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Bringing Up Accessibility

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Gardner_Aug04_210.jpgSince I attended the West Virginia University 2015 Summer Seminar: Access/ibility in Digital Publishing, I have been thinking about what I do to make resources accessible in the classes that I teach.

Like most teachers, I include a policy that tells students to visit our campus center for Services for Students with Disabilities for verification of their needs and resources to help them in the class. I’m not doing the best job with that statement, however. Tara Wood and Shannon Madden’s “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements” on the Kairos PraxisWiki explains how much more can be done to provide students equal access. Go read it.

Beyond the syllabus, there is the content of the course itself. I post either PDF or web-based versions (or both) of all the course documents so that students can magnify the text, if they need support for a visual impairment. I think the pages will all work with screen reader software, but I have to admit that I haven’t tested them. I add ALT attributes to all the images that I use on the course website as well, to ensure students who cannot see the images still understand what they are. I use Lynda.com videos, which have high-quality transcripts.

That’s about it, and it feels very much like a piecemeal, minimalistic approach. There is more that I could and should do. As I have been developing resources for a more visual syllabus, for instance, I worry about the potential for the visual presentation to fail, whether because of a student’s visual impairment or because of her lack of familiarity with the layout and organizational structures I am using. Even students who will say that they need no special accommodations can have difficulty navigating text that does not conform to traditional paragraphing conventions and syllabus layout structures.

So in the coming weeks, I plan to keep bringing up the issue of accessibility as it relates to the course materials that I create and to the classroom activities that students complete. Students need to learn to create accessible texts, too. My first task will be improving accessibility to the information I present on the first day of the course. Time to revise that tired boilerplate I have been using for my equal access policy!

How do you address accessibility in the classroom? Please share any strategies or resources that you have found particularly effective. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

[Photo: Handicap Sign by sterlic, on Flickr]

1 Comment
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Hi Traci,

As a blind writing instructor (and a former student), I can attest to the accessibility challenges of text-based courses. Here are a few measures I've taken.

Make sure that any PDF you upload has OCR (optical character recognition). Most screenreaders require you to highlight individual letters, words, or lines in order to hear them aloud. To see whether your text has OCR, just scroll across it. If you can highlight individual words, you're all set. This problem applies primarily to English profs who treasure their old, grungy photocopies – often with handwritten markings. I won't tell you how many times I had to seek out the original book or article just so I could get a clean copy!

As far as revising your access statement, you may consider adding something about service animals and personal technology. As I've recently acquired a guide dog, I felt the need to formalize service dog etiquette in my syllabus. If you'd like to see my statement, I'll happily send it.

Rather than framing accessibility discussions in terms of "accommodations" (which leads to identifying the measure as "something you do for THOSE DISABLED PEOPLE"), frame the discussion in terms of rhetorical measures. It's possible that any audience could contain a disabled person, so your students should be prepared to meet most access needs. It may be impossible to anticipate every access request, but they should be held to a standard of accessibility. For example, when my business students prepared PowerPoint presentations to accompany an in-class project, they had to provide me with a hard copy of their slides in large print.

What can be helpful is having a blind student or colleague test-drive your resources. The problem with visual accessibility is that it's different for every person. Most large print resources I've encountered are printed in an 18-pt sans sarif font, but for me, the sarifs make the characters easier to read. So a dialogue with colleagues or students is probably going to help you work out all the kinks.

Hopefully these remarks are helpful. I'm having to rein myself in as I have a lot to say on this subject!

About the Author
I am a poet, musician, and writing instructor interested in teaching basic writing, grammar, creative writing, and linguistics.