By Natalie Shaheen
January 31, 2017
Natalie is an educational consultant whose work focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) instruction for students with disabilities, particularly blind students. Follow Natalie on Twitter at @nlshaheen.
You are probably aware that public spaces must be accessible to people with disabilities. These Accessibility requirements are specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act. If asked to identify accessibility features in your school, you might point to the ramp at the entrance, the wide doorways around the building, or the doors that open automatically.
But, did you know that digital environments (e.g., websites, mobile devices, etc.) are also required to possess certain characteristics in order to be accessible to people with disabilities? Just like physical environments, digital environments can either support or impede the inclusion of people with disabilities (Brown & Brown, 2006). For example, if a website or app is inaccessible, some students with disabilities (e.g., blind students, students who use alternative keyboard or switches) might not be able to use the website or app at all or may be severely limited in what they can do in the app independently. Conversely, if a website or app is accessible, students with disabilities, including blind students, can navigate the website independently, performing all of the same tasks as their non-disabled peers.
What is the equivalent of a ramp or wide doorway in the digital world of 0s and 1s? Both US law and industry best-practice guidelines outline elements of accessibility within the digital domain. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that all technology owned, used, created, or purchased by the federal government (or entities that receive federal funding, like public schools) be accessible to people with disabilities. These regulations have been recently updated to keep pace with the rapid growth of technology. There are also technical guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, arguably the most widely accepted technical standard around the world (Caldwell, Cooper, Reid, & Vanderheiden, 2008; Lazar, Goldstein, & Taylor, 2015; Pascaul, Ribera, Granollers, & Coiduras, 2014).
How do I ensure digital accessibility?
You might be inclined to go read the new regulation (that is what I have been doing -see the link below)! On the other hand, reading regulations and technical standards might not be your jam. No problem! Here are a few easy ways to incorporate technology accessibility considerations into your everyday work.
- Don’t assume: You know what they say about assuming - well, it applies to technology, too. Verify that the technology you plan to use is actually accessible.
- Check websites for accessibility: Did you learn about a cool new website over winter break that you are planning to use with your students in the coming weeks? Is it accessible? Will your students with disabilities be able to use it with ease? To find out, do some quick tests using automated accessibility checkers, like the WAVE tool, and other simple techniques. These quick methods are not perfect, but they will give you an initial sense of whether the website will be problematic.
- Share what you found: Did you find accessibility barriers on that website you wanted to use with your class? Send a friendly note to the developer. Let the individual know you would like to use their site in your class, but you noticed there are accessibility barriers that will make the website difficult for your students with disabilities to use. The most common accessibility barriers are pretty easy to fix, and developers will sometimes just go ahead and take care of them.
- Check your documents: Accessibility applies to documents of all kinds, on- and offline. Use these handy techniques to make sure your PDF and Word documents, as well as your PowerPoints, are accessible. Use Grackle Docs, a free Google Docs plug-in, to make sure your Google Docs are accessible, too.
- Get to know the law: Schools that receive federal funding are required to comply with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. If a technology that is used in a K-12 school is inaccessible, it is the school (not the technology developer) that is liable (Lazar, Goldstein, & Taylor, 2015). A district in Seattle was sued over the use of inaccessible technology, read the consent decree. The US Department of Justice and Department of Education issued a FAQ document and a joint “Dear Colleagues” letter to help clarify what the law requires of schools.
- Incorporate accessibility into procurement processes: Like building accessibility, technology accessibility is easiest when it is considered from the get-go. Dr. Jonathan Lazar and his colleagues offer great suggestions on how to incorporate technology accessibility into procurement processes in their book, Ensuring Digital Accessibility through Process and Policy, including ideas about contract and RFP language.
- Start looking at VPATs: A VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) is a document that a vendor creates to indicate how well their technology conforms to the requirements of the section 508 regulations. VPATs are a useful source of initial information, which should be followed up with further testing.
- Educate your staff: In particular, it is important for your ‘in-house’ developers to be aware of technology accessibility requirements. You want to make sure your website and any other technology the district develops is accessible to the entire community - a number of studies have found that district websites are frequently inaccessible (Bray et. al., 2003a; Bray et. al., 2003b; Opitz, Savenye, & Rowland, 2003; Krach & Jelenic, 2009).
- Find an Expert: There are accessibility professionals who do this for a living. Leverage their expertise. Many of these professionals, as well as other “accessibility evangelists,” are on Twitter. Check out the #A11y hashtag and join the conversation!
- The “Final Rule” of the Updated 508 Regulations from the U.S. Access Board
- Buy Accessible: What to Look for in eBooks
- WebAIM: Training and easy to digest information about technology accessibility
- Make Technology Work for Everyone: Introducing Digital Accessibility (video)
Bray, M., Flowers, C. P , & Gibson, P (2003a). Accessibility of school districts' web sites: A descriptive study. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 1, 209-221. Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Reader.ViewAbstract&paper_id=18865
Bray, M., Flowers, C. P , Smith, S., & Algozzine, R.F (2003b). Accessibility of elementary schools' web sites for students with disabilities. Education, 123(4), 815-830. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/openview/eeeefb5f2375af6630e06678d22469b1/1?pq-origsite=gscholar
Brown, P. A., & Brown, S. E. (2006). Accessible information technology in education: Addressing the "separate but equal" treatment of disabled individuals. In S. Danforth, & S.L. Gabel (Eds.), Vital Questions Facing Disability Studies in Education (pp. 253-270). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Caldwell, B., Cooper, M., Reid, L. G., & Vanderheiden, G. (2008). Web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/
Krach, S., & Jelenic, M. (2009). The other technological divide: K-12 web accessibility. Journal Of Special Education Technology, 24(2), 31-37. Retrieved from http://jst.sagepub.com/content/24/2/31.short
Lazar, J., Goldstein, D. F., & Taylor, A. (2015). Ensuring Digital Accessibility through Process and Policy. Chicago, IL: Morgan Kaufmann.
Opitz, C., Savenye, W., & Rowland, C. (2003). Accessibility of state department of education home pages and special education pages. Journal of Special Education Technology, 18(1), 17-28. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carl_Liaupsin/publication/247815098_The_comprehensive_evaluation_of_professional_development_software_A_critique_of_methodology/links/53dbd5900cf216e4210c0216.pdf#page=18
Pascual, A., Ribera, M., Granollers, T., & Coiduras, J. L. (2014). Impact of accessibility barriers on the mood of blind, low-vision and sighted users. Procedia Computer Science, 27, 431-440. doi:10.1016/j.procs.2014.02.047
United States Access Board (2017). About the ICT refresh. Retrieved from https://www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/communications-and-it/about-the-ict-refresh