What the 508 Refresh means to Public Higher Education Institutions

What does non-public facing means in the refresh?  Here is the language that the federal government has included about that in the 508 refresh:

E205.3 Agency Official Communication. Electronic content that is not public facing shall conform to the accessibility requirements specified in E205.4 when such content constitutes official business and is communicated by an agency through one or more of the following:


A. An emergency notification;


B. An initial or final decision adjudicating an administrative claim or proceeding;


C. An internal or external program or policy announcement;


D. A notice of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunity, or personnel action;


E. A formal acknowledgement of receipt;

F. A survey questionnaire;


G. A template or form;


H. Educational or training materials; or


I. Intranet content designed as a Web page.

How do we interpret that in higher education where we are trying to make education materials accessible. The fact is that the murky waters of whether or not to caption video content held within a learning management system seem to not be pronounced even with the refresh.

A Universities content is not public communication.  It is a product that people have to pay for.  Higher Education usually doesn’t place place course content in the public setting.  The lawsuit against Harvard and MIT regards the placing of courses for public consumption.  The well endowed educational institutions have a philanthropic idealism in doing this.  Give the world free course!  Empower humanity.  The deaf did not want to be excommunicated in this idea world.

But for public schools with limited or diminishing funding, the concept of captioning every video they have on their servers is preposterous.  Schools using lecture capture software can generate up to 100,000 hours of video content.  At a cost of $1 to $3.25 an minute, captioning one year’s content can cost between $6,000,000 and $19.5 million.

For now a more sane approach of captioning only video content for those who have received an accommodation, verified through the disability office, makes for a practical and lucid resolution.  Only the content that is publicly displayed should require to be accessible to all.

H. Educational or training materials

This section refers to internal training and educational materials that the federal government creates for federal staff.  Creating content that is designed to improve or inform the workforce also needs captioning.  The same is true for state government employees.  That content should also have captioning.  One should caption that upon request, but should have the content created with all employees in mind.

Related previous article


Someone who does not use a mouse

Everything Keyboard

Some disabilities are beyond the scope of most folk’s imaginations.  Frequently people who have severe disabilities can splint sticksdo amazing things: like go to college, graduate and work a job.  These individuals are rare, but they are out there defying expectations at every turn.  When limitations are extreme most non-disabled people just haven’t had  any personal experience or association with that type of disability.  The general population often discuss disability in terms of blind and deaf individuals, while  ignoring the million other types of disabilities, including medical conditions.  Several medical conditions which preclude users from interacting with the computer with anything but the keyboard.  This small group of individuals uses only the keyboard to do everything that everyone else does using their hands.  They for some reason can’t operate a mouse at all.  Individuals using only the keyboard are often restricted from using the mouse because they can’t control it, grip it, click the buttons, or simple don’t have enough range of motion to move it properly.

Some individuals drive the computer using only a stick attached to their head, or two sticks strapped to their non-functioning hands (as in quadriplegia).  What ever the reason, the control aspect is very difficult to accommodate.  However, different assistive technologies have been designed fro these most severely disable individuals.

Key guards are the most simple solution. That would be a good reason to see one of these type of keyboard guards:

keyguard for computer



This type (above)  of key guard is not often seen any longer as most people using keyboard only access solutions are using iPads or communication devices.  That means they can’t speak as well or at all; otherwise they might be recommended to use a voice input solution like Dragon.   They will also have very limited motor skills, which make using a mouse impossible, or at least improbable.

The key guard for iPAd and and iPad mini look like this:

Plexiglass keyguard

I’ve been to many conferences where folks who have the most severe disabilities are in attendance.  Technology is a life line for them.  You might think that they barely function, but you’d be surprised.  Many of them eventually possess PhD’s and other advanced degrees.  I’ve meet some who have written books, worked on federal commissions, been scientists. The barriers they overcome are many, to try not to provide extra obstacles on your website.  Test it to see if you can navigate through the pages and controls using only a keyboard.

Here is a picture of someone who might like to have keyboard only access:

Someone who does not use a mouse


AVA Accessibility Tool for Hard of Hearing

AVA Accessibility app

Product: AVA -24/7 Accessibility

The phone app helps solve more or less the most essential problem today for some deaf and hard-of-hearing people: understanding and participating to group conversations.  Group conversation is one of the most problematic issues for hard of hearing users is the ability to distinguish the conversation in a group meeting.  AVA translates group and one-on-one conversations into something that can be read on a cell phone screen, like text messages.

It was just released within the last year on the Appstore and Playstore, and the company would love to hear from their users community. Email them at hello@ava.me With professional interpreter/captioner costs at approximately  $100/hour. Conversation over coffee can be an expensive enterprise.

The Reviews

So far this product looks like it is headed in the right direction. People who have left comments on the Google Play site mention that calibrating the microphone makes the app work better, and that a good internet connection is essential.

Learn more about the product! If you know a deaf/hard-of-hearing person, pass it around please: this little app might actually change the life of someone!

AVA review ratings

See AVA here

Product video advertisement

Finally the 508 Refresh is Complete

No more Waiting

Yes, its final over, the waiting is done. After almost two decades Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act has a rule change which goes into effect as of January 18, 2017.  Though the rule, created by the Access Board.  As written, 508 does not automatically apply to institutions of higher education, even if they receive federal funding. However, States that receive funds through the Assistive Technology Act are required to comply with 508, and all states in the United States receive Tech Act funds.  The refresh updates the current ICT Standards and Guidelines.


The final rule updates the existing Section 508 standards and Section 255 guidelines using the most recent version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)[3] and other consensus standards for specific applications, content, and equipment to define the core set of accessibility requirements not only for Federal agency Web sites, but also for non-Web software applications and authoring tools, data processing and communications hardware, telecommunications equipment, and electronic content procured, developed, maintained, or used by the Federal Government. The final rule specifically requires ICT and specified forms of electronic content produced using these programs and systems to meet the Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements specified for Web pages in WCAG 2.0.

Making the changes due to changes in technology, the US government recognizes that accessibility is not an add-on, bolt-on addition to government services and information, but rather it is a right of Americans to have built-in accessibility. Many people still have the mindset of ad hoc repairs to electronic information, websites and applications; but these federal guidelines enforce access out of the box.

The difference between accommodating individuals with disabilities and making everything accessible is a powerful change. Holding to new standards is a significant step in ensuring your institution information and computer technologies are accessible to all users.  The ruling does provide a safe harbor provision which basically allows elements that are not compliant with the new standard, but were created after the rule goes into effect; however, any aspect created before the new ruling has to be 508 compliant, under the old standard.

As expected the Access Board revised the Section 508 Standards  to make them harmonize with WCAG 2.0.  Under the proposal, these web standards will also apply to software applications, data processing and communication hardware and telecommunications equipment.  The main reason for the need was due to the fact that the old 508 standards were neither testable or measureable.  The WCAG 2.0 standard gives much needed definition.  Many universities and state governmental agencies have been working toward this level of access for years.  Only institutions that have resisted taking the time and spending the money to make their websites and information accessible will really feel the pinch.

Where the changes will hit hardest especially will be video content. Captioning will be mandatory.  Deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans will be able to understand content generate by the government agencies, the Whitehouse, and the congress.  They will no longer be left out.  Applications and websites will also require accessibility to be built in.  Blind and visually impaired computer users will need seamless accessibility for finding records, completing forms, receiving announcements and events, correspondence, legal work and other important communications.

The deadline for the federal government and those working in federal grant programs is Jan. 18, 2018.

What is Section 508?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by Congress in 1998, required that federal employees with disabilities have access to and use of information and data. Comparable to that for Federal employees without disabilities, unless it is an undue burden to do so. It also requires that disabled members of the public who are seeking information and services from a Federal agency, to have access to and use of information and data comparable to that for members of the public with disabilities.  The law applies to Federal agencies and contractors providing products or services.  30 US state have adopted the 508 ICT standards. (See checklist)

In short electronic information and data must be equally accessible to individuals with and without disabilities.  The idea that classroom materials don’t have to be made accessible if no one with a disability is taking the class may soon be eliminated.  From next year on, schools and universities will have not excuse for not making the information and computer technologies including digital classroom content accessible.

Build it right now

Often when we discuss accessibility at a university, we are soon overwhelmed with the idea of retrofitting or changing all the content we have previously created.  For some institutions hundreds of thousands of files, including, web pages, pdf files, and course content can be a chore beyond imagining.

First of All: Tomorrow begins here today.  We can’t face the past and eliminate those zillion errors in web design, replace all the inaccessible pdf files, and correct the untagged Word documents.  We have to face the future.  That way, you begin by equipping the staff, faculty and students with skills designed to eliminate all those errors.

You might as well start where you can make the most difference.  That is now.

Microsoft has updated Office 365

As recently as December 2016, Microsoft updated Office 365,  with the company adding to the accessibility of their cloud product.

One of the biggest changes is moving the foremost is the placing of the Accessibility Checker to make it more prominent across all the main Office apps (including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. This should help students, staff, and faculty at East Carolina to be able to find this feature and put it to good use.

The checker was designed to review content (documents, presentations, spreadsheets and email) to determine exactly how accessible it is to those who might have visual, hearing or mobility impairments, making suggestions on how to improve any problems – like adding alternate text description for images (so these will be read out aloud by a screen reader). The accessibility checker can easily be found on the review tab, and this is also true for some of the Office for Mac and Office Online apps.

Example of Microsoft accessibility checkerFor additional information regarding Microsoft’s plan of building accessibility into Office 365 read “Plans for 2016” or watch the following video series.

Creating Accessible Announcements and Campus-Related Email

Email and Event Announcements


In this training we focus on the basic principles of accessible email for the East Carolina University Community. Staff, students and faculty who receive announcements and campus-related email may have disabilities and so the content you send needs to be either fully accessible, or available in multiple formats so that everyone can enjoy receiving announcements about events and campus information.

In this article, our focus is on best practices for designing accessible email for the vision-impaired and those relying on screen reading devices, including synthesized speech and keyboard-only access. Providing information in different formats is the best plan.

Intercampus Email Protocols

When you create an email message for campus distribution, make sure you provide it in multiple formats using the principles of Universal Design for Learning. When including artwork, place all the text within that graphic within the email body, so that everyone will be able to read it. It is best to use standard san serifs fonts like Arial and Veranda with black text on a white background. As long as you keep a text version of the event notice in the email, you can then attach alternative formats as attachments to your email message. Word, PDF, and JPG or other graphic versions of the event flier can help you reach the widest audience, and keep your email in compliance with state and federal laws.

Guide to building accessible html email

First of all, what constitutes an accessible email? To meet basic accessibility requirements, an email message must:

  • Maintain a logical reading order
  • Use heading elements
  • Include sufficient contrast between text and background colors
  • Provide text alternatives for images
  • Feature meaningful link text
  • Use a descriptive subject line

Maintain a logical reading order

Unlike web pages, HTML email messages and templates commonly include tables, as these are the most reliable way to create layouts that work across desktop, webmail and mobile email clients. If not planned and built thoughtfully, people who rely on keyboard-only access might not receive the content in the order intended. Screen readers, for example, read aloud tabular content from left-to-right and from top-to-bottom.

The image below shows the order in which each text paragraph would be read aloud if assembled in a table of two columns and two rows:

To preserve logical reading order, a better layout would be a table of two columns and one row, as shown in the image below:

This requirement is particularly important to keep in mind when creating responsive email layouts, especially where images and content are repositioned to allow for a comfortable reading experience on mobile devices.

Maintaining a single-column layout on all screens – regardless of size – reduces the likelihood of content being read by screen readers in either an incorrect order, or in a way in which the context of the content is unclear.

Adding headings

HTML heading elements – like <h1>, <table> etc. – are critical to ensuring hierarchy is conveyed to screenreader users, who may not be able to see them. Keep in mind that simply styling text to stand out, or look more important is not sufficient when creating a content hierarchy for assistive devices.

Include sufficient contrast between text and background colors

People with moderately low-vision or color deficiencies can be less sensitive to luminosity or color contrasts when viewing text and images in an email message. Therefore, it’s important to incorporate sufficient contrast between text and the background of an email message.

Apps like Color Oracle for OSX can be used to simulate a variety of color deficiencies and ensure you are providing enough contrast – not to mention, non-color based cues – for all email recipients to understand your email messages. Another tool called the Color Contrast Analyzer can also help check for this issue, and comes in both a Windows and OS X version

Provide text alternatives for images

All informative images must have an appropriate text alternative that conveys the meaning, or purpose of the image. Purely decorative images – such as ‘spacer’ images for preserving layouts – should carry an empty or null alt attribute (alt=””) to inform screen readers that the image is decorative and should be ignored.

For example, a company logo is an informative image and should feature a text alternative. In HTML email code, this can be done using the alt HTML attribute, to convey its meaning to screen reader users:

<img src=”https://www. monitorme.com/assets/uploads/logo.png” alt=”Monitor Me Services” />


Feature meaningful link text

It’s also important to convey the purpose of links using link text. This text informs the reader as to what will display when the link is followed and are often used for document navigation purposes by screen reading devices.

As a result, it’s recommended that generic text such as “click here” or “read more” be avoided, as these will offer little meaning, especially when read out of context by a screen reader. Instead, we recommend links in code like:

<a href=”http://…/link-recommendations.html”>read our recommendations for better links<a>.

Use a descriptive subject line

The subject line is the first text people will read, or have read to them by a screen reader. It should be meaningful, descriptive, concise and shouldn’t repeat the sender name. People with vision impairments rely on subject lines to determine whether an email message is relevant to their needs.

Checklist: Is your email accessible?

Use the following checklist based on W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to make sure your email is accessible prior to sending to campus.

Tables are optimized to preserve logical reading order Circle Yes or No
Heading Elements Used Y   N
Text Color contrast is sufficient Y   N
Images have captions or alt attributes Y   N
Headings are used Y   N
Link text describes adequately where link leads to Y   N
For any graphics fliers or events posters the email text contains all vital information. Y   N
Email content can be zoomed using Keyboard Shortcut (Alt +/- for pc & Command +/- for Mac) Y   N
Reading Order is logical Y   N
Subject line is concise and descriptive Y   N

Faculty Images and Universal Design for Learning


Images are often worthless and only provide no information to readers. If you have images in your documents, do they serve a purpose?  Do they contain details like in a table?  Do they show progressions of data that may need analysis?  If your students have trouble reading your images, will they not be able to understand pertinent information in your course?

Addressing Complex Graphics

Let’s look at a few complex graphics and observe how to add materials to make them understandable by those who may struggle with the content. Sometimes the complexity of the graphic reflects the complexity of the course material, which can also alter the type of explanations one might need to provide for super complex materials.


Graphic 1: Table Style

Table that is complex

What’s nice about a table is that you can give it out typed up in an Excel Spreadsheet. Most student struggling to understand the tiered system, certainly don’t need some super ridiculous written out format describing the breakdown of umbrella headings.  You might like to add a summary of the table describing the umbrella, writing something like “the table feature the interest rates of the course of time which is broken into three main sections: (1)2002 April 15 to 19, (2) the weeks ending on April 19th and 12th, and (3) the average for March 2002.

Many teach that all this has to be in an alt tag, but that would not necessarily be the case for a distance education course or other types of classes, where faculty can send out the content in alternative formats. The chief point to understand is that providing alternatives helps more than one person, and so, developing adequate descriptions of a table will help other students as well.  The more complex the image the more important that is.

Lastly in this table, you will see that the rows also have an umbrella format. It is much easier to provide an excel of this data than to create the breakdown of html table markup.  If you choose to build an html version of the table you might need to learn how first.  See the resources listed at the end of this article for more information.

Graphic 2: Flow Chart Style

Process diagram

The best thing you can do is write the steps out long hand. For many people reading a flow chart explaining process, there is a logical set of points, and where the process reverts back to a process point, you just refer to the number of the point.  Not really too complex.  The vast majority of times I’ve looked a flow charts they were completely graphic without and text that can be read by those who are visually impaired in sight.  This brings up another idea that can deliver assistance to your readers. (1) you can just add numbers on the graphic, which would be the same numbers listed in the textual version.  You could add a link in close proximity to the image (and the image needs an alt tag for the blind describing what process this is) though the image itself could serve as a link.  Then those who want further explanation can find it, regardless of disability can use the link to arrive at that more textually logical format.  The content on the web could be placed into a separate page or further down the page.

Graphic 3:  Big textual and graphical chart

Table with Graphic about the spine

If this image was delivered to a student who can’t see, then there would be a problem. But the visual element is less important than the textual table.  You can see quickly that just building this into a table or even on a spreadsheet would be grand.  If someone was blind and need to know the physical locations on the spine, then a tactile image would have to be made.  For those who have learning disabilities, have the table in MS Word might be best as it provides a mean by which they can listen to the content using their assistive technologies.  Plainly a straight forward image leaves much to be desired.

Lastly, this image also mentions a couple of items in umbrella formats, for example Pelvis covers the Sacrum and the Coccyx.



Graphic 4: Razzle Dazzle Table and Chart combined:

complex series of charts and tables

An image like the one above requires great focus on delivering an accessible, multimodal description. But actually these things can be broken into the original content, as the one above would have three separate graphics.  The pie chart is quick, and you would only need the original table from where the data came, or to write out line by line the percentage of each category. Monthly Expense the second section could easy be turned into an Excel spreadsheet.  The complexity of the umbrella headings is not too difficult to cover.  As a spreadsheet all should be able to understand this information.  The last chunk is the monthly profits piece.  That also only needs the information presented in a table.  Actually this graphic is no more complex than all the other examples.

Do we have to make everything accessible?

If you want your students to better grasp the content of your course, then universal design principles are very useful. They provide multimodal means of acquiring information, and just happen to make your content accessible to those who have disabilities.  Who knows once you get going, you might start experimenting with other modes like audio, video, or whatever you can think of – just provide the content in multiple representations to cover the widest audience possible.



Making Distance Learning courses Accessible to Students and instructors with Disabilities: A Case Study

Putting Universal Design for Learning on the Higher Education Agenda

Blended Learning

Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education

Making Images Accessible

Apple Basics for Accessibility

Apple Basics for Accessibility

Instruction: Go to the Apple, System Preferences, System and double click the Accessibility icon. This will take you to a window that allows for you to improve the accessibility of your Macintosh computer, without having to buy anything.



Operating systems have had commands built-in for those with disabilities for years. These commands vary from voice commands, control of the mouse size, inverting the display colors, to hearing what is on the screen.  The complete listing of what can be found in the system preferences folder is provided below.


Command Areas

Display allows for inverting color scheme; to use grayscale; to alter the display contrast settings; to adjust the mouse and typing cursor size.

Zoom provides you with the ability to adjust the size of the image on your screen like a screen enlargement software does, but for free.

VoiceOver is a built-in screenreading software that reads back what you type, the headings in menus and the like.

Audio allows a user to create a visual flash on the screen for audio notifications like alarms and when messages are in your inbox

Keyboard allows a user to change how the keyboard works; providing those with dexterity or motor control problems to improve how the keyboard functions.

Mouse provides an alternative mouse, you can use the ten key part of the keyboard to control the functions of the mouse or trackpad.

Speakable Items allows one to speak in commands or to dictate text into fields or documents.  This feature helps someone who has trouble typing to create documents.

Celebrate Apple Access Again

open the doorI’ve been watching and waiting for several years wondering when the great Apple Corp. was going to deliver on accessibility, but they did, but Microsoft didn’t, until now.

Yes, VoiceOver is finally going to gain access to working inside MS Office Applications.  You wonder why it took so long.  Well, think of this, MS didn’t upgrade their Office product for 5 years, wow — how much did that cost them?

You can understand why they might just forget a few blind folks, being that the numbers of screenreader users using VoiceOver on the Mac is miniscule compared to the horde using products on the PC.  Not that I would want that to happen.  What I didn’t realize was that Office hadn’t been upgraded all these years.

So there you have it.  VoiceOver has been a great tool for operating around in the Apple OS, but what good is an OS if the most popular spreadsheet, word processor and presentation software are going to work.

Now I have understood that there are more issues to address in making MS Office completely accessible, but at least we got off first base.  Remember “Who is on first base.”  Microsoft’s reasoning for not upgrading their premier software package is not understood especially since there were dollars attached to those decisions.

Related Article

Accessibility in Word 2016 

Related Video

5 New Features in Word for Mac 2016

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