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).

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!

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.