Improving Accessibility Often Falls to Faculty. Here’s What They Can Do.

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Improving Accessibility Often Falls to Faculty. Here’s What They Can Do.

By Sydney Johnson     Apr 27, 2018

Improving Accessibility Often Falls to Faculty. Here’s What They Can Do.

Like many of her peers, Ann Wai-Yee Kwong struggled in statistics while working towards a bachelor's degree in psychology at UC Berkeley. But because she is legally blind, she had an added challenge of not being able to see the diagrams and notes projected in the lecture hall or assigned for homework.

Tools like screen readers could ease this issue for Kwong, who is now a Ph.D. student at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. But a common problem prevented that: some faculty have been slow to catch up with technological advances, and many wait until students ask for accomodations rather than having accessible materials from the start.

“I think the onus is still placed on the student with a disability” to ensure they have learning materials that they can benefit and learn from, says Kwong. “You have to advocate for yourself.”

That’s especially concerning to her, given assistive technologies alone won’t always help. “When I took stats, all my books had to be purchased in advance and run through software to transcribe it to Braille,” explains Kwong. But the translation wasn’t perfect, and graphics weren’t always correctly labeled. “By the time I would find the graphic,” she says, “we are already on, say, slide 20.”

Rules and regulations have evolved over the years to try to prevent the kind of experience Kwong had, and to require that all students have equal access to learning materials. That includes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for example, or Section 508 in the Rehabilitation Act, which states electronic and information technology must be accessible to all people including those with disabilities.

But few enforcement levers exist to make sure that courses are actually compliant. It’s often up to faculty themselves to ensure all students can access their learning materials.

The situation presents a challenge, especially for professors already stretched thin. Time, staffing, and training on how, exactly, to make course materials compliant were some of the top barriers a group of faculty listed at a session on online learning accessibility last week at the Online Learning Consortium Innovate conference. Chief among those barriers? Simply, awareness.

Nearly 11 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students have some form of disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Among that 11 percent, an even smaller portion tell their instructor.

“Not all students with disabilities choose to disclose,” says Kwong. “When I walk into a classroom, it's evident, so I tend to be forthright about what supports I need. But for some students [their disability] is not apparent.” Students may not want to disclose a disability due to the stigma attached. And either way, she adds, “I expect that if they give me homework, that I can actually do it.”

It’s why Kwong believes that instructors should take a proactive, universal approach to creating courses and materials that students with different learning styles can access from the get-go—instead of, for example, updating modules at the last minute after a student has requested it.

Kwong has found that some professors get touchy when asked to adjust their materials or their curriculum, however. And some instructors even view the requisitions as as an infringement to academic freedom.

Cole Eskridge, a course support specialist at University of Arizona’s office of digital learning, helps instructors at all stages think about approaching accessibility. Although verifying course accessibility isn’t written into the job description, Eskridge believes it is something any faculty or instructional designer should consider when developing courses—not simply to comply with regulations.

For example, Eskridge helps instructors spot potential problems in their course materials, like neglecting to provide captions or transcriptions for their lecture videos, or showing slides that lack a strong contrast between the font color and background. “I try to bring those conversations up, even if these are small changes,” Eskridge says. “If you can attach a solution rather than pointing at it and saying ‘wrong,’ people are receptive of that.”

Many institutions lack enforceable policies, or don’t have the resources to hire officials to support instructors hoping to make their courses more accessible. Eskridge points colleagues interested in taking these steps to online resources such as 24 Accessibility, a series of articles on digital accessibility, or the World Wide Web Consortium, which offers accessibility guidelines for developers and content creators, called WCAG, and ATAG for authoring tools.

“A lot of people are generally intimidated because there are so many guidelines, and if you don't have a technical background, that can be scary,” Eskridge says. “But WCAG isn't nearly as scary as people make it out to be.”

There’s good news for those who don’t know where to start or are weary of having to redo their entire syllabus or curriculum. Many tools, from learning management systems to Microsoft Office, offer checkers that identify areas that are not compatible with a screen reader or, for example, if an embedded image is lacking alt-text. Eskridge likes to use a free toolkit called Tota11y, which measures how a site performs with assistive technologies.

But there’s a caveat to any accessibility checker. “You really need know what it's actually checking,” Eskridge adds, so if it indicates that something isn’t accessible to some learners, instructors can make the appropriate changes.

In those circumstances, Eskridge and Kwong suggest turning to a campus disability center, or connecting with faculty at other institutions working on solving similar problems.

Both also underline the importance of faculty teaming up to create more accessible learning materials. Eskridge says: “I can't stress enough that it’s the importance of community when we are trying to solve a problem.”


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