Faculty Should Design Accessible Content

Justice symbolI’m often asked what is permissible, as if I were the legal guardian of all things accessible.  It’s a legitimate question when it comes to denying someone their civil rights, but when it comes to faculty content, the question’s answer is much more blurred.  For some the line is held that any and all content created needs to be accessible.  That’s the goal, and that’s the focus. However, I see that as an impossible task.  I hold the view that content that is public facing should be accessible, when its logical to do so – meaning if you can’t actually make all online content accessible.  I try to work toward the goals of universal design for learning, meaning everyone should have access to everything, and we should be designing multimodal representations of content.  Videos should have captions and transcripts.  Graphics should be labelled so that essential meaning is conveyed.  Interactive content should be able to be triggered by any user who comes to the information.  This is public content, and all things within a state-run institution should be accessible.

The Divide

The divide for educational content Then there was course content.  People pay to take classes, and classes are a product.  If a student who has a need for accessible content enrolls in a course, then that content needs to be accessible.  This is my main and chief tenet.  However, that doesn’t mean we don’t work toward accessible course content.  Why?  It is important to move toward accessible content, because frankly we don’t know whether someone is going to need an accommodation next term [that gets even more difficult to know in distance education classes where many disabled students do not identify at all]. Why should we wait to caption videos for faculty, when we know that the use them over and over (most frequently) and we know that captioned videos are used by non-disabled students.  UDL guides us in this direction as well.  Multimodal content can be useful to everyone depending on their circumstance.

If we place a video, then a transcript and captioning are useful for the educational presentation of that content.  The same is true for pictures.  Pictures may convey those thousand words, but actually each of us can interpret that picture in a thousand ways.  When faculty present graphics in their courses, they usually focus in on what they want to project as meaningful content.  Meaning they read the graphic and give information about the significance of the picture – that’s what an alt tag is.

Tables of data get more complex, especially when the tables are divided into subcategories.  People who can see frequently have trouble reading tables unless there is a description of what they are supposed to be looking for – instructions for reading tables are important especially when the data is represented in complex ways.  That’s why charts and figures are derived from data, to make those tables of data more clearly recognizable.  The problem is that the more information contained in a table and the cross reference with other materials in the table may be extremely difficult for persons who are disabled to comprehend — especially visual and cognitive disabilities.  Take an instance like this:

this table highlights heading structure with multiple suheadings

Improved Communication

Faculty should want to provide this information to make their communications clear and to provide student with a greater understanding of the course content.   Faculty should look at graphics and pinpoint what they mean through the use of a graphic.  When meaning is hidden, it becomes inaccessible.  When meaning is inaccessible, it becomes hidden.  This concept clearly shows up when examining the accessibility of PowerPoint. When faculty give a presentation and cover a table or complex graphic, they should also provide a written description of the table in the text of their handouts, so that the meaning they are conveying can be understood by anyone not capable of seeing their table on the slide, but it is much easier to create the complexity than explain it in writing.

Color contrast example powerpoint slideGood color contrast which is a principle of online design, really will affect the non-disabled population as much as those with vision loss.  People will immediately speak out about hard to read headings and captions on images.  The font size is another visual issue that people will complain about.

Powerpoint Slide example too much text But the worst and most common complaint I’ve heard is the amount of content on the slides.

When presenters spend time reading through boatloads of content off their slides, most people cringe.  The trick is to give out handouts with lengthy content – or attachments like articles that go into detail.  The PowerPoints are supposed to be an outline of points to keep the focus of the audience.

If photos or graphics are used in a PowerPoint they should be illustrative.  If derived from data and data tables, that content is seriously not the type of image you want to present.  You want to present the results and the summary of data.  Use charts: bar graphs, pie charts etc.  Give the finite details in a handout.

If those handouts need to be made accessible before classes, they should be dealt with prior to class, not afterwards.  That is a violation of civil rights.  If you know you have a student with a print disability, the PowerPoints and documents should be produced into accessible formats prior to the class or symposium.

If you use a learning management system, you might look to see if your institution provides Ally.  This service built into certain products like Blackboard and Canvas will usually give a grade to the accessibility of content that you are using in your courses.  It looks at the files in your content area, and provides several useful services.  First, it gives you indicators of how much improvement may be necessary.  These indicators show up as clickable red, orange and green gauges.

Positive accessibility indicator from Ally

Positive accessibility indicator from Ally

Second by clicking those gauges faculty are shown information pertaining to those indicated improvements.  Lastly it allows faculty and their students to automate the conversion of a file into alternative formats.

Most higher education institutions provide support for faculty.  You may have a UDL specialist.  You may have an alternative materials expert or an assistive technology expert who can point you to resources for improving your courses’ accessibility and how well you have provided your content with universal design for learning principles.  Take advantage of any resource person you have at your disposal.

At least with Ally, student can convert content into many different type; including html, enhanced PDF, ePub, electronic Braille, and Audio (MP4).  Now these formats aren’t perfect, but they offer students a quick means to multiple file types never offered before.  In the past students would have to request and accommodation through the disability office.  Now any student, and even the faculty, can make use of these different formats to provide alternatives to what they can use to read, listens, or feel content.


5 types of file conversion offered by Ally

5 types of file conversion offered by Ally


What Not to Do When using PowerPoint

HTML table advanced features and accessibility

Faculty Images and Universal Design for Learning

What is an Alt Tag?