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Opening the Doors

November 21, 2013

When information is digital, it is nothing but strings of 1s and 0s. Unlike printed text or analog recordings, those 1s and 0s can be rendered in many different ways without changing the underlying information. This flexibility has the potential to throw the doors of disability wide open, letting in those who cannot see or hear or move as most people do. But to fully open these doors, those of us designing online materials – course lessons, web pages, LibGuides, screencasts – have to be vigilant in using the features that render the 1s and 0s fully accessible.

For two years now, I have been designing materials for a legal research class that is taught entirely online. Many other librarians are teaching online as well. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, any institution of higher education that sees any federal dollars pass through its coffers has to ensure that no disabled student is “excluded from the participation in, … denied the benefits of, or … subjected to discrimination” on account of their disability. In effect, this means that we are legally required to ensure that our online materials are as accessible and meaningful to a student with low/no vision, low/no hearing, or motor skill challenges as they are to a student without these needs. Legal requirements aside, meeting the needs of our students is pedagogical and even moral imperative as well.

Are we doing what we need to do when we design online materials? My guess is that many of us are not. Through a combination of inexperience and time constraints, we do not know how to make our materials universally accessible. Nor are we aware of what happens when we don’t. Most law librarians have not encountered a JAWS reader, a refreshable Braille display, or a mouth stick.

Principles of universal design provide a basic paradigm for inclusive environments – including online environments. The idea behind universal design is it benefit everyone. As an example, consider nesting “fly-out” menus – those drop-down menus where submenus expand to the side when you hover over an item. As Raymond Chen, author of the Microsoft Developer’s Network’s “The Old New Thing” blog, explains, “Menu navigation has turned into one of those mouse dexterity games where you have to guide your character through a maze without hitting any of the walls or you die and have to start over.” And that’s for people without vision or motor restrictions. For those with disabilities, the maze might as well be pitch black with walls that are continually closing in on you.

Designing fully-accessible online instruction is not hard, but it does require planning, gaining the necessary knowledge, and consistently application. A full discussion of best practices is well beyond the scope of this blog, but here are a few action items you can implement today.

  1. Keep the display clean, simple, and logically structured.
  2. Use styles to create your headings.
    • Text readers don’t pick up the logical structure of the text if you simply format the text of your headings to be larger and bold. Instead, use Heading styles. Text readers “read” these and communicate the structure of the information to the user.
  3. Make sure all menus, form items, etc., are text-based rather than images.
    • Text readers can’t read images. This may be acceptable for images that are for visual effect only, but it is a showstopper if your menus, form items, links, and other essential items are images rather than text.
  4. For any image, provide alternative text that a screen reader will read.
    • When you do use an image – either for design or instructional purposes – always fill in the alternative text (alt-text) with a meaningful substitute. If the image is for visual effect only, you can use the alternative text to let the use know what the image is and that its use is essentially illustrative. If the image is essential to the instruction, use the alternative text to fully describe the visual so that the user will learn as much as possible from the description. If a picture is worth a thousand words, someone with a visual impairment may need your thousand words to master the material conveyed in the image.
    • Similarly, captioning images increases their value to every user. Most users don’t have text readers that will read the alt-text fields, but a visible caption on every image is a long-standing (probably as long as the written word) practice that can exploit a teachable moment to the fullest.
  5. For any audio or video with audio, provide a transcript or captions.
    • Hearing impairments are one of the most prevalent disabilities and are relatively easy to accommodate with transcripts and captioning. Text alternatives to audio can also be a boon to nondisabled students who retain information better when they read it rather than listen to it or those who do their studying in an environment where sound is not an option.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen Frazer permalink
    November 21, 2013 8:23 am

    This is so helpful and useful. I hope you are publishing an article about teaching legal research online. I would love to read that.

  2. Susan deMaine permalink*
    November 21, 2013 11:27 am

    Thanks, Helen. I do have a couple of articles in the works on creating effective and accessible online instruction. My intention is that they will be full of real=-life suggestions and guidelines, and not just theoretical.

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