The concept of “Teaching in an Accessibility World” came crashing into my personal life in 2014. My youngest son had been complaining about being unable to see schoolwork and thus we scheduled an eye exam. On the day of his eye exam, I was perplexed when he passed all the tests with 20/20 vision. As the doctor and I started talking to him it became apparent that there was only a certain activity that was giving him headaches and he was straining to see – a computer program that had a black background and red text. My heart sank, having a genetics background I knew what the diagnosis was before the doctor even pulled out the Ishihara plates. It took until 3rd grade, and a poorly designed online homework program, to realize that my son was red-green color deficient.
In the complicated accessibility world there is one guiding North Star – provide an equally accessible environment from the first day.
A student that needs closed captioning for videos shouldn't have to struggle without. A student that has to use a screen reader shouldn't need an alternative copy of a document or program so that they can access their material as a workaround. A student that doesn't see color the same as a majority of the population shouldn't struggle to see homework. Without having to ask or go through the extra steps to get accommodation all students should be able to access their materials-- on day one of class.
But as most teachers will tell you, just because things should be doesn’t always mean they are. And accessibility can be complicated! Creating lessons, materials, technologies, etc. in an accessible learning environment takes some forethought, expertise, and help. If it all possible, I would recommend the faculty request an expert in the accessibility field to present a faculty development workshop to help with navigation.
Here are five common best practices and takeaways from those expert presentations and discussions:
Build Your Class with Accessibility in Mind
It cannot be stressed enough that course design should factor in accessibility from the beginning. Doing so at the start of your course design will save you time and help ensure that you’re not recreating the wheel.
- Consult your accessibility department, school course design experts, and IT department.
- Ask what has already been implemented at your institution. Are there already guidelines and best practices in place?
- Be proactive – ask any publishers, software companies, learning management systems, or other partners about their materials and their accessibility practices.
- Not enough resources at your school? There’s a lot of information available online.
Use Closed Captioning or Provide Transcripts for Videos
With an increase in online presentation, videos have become an excellent way to share information. This may involve educators personally making videos of lectures, providing links to videos that we find informational, or even having students create videos themselves to evaluate learning. These materials need to be accessible to students that may have hearing issues with close captioning.
- For any material created by third-party sources make sure they have close captioning available for their video resources.
- With the material you create on your own, use a program that allows you to add close captions or provide a transcript. Make sure to use the same video software with close captioning ability for student-created videos too.
- For example, YouTube© closed captioning continues to improve, but it is also very easy to edit captioning if you are a creator. It is important if you are a creator to check the captioning and make sure that it is correct.
- When showing videos in class, double-check that the close captioning is on and easy to see for students.
Create Documents in Readable Forms
Students with visual impairments need to be able to easily access materials. What this means in practice, though, can range from making your syllabus really clear to ensuring that your assessments work with a screen reader.
- Creating content that you can embed into learning management systems; it’s an easy way to accommodate modern screen reader technologies.
- Make sure to use rich-text editors including the use of paragraphs and headers. Word© documents and PDFs are also typically screen-reader friendly.
- However, be careful about excessive use of the space bar or line-break to create space. This can create complications with keyboard navigation and screen readers. Word© has pre-made “Styles” in their toolbar that designate normal text, headings, titles, and more and these should be used. Also, be careful of your use of underlining text. Screen readers will sometimes confuse this as hyperlinked content, so other means should be used for emphasis if possible.
It is also important to be aware of things that are not screen-reader friendly.
- PowerPoint© slides that are saved as .pdfs are useless with screen readers.
- Also, many scanned items are not compatible. These will only be read as “image” and not convey the actual information.
- If you have images, make sure that there is alternate text that describes these. If you have a hard copy document, it may be time to re-create said document into a format that is more modern and accessible.
Use Fonts That are Clear
Font usage is especially important when it comes to learners with dyslexia, color deficiencies, or other processing issues. A few key things to know and consider:
- San serif fonts are typically better for learners with processing differences. Serifs are the decorative flourishes on the tips of letters. Arial, for example, is san serif, while Times New Roman is serif.
- Breaking text into columns is also easier to process.
- Using color with text is one of the more complicated issues to tackle. Using color can be very helpful for many students but you need to be careful and mindful of how it used. For example, in charts and graphs use colors that are boldly different, so that if someone processes color differently the shades are still variable enough to detect.
- Never put a black background with a red text, or use colors like red and green with each other to convey an important point.
Be Open to Change
This is only the tip of the ice burg. Ensuring that all of your materials are accessible can be a daunting process but it is very important in creating an equal learning environment for all students. Even educators that are very mindful of accommodation have to be open to new discoveries and new ways to create an accessible environment. It often does require additional work, but it cannot be overstressed that eager and brilliant learners with different abilities are in our classrooms working extra hard for their success.
Recommended Accessibility Resources
- AHEAD - Association of Higher Education and Disability
- American Council on Disabilities
- Website Accessibility Initiative
Rob Carr. (Jan 2019) Keynote speaker Rose State College convocation. Oklahoma ABLE Tech. www.okabletech.org
Hurst T and Lindon-Burgett D (ongoing), Rose State College eLearning Division, personal communications.