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An Argument for Accessibility

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

“If disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place.”– Susan Wendell, author on disability.

Take a second to think about the purpose of education. Is it to create informed citizens? Is it to prepare learners for life after school? Is it to ensure that more innovators, problem solvers, and critical thinkers enter the workforce? Is it a combination of all of those? In your consideration of the purpose, did you think about these goals for all learners? Are certain students more deserving of a rich, challenging education than others? My hope is that your answer to the last question is an emphatic no, but even though many of us believe that all people deserve equitable education in theory, our practices indicate a different viewpoint.

In her article "White Fragility," Robin DiAngelo (2011) said, "White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as 'good'" (p.58). I want to build on this idea to discuss how we similarly design educational experiences without consideration of or for disabled students (see this article by Brittany Wong to understand why I am choosing not to exclusively use person-first language). Just as White people are conditioned to feel no loss over a lack of racial and ethnic diversity, able-bodied people are conditioned to ignore the needs, strengths, and individuality of people with diverse abilities. Many teachers view creating accessible materials as a burden, as extra work, and even as unfair to them. We need to re-condition ourselves to view accessibility (and responsiveness to student needs) as the most important part of our job.

In our mad scramble to transition all learning to virtual platforms during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators had to be okay with "good enough." We threw things up onto learning management systems that we previously only used to house grades; we made quick, garbled videos to clarify instructions; and we created discussion forums to give students a place to share their ideas in lieu of face-to-face conversation. This good enough mentality was necessary in the spring, and I am in awe of the work that educators did to make sure learning did not stop. But, as the COVID numbers continue to rise, we have to face the possibility that we may not be back in schools in the fall. This time around, now that we know more and have more resources, we have to do better than good enough. We need to consider students with diverse needs and make sure that our content is accessible for them. The hard truth is that no one else is going to do it. Disabled students have always had to fight for equitable education, and that fight is continuing. As educators, it is our job to ensure that all students can access learning in our classes.

Below is a short list of the things that I'm doing this summer and plan to do throughout the fall to ensure that content in my classes is accessible. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to add comments with additional suggestions. My goal here is to reach people who may not seek out support from accessibility services departments or teachers who do not have access to that kind of support...or people who did not think this was important until now. As much as possible, I tried to link tutorials, since using technology and intentionally making course materials accessible is new for so many educators.

Check Documents for Accessibility

The beautiful thing about technology is that it will do a lot of the work for you. If you are like me, a large amount of your online course material includes readings, articles, book chapters, and other PDFs or Word documents. Both Adobe Acrobat and Word have accessibility checkers built in. The first couple of times you use them, it can be difficult and confusing, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. For example, I never used to use the heading feature in Word because I don't like how they are auto-formatted. Now when I'm building a document, I add in all of my headers first, format them how I want them, and then build the rest of the document.

Use Captions

Even though there are a lot of reasons to include captions on every video you create for class, this one can be difficult for educators because it is time consuming. Some websites, like YouTube, will automatically create captions for you, but these are not reliable. If you use them, make sure to edit them so that they accurately portray what is being said. I prefer to type my own captions since I'm a relatively fast typist, but there is also the option to send videos to a transcriptionist (obviously not the most cost-effective measure).

You may even have a student who will volunteer to help transcribe. In fact, I once had a technology teacher at a K-12 school ask for videos that students in their classes could transcribe to work on their typing skills. There may be community members or parents who would like to volunteer their time to help transcribe videos for your classes.

In many of my courses, students create videos to share with each other. Since they are teacher candidates, I like to have them add captions to their videos as practice for their future classrooms. While this may not be an applicable skill for all disciplines, you may find that you can connect it with something that your students need to know for their chosen professions.

Be Intentional About Structure

I recently learned that there are a lot of seemingly small, unintentional ways that I was making my courses less accessible. For example, it can be difficult for students to read hyperlinks that are a long string of unintelligible text. It is better to choose a few words to hyperlink and embed the URL. It is also important to make sure enough text is hyperlinked that students can easily see it and click on it. Additionally, I was not labeling or providing descriptions of any of the images in my documents, which meant that screen readers could not inform learners about what they were meant to see. It is important to provide captions for all images in every document.

I also was not previously as intentional about providing multiple ways of understanding an assignment. I wrongly believed that if college students needed help they would ask questions instead of assuming they knew what to do. Now, I know the importance of written instructions, verbal instructions, and a clear rubric for every assignment. Also, while all instructions are on my syllabus, I also think it is important to reiterate important points to students as we move closer to the assignment due date. We talk a lot in education about scaffolding, but for some reason we forget that it is still necessary at the college level.

Finally, I cannot overemphasize the importance of blank space on a page. Using bullet points, numbering, bold headers, and double spacing can make reading a lot easier. One final small tip is to avoid underlining for emphasis, since that is used to indicate a hyperlink and can be confusing.

Don't Make Assumptions

There is a big difference between what we think students should know and what they actually know. I have heard countless times that students are good at technology. To be clear, students are very capable at using certain types of technology, but not all students have had experience using educational technology. Many first-year college students come to campus without basic skills, such as attaching a document to an email, so it is unfair to expect them to know how to format a document, create a video, or use complex learning management systems. One of the most important things we can do for students is provide resources, practice, and second chances. We also need to avoid assuming that they know how to use different platforms. I am not suggesting that we lower our expectations; rather, we need to be understanding as our students learn how to meet those expectations.

The CDC estimates that one in four U.S. adults live with a disability. The most common disability in young adults is related to cognition. Educators have a moral obligation to ensure that all students receive an equitable education, and in many classrooms it is possible that up to a quarter of students are not receiving that because of a disability. My hope is that these suggestions will make my courses and yours more accessible for all students.

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