If a simulation isn’t your thing, you can check out the Web Accessibility Initiative’s draft paper on How People with Disabilities Use the Web.
Or you can read this wrap-up on how instructors should respond when a student has a speech impairment.
You can also take a quick glance at an article reviewing the accessibility of different college and university websites:
And here’s a table ranking schools on their ease of accessibility to blind students.
So, all of this invites the following question: How do you make sure your online resources / your online course meets the needs of all your students?
One of the most common questions we get regards how to give a student extra time on an online exam. For LearningStudio users, we’ve posted a little tutorial.
But going beyond exams, what should one do? For whom? And how?
According to the MIT Assistive Technology Center, here are some different groups of individuals whose needs merit consideration:
1. Visual disabilities: Difficulty accessing unlabeled graphics, icons, buttons, multimedia. Info may be lost in poorly marked up tables, forms and frames. May use keyboard navigation rather than a mouse. Use screen enlargement, screen readers or Braille displays. Problems with font sizes, color contrast or other display problems.
2. Hearing disabilities: Need captioning for audio and video.
3. Physical disabilities: May need to substitute mouse use with keyboard, voice input, or other input methods.
4. Cognitive disabilities: Need consistent navigation structure. Overly complex presentation can be a problem. Flickering or strobing designs can be a problem.
As an aside, if the moment presents itself, you can direct your students to We Connect Now, an organization founded in 2008 focused higher education and employment access for college students with disabilities.
The 2010 revisions of the ADA included a mandate to make websites accessible. If you are using a learning management system (like LearningStudio), it’s tempting to think that the course shell is handling all the accessibility concerns. However, if you’ve uploaded images, video / audio, or directed students to external websites, you may still need to take some additional steps.
Here is a list of best practices. Some of these are more applicable for stand-alone websites, but all are worth reading. The information below is drawn from accessibility information provided by MIT, UC Berkeley, Purdue, and Oregon State.
1. Label all images. Use the ALT field or fill in the image description as needed. It’s better to leave the ALT tag blank than to enter text that merely repeats the image caption, since a screen reader will read both fields.
2. Caption all video and audio. If this is not possible, provide a script or a summary.
3. Create structure. Using headings to add structure to a page is one of the simplest ways to greatly increase the accessibility of your pages for a screen reader user.
4. Label links properly. Without unique labels, users of screen readers can have trouble distinguishing one link from another. Consider adding a link to skip over navigation menus or lengthy lists of links. Likewise, avoid the use of “click here” and connect the link to something descriptive in the related phrase. (Guilty as charged! We’ll be changing that ASAP on this blog!)
5. Improve navigation. Requiring extra clicks or forcing a return to the homepage is clumsy for sighted students; it’s worse for those using adaptive technologies.
6. Keyboard-friendly shortcuts. You can let users know which keyboard shortcuts they can use by creating a page for your accessibility statement that lists each of these shortcuts and how to use them on a mac or PC. The link to this accessibility page should appear at least on the homepage, but ideally on all pages( i.e. within the global navigation or footer links).
7. Choose colors and contrast wisely. Use symbols and graphics that will work in a monochromatic environment. To test a page for effective contrast, you can print it on a black and white printer with the background color included. Color vision deficiencies may impact red and green (rendering them invisible) as well as yellow (beige, yellow and orange can be confused with red and green). Never rely on color alone to communicate importance, sarcasm, or other key meanings – clearly articulate these using text. This is a great contrast checker.
8. Allow for font resizing. Stylesheets created with pixel measurements (px) cannot be easily resized in some versions of Internet Explorer. To allow for resizing, size your stylesheets using another measurement such as em, pt, or relative sizes. A body font of 95% or 12 points is recomended (this is similar to 12 pixels in size, but percents and ems are resizeable on Internet Explorer).
9. Avoid tables when you can. Label them correctly when you must use them. Use basic header information for data tables; use elements and summary attributes whenever possible. For visual layout design, the preference is to employ stylesheets and div tags, not tables.
10. Be careful with PDF files. If possible, offer alternatives accessible through other programs (Word, etc.); offering the information in HTML is ideal. More extensive information on PDFs and accessibility is provided on this page. From the Purdue University web accessibility committee, here are some tips about creating accessible PDF files using Word.
11. Use Flash and interactive content wisely. Alternate versions of all interactive content and Flash pieces should be provided, if possible. If an alternate version cannot be provided, offer a summary and description.
These are actually universal design principles that will improve everyone’s experience in the online environment: your students with disabilities will benefit, but so will the rest of the class—and you may notice a difference, too, when you need to quickly locate a key piece of information and can move smoothly and quickly through your own content!
How do you know how accessible your content is? Here is a 6-step process that will give you a decent sense of things, courtesy of the good folks at the MIT Assistive Technology Information Center:
- Turn off images in your browser (make sure image place holders are turned on)
- Try to navigate without a mouse, using only your tab key
- Try to change the standard font colors and styles in your browser
- Try to increase the font size by using the browser (view > text size > increase)
- Turn off support for stylesheets
If you’ve done the above steps and your site still makes sense, then you are on the right path. If you’d like a more extensive checklist, complete with examples, the WebAIM initiaive has one.
Here’s a long list of accessibility evaluation tools. Note that if you are going to be checking multiple web pages, a toolbar plugin is the preferred method. A toolbar plugin will allow you to check password-protected pages and pages with dynamically generated content. Here’s a good website evaluation tool – note that there’s also the option to download a Firefox toolbar and a beta version of a Dreamweaver extension. As you evaluate your content, you may find it helpful to consider the standards for federal websites, which serve as a decent baseline for the rest of us.
Last, for those individuals wishing to dig deeper, here’s a nice look at current case law and higher education institutions – everything from service dogs to computerized tests to diagnosing disabilities. The links on the left-hand side of the page also provides a great overview of the ADA as it applies to universities.