Make your course work for everyone.
Accessibility is defined by Microsoft in their Inclusive Design Manual as “the qualities that make an experience open to all.’ The IMS Global Learning Consortium defines it as “the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners.’
It’s a good place to start when considering what you can do to make your course accessible to all learners, because it puts the focus on what you have control over — the “environment’ of your online classroom.
Accessibility at UAF: Shared Responsibility
UAF eCampus works with faculty and Disability Services to ensure that online courses are accessible. For a detailed overview of how these responsibilities are shared, see the following graphic. A fully accessible PDF version of the table in the graphic is also available.
Who's Responsible for Accessibility in Online Courses at UAF?
How Does Accessibility Apply to My Course?
Issues of accessibility can be approached from a few different directions. Traditionally, the process of making course materials accessible was a reactive one, with requests being met as they were made. This addressed the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, the two most important laws governing accessibility of educational materials.
There are some problems with this. It puts the instructor in a position of having to respond, sometimes last-minute, to a request for accommodation. And it places a burden of advocacy on students with disabilities. Not every student with a disability will voice that disability or advocate for their needs.
The percentage of undergraduate students in the United States with disabilities is 11%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (2016). However the percentage of UAF students who reported disabilities through Disability Services and received official letters of accommodation was only 2.4% for the 2018-19 academic year.
Students will arrive in your course with all manner of impairments, some declared with an official request for accommodations through Disability Services, some undeclared. They will also have a range of assistive technology to help them access your course. Every individual will be different, and the mix of students will change from semester to semester. It can be hard to know where to start! Focus proactively on identifying common barriers in your course content, and work to improve them incrementally.
Ignoring the accessibility of ones course is also a missed opportunity. Providing accessible materials benefits all learners, even those without disabilities. By providing multiple means of access, such as captions, searchable PDFs, and modifiable text size and color, course materials can be improved and broadened for the benefit of all. A 2016 study by Oregon State University found that 71% of students without hearing difficulties used captions at least some of the time, and 98% of students found captions helpful (Linder, 2016).
UAF eCampus takes a proactive approach to accessibility, building it in to the course design process, rather than tacking it on later. Working from a Universal Design framework, instructional designers create learning materials to be accessible from the ground up. By employing tools such as machine and human captioning services for media content, Blackboard Ally for course document conversion, and Grackle Docs for creating accessible documents and PDFs, materials can be born accessible and an accommodation request later on can be met with a simple reply: “Yes, my course is accessible.’
For more information on resources available at UAF and through eCampus, see the iTeachU page on Accessibility Resources. And our series of accessibility focused teaching tips cover captioning, perspectives of UAF instructors, specific tools, Universal Design, and more.
Understanding the perspectives and experiences of people with disabilities and users of assistive technology is best learned by hearing from those people themselves. Many of us do not directly know enough people with disabilities to do this ourselves. Below are a suggested viewing list of short films, documentaries, and video clips that feature a range of individuals with disabilities addressing their lived experiences as students, as users of technology and as members of society.
- You Can’t Ask That: Blind People (Kanopy. UAF or other institutional affiliation required)
- Usablenet Marketing: Web Accessibility: Perspectives from Real Users (Vimeo)
- Marketplace Simulations: Accessibility for all Students – Marketplace Simulations Review by Darrell Bowles (YouTube)
- Vox Media: How architecture changes for the Deaf (YouTube)
- Amazon News: Coding without seeing the screen (YouTube)
- Portland Community College: To Care and Comply: Accessibility of Online Course Content (YouTube)
- The No Micro Project: Zoom In: Microaggressions and Disability (Kanopy. UAF or other institutional affiliation required)
- Deque Systems: How Persons with Disabilities Use the Web (YouTube)
Models of Disability
Both definitions of accessibility used at the top of this page rely on what is called the “social model of disability.’ This model is in contrast to the more traditional medical model of disability which viewed impairments as disabling in themselves. In the social model, the disability is not the impairment itself, but the result of the impairment within society. Hence, disability is defined as the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers (Martin, 2017).
The social model recognizes the range of impairments that could lead to someone being disabled by an environment. For example, if you have an adult learner in your class who has a hard time reading small print, and you include low-quality scanned PDFs in your course material, you have, in effect, created a situation that disables your student.
Applying the social model to a classroom environment, the following is useful:
Impairment + Environment = Disability
Impairment + Accessible Environment = Inclusion
Using this framework, and the definitions above, eCampus strives to improve the learning environments of online courses, proactively.
Legal Considerations for Accessibility as a Public Institution
Hand in hand with a theoretical approach to accessibility is our responsibility as publicly funded institution of higher education to comply with federal and state law regarding accommodations for people with disabilities.
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that “all electronic and information technology used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.”
- In conjunction with Section II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 is now understood to cover institutions and organizations that receive federal funding, including nearly all colleges and universities.
- Section 508 was refreshed in 2017 to align with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
- In the past decade, there have been a number of lawsuits and formal complaints lodged against large public universities by national organizations such as The National Federation of the Blind. These have primarily concerned the websites, video, and other material made available publicly, including open-access lectures and MOOCs. This is an ongoing issue and many of these lawsuits are still playing out (as of mid-2019), but it has led to an increase in awareness and prioritization of captioning and the development of accessibility auditing processes for websites and software at universities.
- For more information on the current state of legal issues around digital accessibility in higher education, consider the following resources:
- Digital Accessibility’s Moral Imperative, from Inside Higher Ed.
- A report from the Online Learning Consortium’s Research Center for Digital Learning & Leadership, Access and Accessibility in Online Learning.
- Educause Review, The Section 508 Refresh and What it Means for Higher Education.
Linder, K. (2016). Student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts: Results from a national study. Corvallis, OR.
Martin, N. (2017). Encouraging disabled leaders in higher education: recognising hidden talents.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014), Table 311.10.
Accessibility: Further Resources
- Teaching Tip: Introducing Blackboard Ally, a new accessibility tool
- Teaching Tip: Apply Universal Design to your course
- Teaching Tip: Building accessibility into online Blackboard courses
- Teaching Tip: Caption your course videos to benefit everyone
- Teaching Tip: Read from a script to make videos accessible
- iTeachU: Quality Matters Resources
UAF Instructional Designers
This page has been authored collectively by the experts on the UAF Instructional Design Team. Let us know if you have suggestions or corrections!