WCET and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) jointly offer this blog post on a topic of national interest to education communities. This post is part of the ongoing collaboration on accessibility issues between WCET and OLC.
Thank you to Kelly Hermann, University of Phoenix, for today’s guest post.
It often feels like there are many more questions about accessibility than there are answers. This is especially true when it comes to deciding which content, tools and/or products we are going to bring to campus and use in our courses. Cyndi Rowland wrote a great piece about “The Role of Procurement in Digital Accessibility” right before the WCET annual meeting. Since we are gathering together in Orlando this week for OLC’s Accelerate conference where we will have a featured session on this topic, I want to take a step back and walk through questions I think campus administrators have to ask themselves about the product/tools/content we use and how we choose them.
I think it has become clear by now that the ADA and Section 504 requires colleges and universities to ensure that its digital environments and activities are accessible to individuals with disabilities as an aspect of each law’s provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a disability. What this means is that everything we do online is—in some way, shape or form—a service offering or activity of the institution and must be accessible.
It is also an opportunity for us to remind ourselves not to be penny wise and pound foolish. As Cyndi mentioned in her post, the federal government has reminded us that there are certain accessibility needs that we know will need to be addressed (e.g., captions) regardless of when, how, or why a person with a disability requests them. It benefits all of us to “bake” this level of accessibility into our activities rather than wait to “bolt” it on after the fact.
What does it mean to “bolt-on” accessibility?
Let’s take a look at this picture of a building entrance. What do you notice about it? The first thing I notice is that the ramp was not part of the original design. The ramp is red, metal, and temporary, and it covers over several steps to the entrance. The ramp doesn’t fit in, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. This is what I would refer to as “bolted-on” accessibility. It is a modification made after the structure was built to address an access need because an individual with a disability could not enter the building without it. It is an afterthought and was retrofitted.
What does it mean to “bake in” accessibility?
In contrast, the ramp is this image is a universally-designed component that fits with the design and the aesthetic of the building. This ramp is an example of “baking” accessibility into your design. This ramp serves as a means for individuals with disabilities to access the building but, unlike an elevator, is still available in the event of an emergency requiring people to evacuate the building quickly. There was no need to retrofit accessibility into this building. The ramp provides a welcoming, inclusive environment for guests of all ability levels.
We can accomplish the same thing in our digital environments when we consider accessibility during all phases of content development, including our websites and online courses. The stakes are a little higher for online courses, so let’s focus on the questions you and your content developers (faculty, subject matter experts, instructional designers, academic administration, educational technologists, etc.) should be asking as you are deciding what to include in your courses.
What is this tool, product, or content going to be used for?
My academic colleagues are sometimes surprised when the first question I ask when reviewing a course for accessibility is for them walk me through the learning objectives for the course. Why? Because the learning objectives are really at the heart of determining which components are or are not a reduction of standards or a fundamental alteration of the course, assignment, or program. This is important—not only for determining reasonable accommodations in the disability services office—but also for deciding whether or not the selected tool/product/content is integral to the course when it is not accessible.
This question also addresses one of the myths that seems to pervade higher education’s understanding of accessibility requirements. I am frequently asked this question, “Kelly, why are we prioritizing the needs of a few students over the needs of the many?” At face value, the question can be infuriating to those of us who work with students with disabilities and realize that they deserve the same care and consideration as every other student in the class. But that usually isn’t the message the person is attempting to convey. Some people may feel like we are playing a zero-sum game when this is not the case, and it can seem like ADA/504 concerns are taking away our ability to be creative, innovative and agile.
The reality is exactly the opposite. Designing with accessibility in mind and addressing accessibility concerns long before a student ever enters a course allows us to be more creative and to think outside of the box to find solutions. It also allows us to build in support for all students at the university, not just those with identified or disclosed disabilities.
Let’s take captions for instance. Most of us know that individuals who cannot hear will need a text-based alternative for the sounds of a video. What we might not realize is that captions benefit the student who needs to watch a video for class during his/her lunch hour and forgot to bring headphones to work. That student can now watch the video, with the sound off and the captions on, and still consume the content of that video by reading the captions. Or how about students who speak English as a second language? Captions are a great tool for them to use to reinforce their understanding of the English language as they can listen and read at the same time. And there are lots of other examples. The point is that captions benefit more users than the ones for which they were originally designed. The result is that the video is not only more accessible, but more usable as well.
Who are our students?
This may seem like a no-brainer—of course we know who our students are. But do we really? Do you know which students are enrolling in your online courses and what background and experiences they are bringing with them? This is especially important when considering your students with disabilities on campus.
At the University of Phoenix, we focus on adult learners. Adult learners tend to have multiple, competing responsibilities they are balancing with their school work, including jobs, families, volunteer commitments, etc. And adult students with disabilities are more likely to have acquired their disability after their last formal experience with schooling and have very limited experience with asking for and using accommodations, including assistive technology. I have worked with thousands of students over the past 13 years at two different adult-learner focused institutions with strong online programs and have found this to be true.
Many of these students are learning how to use the assistive technology at the same time that they are enrolling in online courses and learning your content. That is a lot to grasp at one time. These students may not be savvy users of technology and may require your disability services office to recommend different accommodation strategies for them.
In addition to knowing where your students reside on the traditional vs. non-traditional spectrum, it is also important to understand what disabilities are disclosed to your disability services office and at what rate. It used to be a fairly safe bet that schools with traditionally-aged populations of students would have a large number of students with learning disabilities. In recent years, we have seen a shift, and now more students are disclosing mental health and psychological diagnoses. And as medical advancements have evolved, more and more students are coming to us with chronic and sometimes episodic medical conditions. These students may be looking at your online courses as a way to progress towards their degrees in light of the challenges they face in traveling to campus. What does accessibility look like for them?
Are there alternative means to teach this content to students?
I think we sometimes forget that we were teaching math to college students long before the publishers decided to put together software programs and websites to supplement their textbook materials. How did we do that? We need to get back to some of those basics when the desired tools we want to use do not meet our accessibility standards.
Cyndi’s post laid out the essential steps that all institutions should consider when working with vendors throughout the procurement process. Those are critical. But what happens when the tool that you want to use in your course is not accessible, yet it is essential to the learning objectives of the course? This is a conflict that I am asked about frequently, both at my own institution and by colleagues at other institutions. Let’s break it down.
First, we need to determine if the selected tool is truly essential to the learning objectives of the course. Let’s say that I am reviewing an accounting course. It is an introductory level course that is designed to teach students the basic principles of accounting. The instructional designer has worked with the subject matter expert, a tenured accounting professor, and has determined that the assignments should be built around a specific accounting software that is both commercially available and widely used by accountants and small business owners. However, that particular tool does not meet the university’s benchmark accessibility standard. I present my report to the instructional designer, the subject matter expert, and the dean responsible for the course. We know that the learning objectives are focused on accounting principles and not on mastery of this particular tool, so it appears that we can substitute this tool with another means of demonstrating learning.
The next things we look at are the assignments themselves. What exactly are students required to do? We want to be sure that we are providing students with the right tools and instructions, so they can effectively demonstrate that they have met the learning objectives. If the assignment is to determine the profits and losses for a small company in a particular month, does that task have to be performed with that specific tool, or are there other ways to accomplish it? Can those tasks be performed in a spreadsheet program that is accessible? Does it make sense to offer all students the option to choose one of multiple methods for completing the assignment rather than just requiring the one program that is not accessible?
Many of you might be scratching your heads right now and thinking, “Kelly, it almost sounds like you are saying that it is ok for us to use inaccessible tools in our courses if we have an alternative?” This is one of those statements where colleagues usually accuse those of us in accessibility and disability services as being an “all or nothing” type entity, and we aren’t.
There are times when it is absolutely essential to include inaccessible content, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be proactive. You have to have an equally effective alternative for that assignment that offers the student with a disability the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in a manner that allows them to be independent with “substantially equivalent ease of use” (FAQ about the June 29, 2010 Dear Colleague Letter, 2011).
This is a good opportunity to remind everyone what the Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice have said the definition of accessibility is:
Students with disabilities “must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services” as students without disabilities “with substantially equivalent ease of use” (Joint Dear Colleague Letter, June 2010).
This does not mean that we arbitrarily say that tools that we want to use are vital to the course—regardless of their accessibility—and that the institution will just pay for a reader to work with a student who can’t access said tool. That solution does not allow the student to acquire the same information, with the same interactions, and with the same service allowing substantially equivalent ease of use, and it is not a good experience for the student who needs that access. But it does mean that we have to be reasonable when balancing the needs of the students with the learning objectives of the course or program.
To go back to our accounting course example, I would argue that the specific program that does not meet the university’s accessibility standard is not essential to the learning objectives of the introductory accounting course. Now, if the course we were reviewing was “Accounting Software for the Small Business Professional,” and a learning objective of the course was not only to gain mastery of the program, but to also pass a certification exam for use of that program, then the program is essential to the learning objectives of the course, and we need to develop an alternative access plan for any student who enrolls in the course and cannot use the program.
Bringing it all together: the recipe for access
Cyndi’s post highlighted the responsibility that institutions have, not only for buying accessible tools, but also for ensuring that we protect our institutional resources by asking about accessibility, obtaining accessibility documentation about desired products and services, and including language in our contracts regarding the promised accessibility standards when procuring external content. These steps are critically important have had considerable impact on the tools that our institutions are using today. We need to ask vendors how they address accessibility, what their accessibility roadmap is, what sort of user-acceptance testing they do with screen readers and other assistive technology, and how we can share feedback regarding accessibility throughout all stages of the relationship between the vendor and the institution.
We also need to be sure that our colleagues understand what accessibility is and what it isn’t. Many of the resolution agreements related to web accessibility signed with the Office for Civil Rights include requirements for campus-wide training on accessibility. We need to be sure that we stock our colleagues’ toolboxes when it comes to accessibility. Because accessibility is an institutional responsibility, not just the responsibility of your disability services office. We all have a part to play in building a culture of accessibility on campus, baking accessibility into everything we do, and ensuring that students feel welcomed and included, regardless of their abilities, so they can earn their degrees and attain their goals.