Meanwhile, Blackboard Ally is an AI-enabled tool that scans course content for accessibility issues, and it integrates with most LMSs. Siteimprove and Tenon.io are similar tools that can help institutions audit websites for accessibility red flags.
While such tools can serve as helpful guides, they are evaluating materials that have been created without universal design in mind, so they won’t be able to catch every accessibility issue. “Nothing exists anywhere that’s fully accessible to all people,” Moore says.
MORE ON EDTECH: Improving accessibility for students and faculty with disabilities.
Avoid Complex Processes That Encumber Students with Disabilities
Another major flaw in this retroactive approach is that it places a tremendous burden on students.
When students with dyslexia, for example, struggle with assigned readings, instructors typically refer them to disability services. The students then go through a cumbersome process where they must document their disabilities, apply for disability services and wait for course materials to become accessible.
“Educators need to think about accessibility at the origin of content creation. Otherwise, you’re reporting on inaccessibility that already exists, as opposed to preventing it,” says Kyle Shachmut, co-chair of the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility group and assistant director of digital accessibility services at Harvard University.
Rather than creating content for an assumed student population without barriers, before retrofitting that content for other groups with barriers, faculty and staff should instead focus on creating content that’s accessible for every student population from the start.
LEARN MORE: How can universities help disabled students with remote learning?
To prioritize digital inclusion on a systemic level, universities must ask: Are all students — regardless of whether they’re students with disabilities, students from low-income families or students who live in rural areas — able to access their educational materials?
“Can all learners who need to access the material access it? If they can’t, it’s not accessible,” Moore says.
Moore also recommends that colleges and universities form multidisciplinary teams that support the procurement and evaluation of accessible technologies. Such a specialized team could also do accessibility training for faculty and staff. “It’s the best thing for institutions of higher education to do if they’re serious about accessibility,” he says.
Achieve Digital Inclusion by Creating Courses in More Formats
“Instead of saying the barrier is the student with dyslexia, we say the barrier is that class materials have been bottlenecked through one means of representation,” Moore says.
It would help if instructors made course content available in a variety of formats: text and audio, or text and video or graphics.
That way, the content serves students with different disabilities, as well as students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. A student who has to commute long distances to get to school, for instance, would benefit from an audio recording of a text. Meanwhile, a student with limited resources can avoid buying expensive textbooks if he or she can access content through cheaper (or possibly free) alternative formats.
DIVE DEEPER: Learn how to solve remote learning struggles for students with vision and hearing loss.
Reducing the number of hoops that students must jump through to access learning materials “benefits everyone more broadly,” Moore says.
“Variability in the human population isn’t the exception, it’s the norm,” Moore says. “We should provide for accessibility up front, rather than punting to specialized departments like disability services. This is the new frontier for accessibility and Universal Design for Learning.”