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Teaching in an ADA World


One of the hottest topics in education right now is accessibility.  It’s becoming more and more commonplace to be asked if our class materials are compliant or if we are meeting accessibility regulations. Some of us have probably sat through meetings or training designed to help increase our knowledge of accessibility but still walked away feeling confused about what it means for those of us in the classroom. Often accessibility is covered with more of a tone of fear (“If we don’t do this, we might be sued!”) or misinformation. Although there are some elements that are still in flux with regards to education, particularly with technology, knowing what accessibility is and how best to plan to accommodate all students can result in a positive experience for all students.

What is Accessibility?

Although most often referred to by its initials, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 to ensure equal access for all regardless of disabilities. Although we, as instructors, deal most frequently with ADA in regards to education, it also applies to many things that might be encountered in daily like such as employment, accommodations, transportation, etc. Title II of ADA specifically covers public higher education such as universities, community colleges, and vocational schools, and Title III covers privately-funded higher education institutions. If you want to read all the sections of this law, the government has set up a website at www.ada.gov that provides the laws and regulations, updates, design standards, materials, and even enforcement.

The important thing to know, in regards to post-secondary education, is that the student must meet with the appropriate people on campus (typically a Student Disabilities Coordinator) and provide documentation of a disability and the “reasonable accommodations” (Section I of ADA provides more about how “reasonable” is defined). This means that you should know who your students who need accommodations will be and how you are expected to accommodate them, usually from paperwork from your school’s disability office. Because it can be difficult to adjust classes based on a student’s documented needs, most states are pushing for colleges to be preparing for these students ahead of time. This also takes into account that you may have students who may have needs that are not documented or students who benefit from aspects of an ADA class (e.g. students who have trouble listening to videos but can understand more if they are able to turn on closed captioning).

What do I need to do?

Accessibility can seem really overwhelming, particularly if you are trying to read through all the documents about it, but there are some things that you can do in your own classes to ensure that you are putting forth a good faith effort and have classes that are accessible for everyone.

  • Be aware of accessibility going forward

A mistake a lot of instructors make is trying to go back and fix everything from the past first thing. If you have made a lot of videos, this can be particularly disheartening. Rather than worry about everything that has already been created, focus on the new things you are going to be adding to your classes first. This will allow you to be adding accessibility compliant material organically and then you can work on bringing older materials up to compliance. Maybe some of the materials you have are getting outdated or are not being used, so this might be a good chance to take stock and adjust accordingly with what you really want to keep in your classes.

  • Know what to make compliant

Take stock of what materials you use in your class and consider them from all angles. A few general things to look for in your classes:

  • Videos or audio: If you use videos in your class, make sure that there are closed captions available for it. For any videos that you make, be sure that you double-check that your closed captions are correct (sometimes automatic closed captioning can be thrown off by accents or style of speaking) and/or that you have a transcript for the video. Make sure that any important actions on the video are clearly explained aloud. For any audio recordings, be sure to have a matching transcript.
  • Handouts: Have a virtual copy of any handouts available for students who have vision problems and may need to increase the size or have it read by a screen reader. Any text files used should be editable rather than an image so that a screen reader can read it accurately. If a handout has a table, you want to have all the headings on the rows and columns clear and readable by a screen reader.
  • Images: In a traditional classroom, any images you have can be described in person, but in an online setting, you want to be sure that your images have an alternative text (alt-text) that describes the image. This is usually an option given when uploading an image. If an image is not important to the lesson material, using a “null” description allows a screen reader to acknowledge that there is an image, but it is not essential or conveying any information.
  • Text choices: When choosing colors for a text, be sure that you choose contrasting colors, that the text is written in such a way to be easily viewed (sans-serif fonts are the best choice), and that you are not using colors to convey the importance of certain words or sentences.
  • Check on the accessibility of programs and software you are using in a class

If you are using publisher content in a course, the publishers should have a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) that is filled out and explains what is accessible with the product, what isn’t considered accessible, and what is being worked on. This allows you to select materials that you know will be accessible for all students.

  • Follow the accommodation forms

Oftentimes the needs that a student has are not ones that you can build ahead of time, so it’s important to be prepared to make adjustments on assignments or tests based on a student’s requirements. Some students may just need extra time or a quiet place for testing, so plan how you will handle this. Sometimes a note-taker or sign language interpreter may be needed, and asking how your school handles this ahead of time before you have a student who has this need will allow you to be prepared.

  • Be familiar with your school’s resources

Your school may have someone whose job is to help you with setting your courses so that it and any materials you have are accessible, so make sure to ask if that’s an available resource for you. Check to see if your school has special tools for students who might need them, such as screen readers like JAWS or software for students who are hard of hearing. Get to know your school’s disability coordinator so that you will know who to talk to if you have students with special accommodations. Even talking to your librarians about what the library has to help you with making your course ADA compliant can be a great help.

Making sure that every student has the same access to education and a positive experience in our classes is something that I think that we all feel passionate about. Being aware of accessibility compliance is just another level of this and can help make the classroom experience less frustrating for many students, including students who may not have a documented need but still benefit from things like proper text choices and being able to have closed captioning to follow along in a video. With awareness, a little bit of work, and improving new technologies, ADA can become something that you will become more familiar with and that your students will reap the benefits from.

Additional Helpful Websites:

WebAIM: https://webaim.org/

ADA National Network: https://adata.org/

About the Author

Maureen Walters has been an English instructor for the last thirteen years at Vance-Granville Community College located in Henderson, NC. Her classes include composition, literature, and technical writing. She teaches primarily online classes and enjoys finding new and exciting ways to use technology with students. She also works as the school's instructional designer and helps faculty and students navigate the online classroom as successfully as possible. When not in the classroom, she also enjoys working with students in the school's honor society and teaching students about the importance of community involvement.

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