Check out this dyslexic font. I’m not dyslexic, but I love using this font because I do have a bit of hyperopia. Fortunately, thanks to the accessibility features in the course LMS I use, both my dyslexic students and I can opt to have our course information display in this font.
College instructors are often not aware that there are students with disabilities in their classrooms or digital learning spaces. Dyslexia, a range of specific reading disorders and the most prevalent learning disability in the country, affects as much as 20% of the population (Korbey, 2015). Yet like many disabilities, dyslexia is invisible. As a composition instructor, I ask students in my first-semester classes to begin our journey forward into writing by looking backward and authoring a literacy narrative. I have never given this assignment to a class in which at least one student did not use it to reveal and explore their experience with dyslexia. I have found the literacy narrative a powerful genre for initiating a first-semester writing experience that so many students approach with trepidation in such a way that those students find the course to be more inclusive, empowering, and transformative than they had expected as they gain the critical, literacy and writing technology skills they need to be successful in college and career. But that topic is for another post.
My point here is that many disabilities are unseen, and that even educators, who know that every individual has relative strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning, may not be aware of either the presence of disability among their students or of what barriers exist for those students. The need for faculty to be supported in developing inclusive, accessible learning experiences is amplified with the advent of ubiquitous digital learning tools such as LMS course shells. In fully digital learning environments, it can be harder to get to know students and their needs, and digital content may be inaccessible to students with, for example, visual, hearing, or movement impairments.
Web accessibility, a term sometimes shortened to accessibility, is an aspect of teaching in digital-age environments that “means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them” (Introduction, 2018). In an accessible digital learning experience, students can access all content and complete all activities without meeting barriers.
I believe that faculty want all of their students to succeed, but because they often receive limited “training” or simply receive requirements for accessibility compliance, they are not always equipped with the big-picture view of the issues and approaches that make inclusive educational design a joy rather than a burden. As a teacher and leader within the worlds of public higher education and public K-12 education, it is my role not only to know about adaptive and assistive technologies (ISTE Standard for Coaches 3d), and comply with accessibility laws (ISTE Standard for Coaches 5) that govern use of my institution’s existing educational infrastructure (ISTE Standard for Coaches 3f), but to make doing so a matter of mindset (ISTE Standard for Coaches 1) rather than just of compliance. This includes advocating for the time, training, and institutional approaches or processes that are needed for inclusive digital education and it includes creating vision for accessibility measures as tools that belong to the realm of teaching.
This post provides an overview of the laws governing web accessibility, two primary approaches to accessibility within higher education, and the different roles that faculty, staff/departments, and administrators can do to make digital college education accessible.
Higher education has become more inclusive in terms of access over time with the passing of legislation and social movements that have increased college enrollment among veterans, women, minorities, and those who experience disabilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. also saw increased access through the development of the community college model, which seeks to bridge around half of today’s American undergraduate students to credentials, careers, and further education (Bailey, Smith Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015). The work involved in designing educational options and programs that are effective for all types of students has moved more slowly.
Two approaches that are frequently used for re-envisioning education as inclusive of those with disabilities are Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and web accessibility. UDL, which won’t be discussed here but that I’ve blogged about elsewhere, replaces the idea of accommodation and adaptation with the idea of design based on multiple neurological and physical access points, a design intended to make a learning experience universally engaging and effective for all learners. In turn, this principle overlaps with educational approaches such as Guided Pathways and High Impact Practices that seek to provide program completion, deep learning, and equity for socioeconomically and culturally diverse students. I mention this overlap to reinforce the idea of equitable access as a matter of mindset that reflects the way educators today are approaching instructional design in terms of inclusion for deep learning in a 21st century context.
The second approach typically used in addressing issues of equity for students with disabilities is web accessibility.
Accessibility at a glance
There are essentially two realms of accessibility: content accessibility and platform accessibility. Platform accessibility involves addressing problems with accessibility in the code base underlying the LMS system or other software that may prevent the software from integrating with students’ assistive devices. Platform accessibility also addresses the way an LMS system or software device is coded to provide, for example, appropriate color contrast that will allow visually impaired as well as other students to read with relative ease. While faculty usually cannot resolve platform accessibility problems themselves, they can report those problems.
The second area of accessibility, content accessibility involves, barriers for those with disabilities that occur in the materials that faculty produce or use within an LMS. Examples of such barriers could include:
- Uncaptioned videos that cannot be experienced by the hearing impaired
- PDF files that cannot be read by a screen reader for the visually impaired
- Content that is not structured for a screen reader (for example, with content without frequent headings, with repeated blank spaces, or without alternative text for images and headings in tables)
- Inconsistent navigation patterns and naming conventions for files
The challenges for faculty as they seek to provide accessible course content is the sheer number of barriers that can be created in digital learning environments, the average technology user’s (i.e. faculty member’s) lack of specific knowledge of all of the possible barriers, and sometimes a lack of tools, training and time for eliminating barriers. But content accessibility is the realm in which faculty can have agency, for example by using accessibility checklists and protocols as they create courses that are more thoughtfully universal in design. Some resources for these types of checklists are provided at the conclusion of this post.
It is also important to realize that because of the number of possible accessibility errors and the potential of technological tools for glitches, accessibility checking should be approached as an inter-institutional partnership in which different individuals and departments help provide multiple perspectives and means of review. Accessible digital education is a team endeavor.
The legal landscape
In the United States, web accessibility is governed by procurement laws, accessibility laws, and non-discrimination laws that variously govern public, private, and government sectors. The beginning points for developing an institutional policy for accessibility are
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1998
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended in 2009
- Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1990
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative provides links to helpful explanations and to the guides and standards that have been developed for each law on its policies page.
W3C has also developed a series of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which are the standards or technical guidelines for accessible web content and web coding that many countries, including the U.S. and its higher education institutions, use to comply with their governments’ laws. The WCAG 2.0 standards were published in 2008, and WCAG 2.1 was just published in June 2018.
Many colleges and universities have developed their own shortened checklists for the WCAG standards. Two good places for faculty or departments to get an overview of WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 are
What faculty can do, departments, and institutions can do
Web accessibility requires such a breadth of specialized knowledge of specific disabilities and the available assistive technologies (AT) for them, of coding, and of the issues that may not be revealed through an automated checker, that it truly requires an ongoing collaborative institutional vision. However,
Faculty members can…
- Consider and modify course structures with UDL principles and potential accessibility issues in mind. For example, teach using assistive technologies such as screen readers as a de-stigmatized, useful tool for all students (Seale, Georgeson, Mamas, & Swain, 2015). A screen reader can allow a student to review reading while working out at the gym as well as provide a visually impaired student access to the text.
- Investigate the accessibility of software integrations before adopting them (Hamrick & Grabham, 2018)
- Consider putting content directly into LMS pages rather than as linked files (Hamrick & Grabham, 2018)
- Use accessibility check tools that are built into some content-creation software such as Microsoft’s Office tools and into some LMS systems. Third-party accessibility checkers also exist. LMS systems also have accessibility guidelines and community pages such as Canvas’ Accessibility with Canvas page
- Include on syllabi a list of software integrations that will be used in the course (Hamrick & Grabham, 2018)
- Gather student feedback and bring that information to the attention of the institution (Hamrick & Grabham, 2018)
Departments and instructional technologists can…
- Screen vendor software for accessibility (Hamrick & Grabham, 2018)
- Educate faculty about the basic laws involved
- Educate faculty about the basic principles of Universal Design
- Determine the top few accessibility issues with the institution’s LMS or curricula and support faculty in addressing those issues(Hamrick & Grabham, 2018)
- Develop lists of best practices, and checklists and tools (such as OCR conversion tools and Adobe Acrobat Pro) for faculty to do their own accessibility building and checking
- Provide support such as screening syllabi and course shells, as well as providing consulting and partnership with compliance or educational technology officers
What institutions can do
If goals such as universal accessibility require collaboration across an institution, such collaboration tends to exist only when it is supported by an administration that has a vision for an institutional pathway for achieving such a goal.
Cifuentes, Janney, Guerra, & Weir, (2016) provide a process model that their institution, a state higher education institution with a 6-person Office of Distance Education and Learning Technologies for its 12,000 student, 600 faculty member campus. The model involves three basic stages: it moves from, first, exploring needs, requirements and principles; to second, building infrastructure and related issues such as choosing software and training faculty; to third, evaluation and refinement. I think the visual display of this process is helpful not only for conceptualizing how to approach accessibility (or any other curricular goal) in a holistic way, but also for seeing which personnel might work on which stages of the process and for gaining a sense of the time involved.
A difficulty in developing accessible courses is the time involved, and this visualization helps place some of that time burden on the institutional planning and review processes rather than solely on the faculty or designers who design courses. Therefore, I think this model could be scaled to a smaller college with a smaller staff because it focuses on essential phases and the time, tasks, and types of personnel involved.
Bailey, T.R., Smith Jaggars, S. & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cifuentes, L., Janney, A., Guerra, L. & Weir, J. (2016). A working model for complying with accessibility guidelines for online learning. TechTrends, 60(6): 557-564.
Hamrick, L., & Grabham, B. (2018, August). It takes a campus: Creating accessible learning experiences for students in an LMS. Conference session presented at Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology (COLTT) 2018 Conference, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO.
Introduction to web accessibility. (2018, March 24). Retrieved from World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Access Initiative website: https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/accessibility-intro/#context
Korbey, H. (2015, October 8). Why recognizing dyslexia in children at school can be difficult. Retrieved from KQED News website: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/41908/why-recognizing-dyslexia-in-children-at-school-can-be-difficult
Seale, J., Georgeson, J., Mamas, C., & Swain, J. (2015). Not the right kind of ‘digital capital? An examination of the complex relationship between disabled students, their technologies, and higher education institutions. Computers & Education, 82, 118-128. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131514002541?via%3Dihub