In the last post, we left off talking about how creating a great online learning experience starts with making our learning accessible to learners.
We, and that’s the royal “we” of folks who work in the software industry, have written standards that we need to follow when it comes to access. The requirements defined for accessibility vary regionally. In the U.S., accessibility is typically looked at through the lens of Section 508.
Similar to the ADA physical design standard linked in the previous post, Section 508 defines the requirements for software to be considered accessible. Section 508 is the section of text in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that provides for equal access to electronic and information technology for disabled employees of the Federal government. [Sidebar: If you want to do business with the federal government, your software better be Section 508 compliant.] Many states also use Section 508 as a minimum requirement for their software as well as having their own definitions.
That sounds complicated. It can be, but you’re not alone in this. There is a whole field of Accessible Technology which is designed to help users in the online world the same way that technology in the physical world assists folks. Blind/low-vision users can get a lot of information via screen readers, which are text-to-speech converters that will read your site to them. Deaf/hard of hearing users can have videos interpreted via closed captioning, transcripts, and when available/if appropriate sign language translation.
One of the goals in Section 508 is to make sure the things we create, software, websites, and content, will work with those existing technologies. As of this year, Section 508 also incorporates Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to expand accessibility requirements and standardize what success looks like when it comes to accessibility.
So what do I need to do? Well, that’s going to depend on what you do, but it’s easy to get started. The next posts will go in depth on what you need to do to make sure your content delivery system and your content are accessible.
If you can’t get to it, then you can’t use it.
If I can’t get to a classroom, I’m going to miss the discussion, the lecture, lose the ability to ask questions, and my learning is very definitely impacted. We make our physical spaces accessible by following design standards that are planned to accommodate all of the bodies and abilities we can imagine in all of the ways we can think of. Physical space design standards are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and illustrated in very specific ways here. Anything that impacts a person’s movements, from the size of a doorway to the lack of a ramp or elevator, literally prevents their access to learning.
A learner's ability to access a learning space and use the resources in it is the most basic definition of accessibility in learning. That applies whether we're talking brick and mortar buildings or online learning spaces. Our goal as instructors is to communicate the same information to all of our learners, give them space to process it and apply that knowledge through projects, teaching or other learning assignments.
There are a lot of issues that can come up when it comes to access some that will impact different audiences based on their abilities. Are you doing a live video session? Do live video sessions have captions or a transcript? Are colors used to communicate status information that a colorblind user might miss out on? There is a lot to think about but don’t let it be overwhelming. Access issues are solvable, and we have the technology and capacity to do it. And the best part is, better access is beneficial to everyone. That transcript of a video can be reformatted as a QuickStart instruction guide. A text description in place of a color-changing icon means that both a colorblind user and a low vision or blind screen reader user gets detail they would have otherwise missed.
The article below is based on my experience with implementing software based on accessibility standards in the U.S. If I have misspoken or been insensitive in my language, my deepest apologies. And I thank you in advance if you choose to comment below or use the Contact page to send me corrections or feedback.
What is equal access?
Everyone needs to be able to access public spaces, transit, businesses, non-profits, and government services. The goods, services, and programs provided need to be just as available and accessible to a person with disabilities as a person without disabilities. For example, both disabled and abled people need to be able to go to a physical school building. That building should include wheelchair ramps, an elevator, and accessible bathrooms. If you don't see those things, notice who is missing from that building, and those classrooms. And we're not talking about just the students, but also the teachers, staff, and parents. If accessible entries and basic self-care needs can't be met, then the learning space has a problem defined as a lack of access.
The need to make spaces accessible and the requirements for doing so will differ based on where you are. In the US, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that you can learn about here: https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/disability/ada The hope is that businesses will make their products, services, and spaces accessible to any potential employee or customer, and that if a lack of access is pointed out, the business will voluntarily fix the issue. But in many cases, those accessibility requests aren’t fulfilled for a variety of reasons - it’s deemed too expensive, it only affects a small percentage of the population, it’s not taken seriously. When a lack of access occurs and no attempt is made to fix it, it may need to be reported to the Department of Justice who then investigates and may bring on an attorney to manage settling the situation - the goal being that the business fixes the issues(s).
Access benefits everyone, from the parent pushing a stroller who is able to use the wheelchair ramp at a street corner to the employee who now has an accessible restroom on the floor of their building because of a customer request. But access in physical spaces is just the beginning of the picture.
In the last post, we discussed how to make sure the software you use is accessible. Now we’re on to the final step that puts the power back into the hands of the user.
How do I make my content accessible? After a whole lot of years in learning management, this is a question that comes up a lot. You’ve been mandated by your department, dean, HR team, etc to make your content accessible to users. Assuming you have an idea of what that means, where do you start?
The first thing I often recommend once we get over the hurdle of defining the what and why of accessibility is to run an accessibility scan. Find out where you stand with your existing content.
One note: Remember that if your content is behind a login, for instance a course in a learning management system, the free scanners may be not able to access your content.
Use the results of the scan to see where updates need to happen. If you follow this list of tips from UC Berkeley you can knock out some of the most common problems around headers, graphics, and tables.
Don’t have a course yet? That’s ok, let’s think about the sort of content that you need. This could include videos, graphics, text, uploaded documents, slideshows, and content that you create in the content or learning management system like quizzes, polls, surveys, and assignments.
The goal is to always have multiple methods of sharing information. Have a great graphic that shows an important process? Write a text caption to go with it.
That video with great narration? Provide a copy of the transcript. I am a hearing person, but I love having transcripts when I need to refer back to a video or if I want to access content but am not in a space where playing the audio would be welcomed.
What If I’m ready to go further?The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a leader in Accessible Technology and has a great website filled with advice and tutorials to take your knowledge even further, ranging from creating accessible PDFs to avoiding interactions that require mouse movements.
They also host community of practice meetings regularly to discuss accessibility issues. While theirs might not be the right place for you, seek out communities of practice, whether they are specific to the content management software you use, the development language, your region, or any other niche that makes sense for you so that we can inform and practice more inclusive design and development together.
Here’s my two cents, in shorter terms:We all have to start somewhere.
In part three of this series on Making Learning Accessible, we take a look at what you need to do to make your web content accessible. Today’s post focuses on the tools used for content delivery and what to do if you’re not a software/web developer.
Do you manage your own content through someone else’s software?Awesome, start with UC Berkely’s ten tips on web accessibility here. Your goal is two-fold:
How do I make sure my software is accessible?First, ask. Check with your helpdesk, IT team, site administrator, or the vendor to see if the software meets Section 508 accessibility requirements. If you are the Site Administrator, see if your vendor has a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) completed for the release of the software you use. The VPAT requires the vendor to explain what parts of the software don’t meet Section 508 requirements, what workarounds exist, and if they are working on a fix.
If you can’t get a clear answer, you can do some testing on your own. There are tons of free resources and tools out there to help. A good place to start is to run an accessibility scan of your site. There are lots of free accessibility scanners available that will give results for free like this open source accessibility scanner. You input your URL, run the scan and will receive a report with any issues that can be corrected technically. Some of the items the scan will check for include: