Considering Institutional Accessibility

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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.

Essential Accessibility

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Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

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.

Responsive Accessibility

a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a graphics tablet, and a cell phone all sit on a desk displaying information
Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash

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!

Student Engagement: Ensuring Accessibility for All

Smiling student wearing headphones and taking notes.
Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

When designing and delivering online education there is a strong focus on engaging the learner. In order to remediate the effects of teacher and student being separated in time and space, the course content needs to be as engaging and interesting as possible.

This becomes even more true as the interest and motivation of the student decreases.

It is natural for teachers to seek out professionally produced digital content to add to their course in an attempt to make the course more engaging and interesting.

Ironically, this content for creating student engagement can sometimes create accessibility problems.

Learning Tool Integration (LTI)

There is a class of technology available for online learning that enables powerful extension of your LMS’ capability. It can bring third-party content into the LMS and tightly integrate it with your content.

Utilizing internet-based computing, it is easy to add engagement to your course through an LTI module that integrates content and interactive functionality.

These LTI technologies are often created for faculty who want to add engaging and interactive content to their course without the hassle of learning HTML or digital design.

With an LTI module, additional menu items can even be added into the menu of the LMS, and affect the core functionality of the LMS.

Unfortunately, a lot of LTI modules and other content that is created for enhancing the engagement of online courses is designed with sighted mouse-using individuals in mind.

Before you integrate third-party digital content, it is a good idea to perform a basic accessibility test and make sure you aren’t setting the stage for an accessibility drama to unfold.

Accessibility Considerations for LTI and Third-Party Content

When considering the accessibility of new technology for your online course, it is wise to start with a quick and simple keyboard test to weed out the obvious accessibility dead-ends.

Even though it is a quick and simple test, you still need to be thorough and ensure that all critical functions are keyboard accessible, at a minimum.

However, even if the content passes the quick initial test, that is not all the testing you need to do. Ultimately, you need to ensure that the content and technology can pass WCAG AA criteria for accessibility.

Quick and Simple Keyboard Testing

Install the LTI or content pack into your development course and make sure it is activated and working.

Using the standard keyboard commands for navigating and interacting with digital content, use the keyboard to navigate and interact with the content/technology you are evaluating.

Consider the following issues:

  • First, identify how the LTI or content pack will integrate within your course.
  • Does it add any menu items?
  • Does it add any options within an internal form, activity, or toolbar?
  • Can you navigate to the new interface items with the TAB key?
  • Does the LTI or content pack follow a logical order when you consider it’s sequence among the other elements you can TAB to?
  • If applicable, can you use the ARROW and SPACEBAR when you would expect them to be available options?

Now that you’ve ensured a basic level of keyboard access, we can expect a basic amount of accessibility. This simple level of testing will disqualify many of the worst LTI modules and content packs that are inaccessible.

If you can answer yes to the above questions, then your LTI or content pack is on good footing so far, but it’s still too early to get happy.

We’ve only done a quick check so far, a basic inspection to make sure there are not giant obvious gaping accessibility issues.

You still need more detailed data in order to determine the accessibility of the LTI or content pack. Following are some additional considerations to keep in mind as you continue testing the LTI or content pack for accessibility.

WCAG 2.1 AA

You will need to ensure the LTI or content pack satisfies the Section 508 requirements for electronic technology and information as well as meeting the WCAG 2 AA criteria.

This is where you should seek some assistance from your instructional support team, or hire a qualified accessibility professional to assist with more in-depth testing and a thorough accessibility audit.

Usability

In addition to an accessibility audit against the Section 508 and WCAG 2 AA criteria, a usability test is the ultimate test for whether or not the LTI or content pack is going to be accessible and truly usable by all students.

An individual with a disability who uses Assistive Technology every day can provide essential insight to help answer some of the following questions:

  • Does the LTI or content pack provide an advantage for students that is not possible for students with certain disabilities?
  • Is it inherently inaccessible to certain individuals for some reason?
  • Is there an equivalent academic accommodation you could provide?

As a responsible educator you are given a lot of deference in terms of deciding the instructional value of these things. Now you have the essential skills to make a more responsible choice for your students when selecting content to enhance their engagement.

Thanks for reading!

Leveraging the Accessibility of your LMS

woman studying books in front of a computer and cell phone.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

The LMS as Digital Ecosystem

At the hub of your online learning toolkit is a foundational bit of technology that is often taken for granted, the Learning Management System (LMS).

The LMS is a huge determiner of what kinds of content you can use as part of your online course. The ability to interact with data across different technologies while maintaining the security and privacy required for the modern world is a critical aspect of delivering online education.

Essential LMS Capabilities

In general, it is expected that a modern LMS should be able to provide a suite of basic functions:

  • Storage of files
  • Creation of HTML pages
  • Various activities/modules for organizing content
  • Assessment tools (Quiz/Exams)
  • Forums/Discussion Boards
  • Email communications
  • Gradebooks

To name a few…

Accessibility has largely been built into the framework of most modern Learning Management Systems, most likely as a requisite element in getting the government-sponsored contracts with public school districts across the US.

That’s the beauty of Section  508, it requires you to buy the most accessible version of technology that delivers your business need, so all the LMS vendors basically have to deliver the same level of accessibility.

However, there is nothing so simple it can’t be undone with some third-party “enhancements”.

Accessibility in your online course may start at an acceptable level, but it is possible to introduce technologies that do not provide the necessary level of accessibility.

LMS Virtues and Weaknesses

Typically, the LMS provides an accessible structure you can build your course in. Issues like heading structure and accessible interactive elements are built into the interface, so theoretically your LMS is accessible. But this is mostly true when your course is empty.

As you build your course, your design decisions will influence the final measure of accessibility.

If you use the formatting features in your content creation tools to enable accessibility as you create content, then your course accessibility remains intact.

If you introduce content that does not provide the formatting required for accessibility, you actually take away from the overall accessibility of your course.

It doesn’t matter if the LMS framework is accessible if you put an inaccessible file inside it, the file is still inaccessible. Information doesn’t automagically become accessible by virtue of being loaded into the accessible LMS.

There is no accessibility through osmosis or association.

WWW – World Wide Web, or Wild Wild West?

Each and every piece of content needs to be formatted for accessibility – if not by the original author, then by you.

This includes the world outside of your LMS – the Internet. When you link to a third-party website, you should check the website for basic accessibility. Remember, it is often easy to copy and paste the educationally significant information into an accessible LMS page, if necessary.

Publisher Problems

Don’t assume that a content pack you purchase from a textbook publisher is automatically accessible. Even if the sales rep assures you it is.

You need to verify the accessibility of ALL the features of the content and technology you attach to the LMS and expose to your students.

Ask the sales rep to cover the cost of accommodating any students with disabilities if their product is found to be inaccessible and see how they react.

There is much of the world of online education that is not yet accessible, but plenty of sales people who will try to sell you a problem waiting to happen.

Now you know better, and you can choose content more responsibly for the good of your students and for your success as an educator.

Accessibility Checkers

Be wary of people selling accessibility checkers for your LMS. Often these tools can be useful additions to your online tool kit, but so far none of them are capable of addressing all the accessibility challenges in your course.

Always ask about the capability of accessibility checkers to test individual documents such as MS Word, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, etc., as well as websites you want to link to from your course.

Ask if they can test different quiz questions.

Ask if they can test the LTI cartridge you want to integrate into your course.

Unfortunately, the range of true help available from most accessibility checkers remains rather limited.

As they say, “Some assembly is required” in building an accessible learning experience for your students. Slick shortcuts and ready-baked solutions are rarely accessible. Often these are just bright shiny broken things that interfere with education for your students with disabilities.

Accessibility through Phones and Tablets

It is important to verify that all the different aspects of your LMS and your online course are also accessible when viewed through a phone or tablet using a mobile operating system such as Android or iOS.

There are many happy examples of accessibility functioning across technology platforms and operating systems, but it is not a safe assumption that everything automatically works.

Verify, and adjust your workflow as necessary to ensure information is accessible for all users in as many contexts as possible.

Support in Different Browsers

It is also a good idea to check out the accessibility of your course and LMS in different internet browsers.

Surprisingly, many LMS vendors can only claim accessibility in certain browsers using certain assistive technologies.

These LMS vendors get away with this lack of capability simply because your administrators continue to sign the contracts instead of requiring better support for accessibility.

But that is the topic for a different blog post. The point here is to be aware of any limitations that you can advise your students about before they flood your inbox with emails about broken content in a certain browser.

Portability of Content

While the LMS is a great tool for delivering online education, sometimes a student really needs the information presented in a special way to be most accessible and usable.

It is a good idea to become familiar with the export capabilities of your LMS.

Especially valuable is any ability to export course content as an ePub document.

ePub is a rich data format that is capable of presenting multiple media formats in an accessible file that is compatible with different assistive technologies.

ePub can also be loaded onto many reading devices, increasing the options for your students to be able to engage with content and study on their terms.

That’s half the joy of taking an online course, after all.

These are just some of the things you can keep in mind to make your online course more effective, truly engaging, and as accessible as possible.

Thanks for reading!

Formatting Affects Usability of Digital Information

When you author digital content, there are some simple things you can do that have a significant impact on the user experience for your students who are using assistive technology.

When you take the time to format your content for accessibility, you enable different assistive technologies to better navigate and make use of your content. More often than not, you also tend to make your content easier to read for your students without disabilities too.

Start with Headings

Styles pane from MS Word
Styles pane from MS Word

You may have heard that headings are important for accessibility. This is a point I completely agree with.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say Heading styles are one of the most important elements you can incorporate into your workflow.

Besides looking differently from the body text, the Heading style is a semantic element used in the digital definition of your document.

This means that Heading styles are a way of identifying the text at a programming level.

With this capability to be defined in the digital code of your document, your Headings can be referenced and used by other technologies such as search engines, auto-formatting tools, and assistive technologies used by students with disabilities.

But exactly why are Headings useful for accessibility?

Headings Help You Move Through Text

Headings from this blog being presented by the NVDA screenreader.
Headings from this blog being presented by the NVDA screenreader.

In the user experience of a student using assistive technology, the Heading styles serve as landmarks in digital content.

Different assistive technologies present the user with a list of headings that serves as a table of contents. The user selects the heading they want to go to, and the assistive technology focuses that part of the document for the student to read.

Headings allow for students to more easily move through the material, rather than always starting at the beginning and reading through the text linearly.

Headings Provide Context and Structure

When you look at a written page you are taking in the headings and layout to form an impression of what the document is communicating, all within your first glance.

A student without sight can make use of a list of all the headings in a document to get a similar basic overview.

Headings Are Good Instructional Design

Whether or not you have a disability, Headings are useful in providing structure, reinforcing key points, and indicating what is to come. The use of Headings serves an instructional purpose for all of your students who are seeking to understand what you are sharing.

How to Use Heading Stlyes

The basic principle of Heading styles is always start with Heading 1 as your first heading.

Sub-headings follow in a numerical fashion, so Heading 2 follows Heading 1, Heading 3 follows Heading 2, and you never skip a level of Headings.

However, the most important rule of Headings is to simply have them!

Text Formatting

Beyond the use of Heading styles, you can add more clarity to your digital text when you utilize the defined styles from your text editor.

Ordered and Unordered Lists

The use of Numbered (also called Ordered) lists and Bulleted (also called Unordered) lists is another example of digital formatting identifying text as unique at a programmatic level.

Much like headings, defined lists can be used by some assistive technologies as reference points, making them easier to identify and use.

Use Numbered (Ordered) lists to provide a sequence of steps or instructions that need to be followed in a specific order.

Use Bulleted (Unordered) lists to simply indicate a grouping of items with no specific hierarchy.

Describe Non-Textual Content

The Alternative Text Editing Window from MS Word
The Alternative Text Editing Window from MS Word

When you use images, charts, graphs, or other non-textual content, always provide a textual description of the main point that content is conveying.

Friendly and Meaningful Hyperlinks

When you include links in your materials, try to make them descriptive of the content they lead to. Avoid repetitive or meaningless text like “click here” or “more info”.

Link Properties dialog from MS Word
Link Properties dialog from MS Word

Links can be used in the same way as Headings by assistive technology, extracted from the main text and presented as a list of navigation points for the document.

When you have multiple links using the same text for the anchor, it makes the links confusing and useless when they are presented out of context by assistive technology.

Also, it is recommended you don’t present the raw URL of links as the anchor unless it is possible the content might be printed out and distributed in paper format.

Define Header Rows for Tables

When you use digital tables in your content, it is important to label the Header Row (and column, if appropriate).

Table Tools for defining Header Rows in MS Word
The Table Tools in MS Word allow you to define a Header Row for your table.

Table Summaries should be provided for complex tables where an individual who is blind would need some sort of overview in order to understand the table layout and function.

A Good Start

These formatting tasks will not solve all of the accessibility problems your students might face, but when you perform them on your content, you will significantly improve the accessibility and usability of the content.

You can start incorporating these formatting tips into your workflow today, and have greater power in reaching ALL of your students.

Thanks for reading!

Online Accessibility in 31 Days

Rows of empty seats in an empty lecture hall.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Hello World!

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.

Technology Concerns

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.

Did you know?

Love to Learn sign depicted on sign that looks like a giant pencil.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Accessibility is often referred to as “a11y”. This is what is known as a “numeronym”, a word that uses the number of letters between the first and last letter to represent long words. In the word “accessibility” there are eleven letters between the a and the y. The fine folks at the A11Y Project provide a great overview of the a11y numeronym at: https://www.a11yproject.com/posts/2017-08-26-a11y-and-other-numeronyms/.

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.

Where Online Accessibility Begins and Ends

White Robot with human features
Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

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.

Balance Achieved?

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.

student using laptop
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

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.

Shift Happens spelled out in Scrabble tiles
Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash

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

smiling student looking up at you
Photo by Oluwakemi Solaja on Unsplash

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!

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.