participate in trying out technology and techniques for interacting with your digital content.
At the end of this month, Accessibility will not be a mysterious problem lurking in the shadows and threatening to disrupt your life.
You can gain a basic understanding of what it means for digital media to be accessible for a student with a disability.
You can acquire the basic knowledge and skills required to address the accessibility of your online course materials.
You will find that Accessibility is something you can control.
I will be exploring a handful of popular tools, and demonstrating the concepts and functionality for accessibility that are available to you.
I am also aware of how access to technology can be an equity issue in online education. Many teachers and students are doing the best they can with inadequate technology resources or support.
Whenever possible, I will try to demonstrate workflows for the free and inexpensive tools that are available. Accessibility should not be a privilege provided only for the wealthy.
Let’s Dive In!
Here’s your first challenge: can you tell me about your digital workflow?
If you’re not sure what a workflow is, don’t panic. “Workflow” just refers to the process you use to create your lessons and learning materials.
Specifically, you should be able to answer the following questions:
What software/programs do you use to create the materials you give to your students?
What Learning Management System (LMS) do you use?
Where do you obtain the content you use in your class? Do you create it all yourself?
How many different files are your students downloading or accessing through the web each week?
Do you use a primary type of file format to communicate with your students or do you use many different types of digital files, such as PDF, HTML, MS Word, PowerPoint, etc.?
Do you use video repositories such as YouTube or Vimeo?
Do you use social media in your course?
Do you use any content packs from your textbook publisher?
What is your most anticipated concern related to accessibility?
If you’re brave enough, please share your answers in the comments, and I can try to address your specific tools and situations.
If you go to Twitter and search for the hashtag #a11y, you can find a wide range of posts about accessibility.
Finally, I’m always grateful whenever somebody goes out of their way to learn about accessibility. Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom, and I hope you decide to follow along this month and share your experiences.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
The next thing you need after you have digital text is
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
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
Audio files require a text transcript, video/animations
require closed captions and narrative descriptions, form fields need labels, and
tables need headers.
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
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.
Hello world, it’s been a while since I’ve been visible online, and I’m happy to be back with a refreshed agenda! I may have been out of sight, but I’ve been keeping busy. Here’s a quick update on some of what’s been going on:
After completing my time with the California Community College system, I have spent a bit of time attending to family and personal projects. I’ve been doing some writing and research, and getting a few new projects started. I’ll be posting soon (and more frequently) with some updates…
This year I continue to focus on accessibility consulting, training and mentoring for faculty who are teaching online. I’m developing new E-learning content, and I’m making a video documentary about a little-known aspect of one of the world’s technology giants located here in the San Jose area.
I’m also making myself available for consulting, speaking, and training projects, so let me know if you need help with any of those types of activities. You can get in touch by filling out the Contact Form or email me at: info(at)idwerkz.com.
So that covers the broad strokes of what I’ve been up to and some of what I’ve got planned. I want to thank everybody who has been supportive and reaching out over the last several months, it has been an interesting time to be sure. I will be sharing more of the fun details as I make progress, and in the meantime, please let me know if you have any accessibility questions or challenges I might be able to help with.
“Accessibility in Higher Education is Like Making Elephants Dance.”
I still remember attending my first big workshop about how to address accessibility from a campus perspective. It was one of those transformative experiences that sparked a fire in me, and it would help guide me from a job to a career of making higher education accessible for students with disabilities. The leader of this workshop was a man whose influence on me and my future I could not have then guessed, but we would eventually grow to be friends and coworkers, and he would continue to show me how accessibility could successfully drive institutional change for the good of the order- or as some people describe it, how to be a professional royal pain in the ass.
It was in 2004 at the CSUN conference, back when the conference still occupied both the Hilton and Marriott hotels on Century Blvd, right across from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This was a pre-conference session entitled “Developing A Fully Accessible Postsecondary Campus”, and it was an interactive session led by Ron Stewart. Using Ron’s personal experience and stories as the basis of our materials, we explored the very messy issue of developing a campus-wide program for assistive technology, universal design, and addressing the many cultural issues surrounding the topics of disability and accessibility.
At the time, I was working as an Alternate Media Specialist at Mendocino College, and my scope of influence for transformative change seemed rather limited. Still, I was fascinated with the idea of an accessible campus, and I remember listening to Ron with rapt attention and a growing fascination as he described his experiences doing something I had spent most of my life avoiding: engaging in prolonged conflict with authority and workplace politics- or in other words, advocating for accessibility in higher education.
As I was conflict-adverse and rather shy in those days (believe it or don’t), issues requiring leadership or confrontation and conflict were usually red flags for me to keep my head down and try not to draw any attention- much like a mythical hobbit. If you had told me then that I would someday be arguing passionately with senior administration about anything at all, I would have laughed in your face. While the very notion was unthinkable to me, I still found myself following along with Ron and his story. I couldn’t help but find parallels between my own situation and what he was describing, and I found myself learning some of the usually unspoken facts of life in higher education.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: Ron never was a wilting flower, nor was he known for his equanimity- in fact he could be downright difficult to deal with. His passion and insistence on doing what he believed was right proved to be a force that few could stand up to, and he never shied away from a fight. However, as difficult as he might be, he always stood up for the truth and what was just, and he was a tireless champion of the rights of human beings everywhere to rise out of ignorance. Say what you want about equanimity, Ron was righteous in his own noble mission to ensure people be treated with dignity and have equal access to gain an education.
I remember one story in which Ron described a confrontation with senior administrators who were resisting his advice to hold deans and faculty accountable. One of the administrators protested “We can’t possibly do that Ron, the elephant just won’t dance that way!” At this point, Ron paused for dramatic effect and a sly smile grew across his face as he proceeded with the story of how he taught that manager a couple of lessons in making elephants dance.
The point of the story is not that Ron liked dancing elephants, but that advocating for systemic, institutional, and cultural change can seem impossible at first glance, much like getting an elephant to dance. However, upon closer scrutiny we find that it is not so much impossible or difficult as it first seems. True, it is sometimes difficult (and perhaps dangerous) to get an elephant to dance- but you might be surprised at how gracefully it can be done with the right approach. In any case, the benefits of transforming a campus culture into one that values and delivers accessibility is certainly worth the risk and effort.
After all this time, I can tell you that what seems like endless potential for conflict can sometimes be endless opportunity for education. Advocating and teaching about accessibility often brings unanticipated potential for surprising partnerships that can drive a campus together into a more effective learning community.
When managed artfully, accessibility can happen organically as an unstoppable force of our nature to do good work. I believe this because despite our differences and peculiarities, at the end of the day my community is made up of educators working towards the common goal of supporting students in their pursuit of an education. Our work in supporting accessibility in higher education is simply about making sure ALL students get the same opportunity to pursue that education.
I am sorry to share that my friend Ron died last week, and his loss is felt across the country. The outpourings of sympathy interrupt my daily drama with bittersweet thoughts and memories. I am reminded that sometimes it is all too easy for me to forget the origins of my journey here. With everything that still needs to be done weighing on my mind, it is all too easy to forget how much has been accomplished by pioneers like Ron, and how different everything was just a short while ago. These are the moments when you have to stop and take stock of your situation, and check your course.
In 2004, I could not have guessed how many opportunities I would have to work with Ron. Our relationship would grow and change in many ways, and I’m happy to have been fortunate enough to become and remain his friend. I am humbled and grateful for the time he has shared with me, and I am honored to have been able to work with Ron and continue advocating for accessibility in higher education. Over the course of our friendship, Ron shared several pearls of wisdom that still help me persevere and retain the critical connections with what truly matters in our life and our life’s work.
While I am saddened by Ron’s passing, I take some small comfort in knowing the impact and influence of his work (and his personality) will continue to reverberate throughout the A11y community. What’s more, because of his work and influence, the world of higher education continues to grow richer and be a better place for ALL students.
And coincidentally, I’m hearing that sightings of dancing elephants are also on the rise…
Hello World, my name is Jayme Johnson, and I’m what you’d call an “Accessibility Specialist”…
I’ve been working in the California Community College system to support the needs of students with disabilities since 2001. I’ve been asked many times to share my thoughts and knowledge about accessibility, and some of my stories about working with faculty in higher education to create and deliver accessible learning experiences.
So here it is, the humble beginnings of a serious blog on accessibility in instructional technology and design. Thanks for checking it out, and if you have any questions or comments, please register and let me know what’s on your mind.