Despite advancements in online learning technologies and platforms, accommodations to make these technologies accessible to students and faculty with disabilities are not keeping pace.

Though most institutions realize they must make accessibility a priority, figuring out the best approach and identifying funding sources can be daunting. A new whitepaper from 3PlayMedia delves into some of these issues and offers guidance as universities strive to make their content as accessible as possible.

Students and faculty who are deaf or have hearing challenges, who are blind or have low vision, who are color blind, or who have physical disabilities or temporary disabilities (such as those due to injury) all require accessibility features to help them consume digital information.

Thirty-three percent of students enrolled in four-year institutions complete a bachelor’s degree, compared with 48 percent of students without disabilities. A 2011 World Health Organization report notes that 1 in 5 Americans age 12 or older have hearing loss significant enough to interfere with day-to-day communications.

Eleven percent of post-secondary students report having a disability. Federal and state laws have addressed telecommunications accessibility, but the report notes that the proliferation of web multimedia has outpaced accessibility initiatives. This leaves disabled students more disadvantaged than before, and many higher education institutions’ responses have been reactive instead of proactive.

(Next page: Steps to web content accessibility)

When it comes to web accessibility, there are a number of important considerations:

Accessible hardware, including laptops, tablets, and recording devices, should support accessibility features. Administrators can create accessibility by requesting accessible devices and components in purchasing contracts. One approach is to offer companies an exclusive contract in exchange for accessibility features added to a current acquisition. It’s also effective to team up with other institutions to leverage the power of collective purchasing.

Faculty should be aware of different disability needs to ensure classroom content, including accessible software, is available to their students. For instance, a simple switch in Microsoft Word settings can enable screen readers for the blind to interpret headings, tables, and supplementary images. Administrators should educate professors about software accessibility and make the simple adaptations mandatory. An institution’s office of disability services could conduct faculty workshops.

Digital text documents should be accessible to those who use screen readers. PDFs must be designed and formatted in such a way that a screen reader can navigate and read all components of the document. PDF/UA (PDF/Universal Accessibility), the international standard for PDF accessibility, offers
comprehensive accessibility guidelines that can be applied to most digital documents. Tips to create accessible text documents include using short titles in headings, adding alt text to images and objects, increasing visibility for colorblind viewers, and structuring layout tables for easy navigation.

When it comes to accessible web design, university web developers are crucial to supporting students and faculty with disabilities. As a first step in the development process, think through who will visit the website and what their objectives will be. Outline or map the site to keep a clear focus on the important content and its navigation. Best practices are to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a set of standards published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Consider format, fonts, color, images, tables, and links in the design process.

Online video is quickly becoming one of the top tools in online teaching, and ensuring accessible video and audio can help faculty and students with disabilities reach important content. Transcripts, captions, and audio descriptions all should be addressed because of the role they play in content accessibility.

University staff involved in accessible course design also might want to consider developing student personas. This new concept is often used in product design. Personas are tools that profile a diverse group of users by applying real information to imaginary people representing certain demographics. Student personas can help faculty and staff better anticipate student needs that haven’t been met. The concept also helps instructional designers create course content accommodating students with various disabilities.

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura


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