Accommodation, Accessibility, the Law, and Universal Design
Before we can really dive into the specifics of the accessibility of digital content, we must first understand the distinction between the terms “Accommodation” and “Accessibility” as they pertain to Higher Education. An Accommodation for an individual with a disability means making a reasonable modification to an environment, task, or experience so that the individual has the same opportunity as those who do not have a disability. Accessibility refers to designing an environment, task, or experience that is attainable for all so that minimal accommodation is necessary. When providing content to your students in a digital format, it is important to think about how to make your course accessible to all learners, specifically those that may have a disability. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. (CAST Center for Applied Special Technology). Accessibility and usability is a design issue, and it must be planned ahead of time and it must be proactive.
Below, we outline the distinction between Accommodation and Accessibility and summarize the relevant sections of the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act with respect to Higher Education. We then explain how Universal Design for Learning factors in to provide an ideal experience for all learners.
Section 504 (Accommodation) is an anti-discrimination, civil rights statute that requires the needs of students with disabilities to be met as adequately as the needs of the non-disabled. It requires that individuals with disabilities be able to participate in programs and services with the use of auxiliary aids, where necessary. These aids are commonly referred to as accommodations.
- Provided based on specific needs of a student with a documented disability
- Determined by an accommodations officer on a case-by-case basis
- Provided for students whose needs require intervention
- Provided for circumstances that are difficult to anticipate and prepare for
- The Accessibility Resources Office at SUNY Broome can assist if you need to make an accommodation for a student
- Examples of Accommodations in education include (but aren’t limited to):extended time for exams, providing content in alternative formats, allowing the use of assistive devices, providing an alternative environment for activities in a course.
Section 508 (Accessibility and Usability) is a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government (including colleges and universities) be accessible to people with disabilities.
The key to Section 508 is that it promotes accessibility over accommodation.
- It is the responsibility of all who create or publish digital content to do so in a manner that is accessible to all learners
- Provided for all students, with no expectation of an explanation of need
- Digital content accessibility is expected for disabilities that are easily anticipated
- Examples of Accessibility in education include (but aren’t limited to):structuring an online course so that it is easily navigable, ensuring that any visual content (pictures, graphs, etc.) are explained in text, designing course content that is structured, easily readable, and compatible with assistive technologies.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
As the law suggests, accessibility is about removing the obstacles, instead of making special accommodations. Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, sex, race, gender, ability, or disability. The basic premise of Universal Design is to create an environment to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. Universal design for learning is the application of an architectural concept into learning environments. It is about designing goals, methods, materials, and assessments to reach all students including those with diverse needs. Making your course accessible is not only a matter of lawsuits, or federal regulations, it is an ethical concern and a way to create equal opportunity. Accessibility is not a special requirement for the benefit of only a minority of the population; it is for everyone.
Common Types of Disabilities and the Access Barriers They Present
There are several different types of disabilities: cognitive/learning, auditory, visual, motor, invisible ones, and even temporary ones. Below, we will describe common groupings of disabilities, provide examples of specific disabilities within each grouping, and list the access barrier to education that the disability presents to students.
Cognitive or Learning Disabilities
A cognitive disability causes a person to have greater difficulty with one or more mental tasks. Most cognitive disabilities have some basis in the biology or physiology of the individual.
Examples: Dyslexia, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), autism, ADD
Access Barrier: Timed participation challenges.
An auditory disability refers to mild, moderate, severe, or profound hearing loss. Those who refer to themselves as deaf usually have either severe or profound hearing loss. According to a study by Johns Hopkins Medicine, more than 48 million people in the U.S. have an auditory disability.
Examples: High noise hearing loss, conductive hearing loss, profound hearing loss, tinnitus
Access Barrier: Videos without captions. Audio files without transcripts.
Blindness or low vision affects a large number of people, including those who use glasses or contacts to correct vision. Blindness, or a complete lack of vision, is at the extreme end of the scale.
Examples: Low vision, color blindness, legal blindness
Access Barrier: Web sites and electronic documents that aren’t accessible by keyboard. Images without descriptive alternative text. Videos without audio descriptions illustrating key visuals.
A motor disability can limit a person’s mobility, making it hard for the individual to operate hardware in the way that it was designed.
Examples: Arthritis, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s
Access Barrier: Web sites with user interfaces that require precise control (e.g., small buttons or use of a mouse).
An invisible disability is a disorder not outwardly noticeable that impacts an individual’s ability to perform daily activities like work or school, socializing, or even self-care.
Examples: social or psychological challenges, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, autoimmune disorders, allergies, and Lyme disease.
Access Barrier: People with invisible disabilities may require different levels of support on different days.
Summary of Accessibility Requirements (Easy Fixes)
When developing an online course or creating digital content, there are a few basic things to keep in mind with respect to accessibility. Many of the items included below will improve the readability of your content not only for a student who is using a screen reader, such as Read & Write Gold, but for anyone viewing your content online. The good news is that most of the tools you will need to make your content accessible are tools you are already using! The rich text editor in Blackboard, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Adobe Acrobat all have built in accessibility checkers that will assist you. In addition, we have implemented Blackboard Ally which is tool that integrates within Blackboard courses to flag content that could be improved by applying the accessibility standards we have talked about. Below, we list common issues and steps that you can take to make your content more accessible to all learners.
- Make sure your content has a Title
- Give your content structure by using headings and styles
- Use a logical reading order when organizing content on the page
- Do not use the enter key or space bar on the keyboard to create blank space on the page. Instead, use the formatting options for the paragraph to increase or decrease spacing between paragraphs or lines.
- There must be enough contrast between the text and the background.
- Avoid cursive or fantasy family fonts. It is best to use a sans-serif with 12 pts. or more in size.
- Blinking or animated text must be avoided.
- Text color must be used sparingly: instead try using styles, bullets, and numbering.
- Color should not be used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.
- Links should make sense out of context. Phrases such as “click here,” “more,” “click for details,” and so on are ambiguous when read out of context.
- Keep it short. Try not to give each and every detail about the link destination. The point is to make sense without being redundant or overwhelming.
- Avoid using URLs with combinations of numbers, letters, ampersands, dashes, underscores, and other characters that make no sense to the average person.
- Use underline convention. Removing the underline from the link text is usually a bad idea. Users are accustomed to seeing links underlined.
- Use simple tables, without merged or split cells.
- Tables must have header rows.
- It is a better practice to add alternative text to tables.
- Alternative Text (Alternative Description) – Alternative text (Alt Text) lets the screen reader software convert all the non-text information to text. If the image is a photograph, drawing, or painting, the alt text needs to describe the image in as short of a phrase as possible.
- For more complex images that require lengthy descriptions, such as charts and graphs, you can try to move the information to the accompanying text.
- For images with specific functions (buttons, thumbnails etc.), the alternative text should describe what the button will do when selected, such as Search, Submit, Place your order, etc.
- For decorative or “eye candy” images, a blank alt-text will suffice. “ ” will tell the screen reader to skip the image.
For more information please see our Faculty Guide – Guidance on Writing Good Alt-Text
- Captions are text versions of the spoken word presented within multimedia. Captions allow the content of web audio and video to be accessible to those who do not have access to audio.
- Transcripts allow anyone that cannot access content from web audio or video read a text transcript instead. Transcripts allow deaf/blind users to get content using refreshable Braille and other devices. For content that is audio only, a transcript will usually suffice. Videos should contain additional descriptions, explanations, or comments that may be beneficial, such as indications of laughter or an explosion.
- Audio descriptions are intended for users with visual disabilities. They give additional information about what is visible on the screen. This allows video content to be accessible to those with visual disabilities.
Best Practices for Accessibility in Online Courses
Best Practices for Accessibility in Online Courses
We also include a checklist so that you can quickly determine what work needs to be done in your course to make it accessible to all learners!
Accessibility Checklist for Online Courses