I recently gave a talk about web accessibility to faculty at Century College. I really have to commend the college for starting this discussion, as well as the faculty who attended. Over the years I’ve given these workshops to web designers and developers throughout the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and elsewhere, but this is only the second time I’ve spoken with faculty. That’s gotta change.
Not that I necessarily want to start doing a whole lot of accessibility training again. I worked fervently on the issue for years, and frankly got kind of tired of talking about it. If you’re working as a web developer or designer, in this day and age thinking about accessibility should be second nature. It’s just something that you do. But obviously, if you just look around on the web for a few minutes, you’ll find that there is still much work to be done. It is not second nature.
But this isn’t why I agreed to do the workshop. I did so because as important as it is for college “webmasters” (oh, I tire of that word) to understand accessibility, it is far more critical that faculty do. Online courses open doors for students with disabilities, expanding access to education, in some cases making it possible where it never was before. Enrollment by this group of students is on the rise. But if online courses are inaccessible, as I fear they so often are, then this opportunity is lost.
As I prepared for the talk, I began to hope that faculty might take well to the idea of universal design, at least better than other groups I’ve dealt with. It may be that I have an unreasonable expectation that professional educators are more interested in supporting learning than the general population. But I saw more than a few heads nodding. Universal design is at the core of my message about web accessibility: focus less on making accommodations for specific disabilities, and more on making the course accessible to a broad range of students by addressing different learning styles and strategies.
Traditionally, when a student has a disability that interferes with their ability to participate in a class, they work with the college’s student disability office to arrange an accommodation. The accommodation is specifically tailored to that student’s needs, and in some cases the faculty may in fact never know about it. I don’t actually know how common that is. As I talk with faculty about this experience, conversation quickly focuses on disabilities and legal mandates. Not on pedagogy and helping students learn. Don’t get me wrong: these accommodations are necessary and welcome. But activity around them are often focused in the wrong direction.
I prefer to shift the conversation away from compliance and talk more in terms of teaching and learning. It’s my hope that this helps put us on common ground. And it’s not hard at all: things you do to make web sites (including online courses) accessible to students with disabilities help everyone.
- Providing transcripts of audio and/or video is necessary for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, and also helps those of us who are visual rather than aural learners — myself included. I listen to a lot of podcasts, in part to help train myself to be a better aural learner, but I learn and retain a heck of a lot more from those few podcasts that provide transcripts.
- Presenting information in multiple ways — text, images, graphs, charts, audio, video — not only helps students with various cognitive disabilities, but also addresses different learning styles. It also plays into what we know about learning, that using different channels to present information helps trick the brain into thinking that it’s maybe worth paying attention to this stuff.
- Structuring a document with headers, bulleted lists, and so on certainly makes it more accessible to a screen reader user, but done right also has the benefit of breaking up long stretches of text into more easily digestible chunks, which most people find easier to read.
It was a good but too-short workshop. I hope that faculty got something out of it, and I especially hope that it’s just the beginning. I’ve started adding resources specifically targeted to online faculty to a wiki and will be fleshing that out more in the coming weeks.