Furthering Digital Accessibility: 3 Tips for Making your Content More Accessible

This is 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.

Inaccessible computer output = a brick wall.

Brick wall.
Brick wall. Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Let’s talk about students (or any computer users) who experience inaccessible computer output. It must be frustrating that so many others have no idea what it’s like to encounter these barriers. However, just because someone doesn’t have a visual disability doesn’t mean they can’t empathize. Like running into a brick wall you can’t get through, encountering inaccessible computer output is just as “blocking”. Unfortunately, people are often unaware of Digital Accessibility issues and the implications therein for everyone, especially students.

So, I suggest that EVERYONE become familiar with the ‘ins and outs’ of Digital Accessibility. Ask yourselves a couple of simple questions about your own computing experiences:

  • How do you feel when a given web page won’t load?
  • Do you like trying to decipher tiny print on a too-busy document page or webpage?
  • What about those occasional documents that have margins that are lost, and a portion of the print isn’t even visible?
  • And what about those sometimes-so-intricate graphics that just plain don’t make sense – and there is no accompanying legend or explanation?

ANYONE can experience “disability” at one point or another- have you ever broken your wrist on your “good side,” and tried to use your computer with one hand, especially the wrong hand? The point is to start learning about how we can all produce accessible computer output so that everyone, regardless of their disability, can participate.

I will be “kicking off” the Smithers Centre’s “Accessibility Week” March 22 – 26. Here are just a few tips from the material I will cover that will help you make your content- any content- more accessible:

  1. Make “Alt text” a habit: a computer user with visual disabilities needs documents to be created accessibly. You need to use alternative text (“alt text”) to describe any images or graphics you might include in your document – the screen reader they use won’t recognize an image, but it will be able to read the descriptive alt text. 
  2.  Use your LMS’s accessibility features: an LMS, or Learning Management System (at Saint Mary’s, it is D2L’s Brightspace) will provide a prompt to add alternative text to any image that is added. The LMS also provides tips and tricks to the student user with a disability in using the LMS and computer applications. Every Learning Management Systems has an arm that addresses accessibility—D2L’s is the Accessibility Interest Group and anyone can join it (https://www.d2l.com/blog/gaad-the-important-story-of-d2ls-accessibility-interest-group/).  Access and Equity in Online Learning (https://www.d2l.com/blog/access-and-equity-in-online-learning/) is an article that talks about D2L’s commitment to accessibility in education.
  3. Use the “Styles” menu (in word-processing applications like Word). By using the Styles when formatting a document’s headings, the creator of that document makes it easy for the student using a screen reader to skim through a given document as a sighted reader does. Otherwise, without accessibly-formatted heading, the user will have to read entirely through a document to see what is next, instead of being able to skim the headings.

Although a lot of accessibility tips apply to visual impairments, many of the tips and tricks of creating accessible computer output work for more than one kind of disability. For instance, using clear headings contributes to an organized lesson page, and helps someone with a learning disability. Being sure that a video has an accompanying transcript and/or closed captioning or subtitles gives everyone an alternative way of accessing the information (I like to listen to a pdf reader read my work literature while I am driving).

In fact, that’s really what it’s all about: when providing information, give the learner different ways of accessing the information. Web Accessibility, the umbrella for all digital accessibility guidelines, has been called the “wheelchair ramp on the Internet” – think of how often you have used those wheelchair ramps for something other than a wheelchair!

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