Furthering Digital Accessibility: An Ongoing Journey

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.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Before laws were passed regarding digital accessibility (in the U.S. we have the Americans With Disabilities Act or ADA, Section 508 for information technology, and state laws), students who used online course resources had to put up with the barriers to their learning that were caused by inaccessible computer output. Just as it took a while for the focus to turn to digital accessibility (from the physical accessibility considerations) in the U. S., the recently-passed accessibility legislation in Canada similarly has a timetable that puts the focus on information technology a few years away (the “Access by Design 2030: Achieving an Accessible Nova Scotia” document at https://novascotia.ca/accessibility/access-by-design/).

Digital Accessibility is an umbrella for ensuring that all consumers of computer output will not face barriers in seeking information. So, for instance, a computer user who cannot rely on sight to understand the content of an image on a document, but instead listens to a screen reader read out the content of the document, needs to have an alternative means to understanding the image. The creator of the document can easily provide this alternative means by adding “alternative text” (“alt text” for short) to the document. This is done by right-clicking the image or graphic, selecting the “Alt Text” option and filling in the information that explains the content of the image.  There is an option for “mark as decorative,” and this is useful with images that have no content but are purely decorative.  The screen reader ignores this “decorative” image, and no barrier to information is encountered.

For any other category of physical impairment that impacts one’s access to information, such as a hearing impairment that negates the usefulness of sound in a video or audio file, there are other tips and tricks that the creator of the file can use to provide an alternative means of delivering the information. Thus, the thoughtful creator of videos includes captions or transcripts of the information. The creator of a course or page in a learning management system (LMS) will make sure that the documents that are loaded into the LMS are created with “accessibility in mind” (https://webaim.org/), as advocates of Digital Accessibility urge. The creator will strive to present all course information clearly and simply, avoiding confusion for users with learning disabilities.

What does Digital Accessibility mean for the faculty or staff member? Most fortunate university members have a resource on their campus that assists in creating digital output. At Saint Mary’s, you have the Studio for Teaching and Learning- if you are not sure how to create that accessible document, all you have to do is ask.

Some basic guidelines for ensuring Digital Accessibility include starting your “accessibility journey” from the beginning. Do not try to retrofit a document – such as a syllabus or committee report; you will likely end up with a bigger mess. Most computer applications provide the buttons and tools to use to produce digitally accessible documents. The main “best practices” include Alt Text, Headings made with Styles, Meaningful Links, Accessible Tables, Accessible PowerPoint, and use of captions or transcripts with media.

The wonderful term at Saint Mary’s University has been so eye-opening for me. It is easy to become so immersed in one’s own interests, that we forget all the other perspectives out there. For instance, comments and questions during my several presentations included other applications besides Word – of course Digital Accessibility is the goal of all computer applications. Most applications have a form of an Accessibility Checker. We do have to put up with version changes and “improvements,” of course – no sooner do I learn how to use a particular tool, than it is “improved,” and I have to learn all over again. It’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Thank you for all your input during my explorations and presentations, and for your interest in completing the faculty/staff survey. The survey will close on April 15, 2021 (see the Wed., March 17, 2021 email that you received, for the link).

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