The Future of Accessibility

When thinking about accessibility, it’s easy to agree that public places should be open and available to all, regardless of any impairment. Wheelchair ramps, Brailled signs, flashing emergency lights and handicap bathroom stalls are given accommodations that we have come to expect in the public space. But the same is not necessarily true for the digital space.

The New Law

On January 18, 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule, which updated its accessibility mandates for information and communication technologies (ICT). These requirements are now covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act.

This update covers everything from telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment—things like telephones and cell phones—to computers and modems, routers, set-top boxes, interconnected Internet products and required software for the telecommunications functionality of any and all aforementioned equipment.

The effect of this ruling on the digital space will be profound, to be sure, and a major step in the right direction. Accessibility, like all things, can be addressed in multiple ways, and resolutions can be measured against varying degrees of success. So the Board sought to enhance consistency in that regard, incorporating pre-existing and independent consensus standards into its guidelines. Chief among these are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, developed and implemented by W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative.

The WCAG 2.0 standards are globally recognized and technology-neutral, and they account for most, if not all, accessibility concerns for users of web content with disabilities, “including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these.” With the rapid evolution of technology and its ubiquitous presence in daily life, standards like these have never been more important.

Education Technologies

Technology is ever changing, and it alters the state of every major sector in the global marketplace on a daily basis. This is no less true for the field of education. The way students learn in the modern classroom is radically different from only a decade ago—digital e-books and supplemental materials, online assessment platforms and interactive, web-based classroom extensions have made learning a more adaptive experience, transforming the student/instructor relationship to something less rigid and more free-flowing. Students can receive automated feedback for incorrect answers on an exam in real time. Instructors have access to enhanced metrics and subsequently, more targeted instructional designs. Algorithms are able to bridge educational divides. While technology has advanced teaching practices in many ways, it is imperative that students with disabilities not be left behind. And so the WCAG 2.0 standards are perhaps most critical in the field of education.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, and it was determined then that a physical or mental disability should not hinder an individual in any aspect of public life, to include work, education, transportation, goods and services and access to/enjoyment of all public spaces. As a result, certain accommodations are required—handicap parking, elevators, the allowance of service animals in no-pet establishments, etc. But, while the ADA in its initial form covered education under its guidelines, it could not have anticipated the rise of the internet and its impact on the way students learn—not to mention how this might affect disabled students. WCAG 2.0 addresses this issue in the following ways.

  • All Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
  • Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

Making Web Content Accessible

Practical employment of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines can be varied, but each of the above principles is further detailed by lists of recommendations for making web content more accessible to individuals with disabilities. Web content is arranged visually, but semantics must also be regarded.

Let us consider an online assessment platform in particular. Web-based tests or exams should have layouts that are coherent to screen readers, utilizing markup syntax that explains to the sight-impaired exactly what an element is doing on the page, as well as its pedagogical intent. Label tags can help with this. Figures should come directly after sentences that reference them. HTML tables should be used for tabular data only, not for display purposes. HTML lists should be used for items that are, in fact, lists, ordered or unordered. Units should be imposed in a question’s instructions, not introduced to the student after an answer blank. Certain features may require additional focus for tab-navigation from the keyboard, things like accordions, citation references, tooltips, etc.

The following applications can be employed in order to make your web content more accessible.

  • Adding alternative text to all images/graphs
  • Applying semantic label tags to forms that might be confusing when processed by a screen reader
  • Adding captions/transcripts to all media
  • Including roles and captions or descriptive headers in all data tables
  • Using coherent syntax for all hyperlinks
  • Formatting all display with appropriate tags and styling, rather than shortcut HTML

This list is in no way exhaustive, and accessible web design is about more than alt text and label tags. Color choices can impede users with color blindness, so more accessible options have been identified and are available. Page layouts should be ordered for screen readers just as they appear on the screen, e.g., navigational menu options which appear at the top of the screen visually should also be located at the top of the HTML document. Overly complicated user interfaces can negatively impact all users, but they are particularly troubling for those using screen readers, as the amount of insignificant UI announcements can be burdensome and confusing. Simplicity is critical to accessible web design.

While the U.S. Access Board’s final rule is almost a year old, the deadline for compliance for all federal institutions falls on January 18, 2018. Public schools and universities receiving federal funds are among the institutions affected by this ruling, which greatly impacts the field of education as a whole. So it falls to every EdTech company to begin generating web content that is accessible end-to-end, while retroactively modifying extant features to adhere to these new digital standards.

We are in the business of learning and these schools and universities, the students and faculty, they are all our customers. As we innovate and develop new and advanced learning solutions, we must do our part to ensure that every student has consistent access. Web page layouts should be logical and should use semantic markup. Navigation should make sense and should be responsive to adaptive technologies. Updating legacy content should be a constant priority. We must provide simple and intuitive features that every user can digest with uniformity, regardless of any disability or impairment. It may require time and resources to reach full compliance. But the future is digital and should be open to all.

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