Furthering Digital Accessibility: Exploring Pathways to Reaching Full Awareness

We are honoured to feature a guest post by Harriette L. Spiegel, Ph.D, a Fulbright Canada 2020-2021 Scholar and Research Chair, who is here at Saint Mary’s from the University of Tennessee at Martin studying digital accessibility.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Why does it matter if my computing output is accessible?

The answer is, of course, “because it does.”

What I am about to talk about is a screen reader, an assistive technology device that assists users who have visual disabilities. The device reads out the content of the given article or document. Suppose you are reading an article – but your vision is impaired, so you are relying on the screen reader to read the content of the article. All of sudden, the screen reader gives you an empty phrase, “graphic, graphic” – this means that there is a graphic in the article. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see – or hear – what that graphic is all about? So it matters that the person putting out that article on a computer did not know to add “alt text” – or “alternate text” – a simple description of that graphic. If that graphic was important to the content of the article, then the “reader,” or in this case, the listener, has encountered a barrier to the content of the article. Is that fair? Not to mention, is that inconvenient??

But there is more:

How do you feel, when you are in the middle of a project that relies on a good connection to the Web and your connection slows down, or worse yet, goes out completely? Well, imagine what such interruption to progress is like when it is not just temporary but always? So making sure that computer output is accessible to all users is like assuring a smooth, reliable connection to the Web.

And even more:

How often do you scan quickly through a document that you need to read, glancing through headings to see what it is all about, telling yourself that you will get back to reading the entire document? Those headings are really convenient, aren’t they! Well, again, a screen reader can be programmed so the user can skip through the heading as a sighted reader does – if, that is, those headings have been formatted accessibly as the document was created. If they are not, the user hears “there are no headings…; no headings….” The only other choice for the hapless user is to have to listen all the way through the document instead of being able to skip through.  

There are numerous similar situations that can present “barriers” to the user, and I will talk about these situations as I explore Digital Accessibility. This is my topic for my activities related to the Fulbright Canada Scholar award that I am in Halifax to complete as Research Chair at St. Mary’s University. Fortunately, the word is getting out: more and more computer applications provide timely tools for providing accessibility. In an online Learning Management System (LMS) like Canvas or Blackboard, for instance, anytime a user adds an image, the prompt for alt text appears. Many word processors are programmed to provide prompts for creating accessible content. Your campus instructional technology office is committed to helping faculty produce accessible online materials.

The bottom line is – that’s OKAY if you don’t know! We weren’t born knowing these things. But you need to know, and this knowledge is readily available.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but there is legislation out there that mandates that we make accessibility be a priority- particularly in information technology, including online learning and teaching. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but if planned from the beginning of a project, computer output, including your course materials, can be perfectly accessible.

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