Involving Students in Course Accessibility

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Accessibility Lab by Bill Scott on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license

Image Long Description: Color photo of a white sign, indicating the location of an Accessibility Lab, on the side of a frosted glass wall. The sign shows the accessibility icon of a white human symbol in a blue circle. Below the image the location name is written in Braille, which shows as black dots on the white background.

In the best of all possible worlds, my course materials would include a variety of media, intended to support the many learning styles that students bring to the course. Every one of these resources would be accessible in multiple ways. Every video would have closed captioning and a transcript. Every image would have an alt attribute and, when appropriate, a long description. Webpages would have high contrast alternatives and never show errors when analyzed with the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool.


Unfortunately, I do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I know that there are gaps in my course materials. I am eagerly attending workshops this term to improve the accessibility of my online materials, and I am a member of a year-long cohort that focuses on inclusion and diversity. The problem is that I only have so much time, and it can be challenging to add all the resources that are needed. I try my best to ensure that whatever I produce is accessible, but some of the outside resources I include, like infographics and videos, don’t have captioning, transcripts, or other accessibility features.


So what to do? I decided to involve students themselves in the solution. Grades in my professional writing courses relate to the labor that students put into the course, following Asao Inoue’s anti-racist assessment model (2014). To explain very briefly, students must try a number of specific tasks that range from simple log entries to major writing projects. If they put in the effort and try the required activities, they can earn a B in the course. To earn a grade higher than a B, students must take an ongoing leadership role by helping to teach the class new things and significantly adding support to the writing community. I provide students with a list of ways to contribute. You can read more about the course arrangement on the Requirements page for this semester.


With the need to provide options for adding to the course in mind, I added an activity that invited students to create the missing transcripts and text descriptions for resources used in the course. Here is the assignment that I am using:


Optional Accessibility Transcript Activity

Ideally, everything in this course should be accessible to everyone. For instance, videos and audio recordings need transcripts, and images need alt attributes and long descriptions that explain what they show.

The goal of this activity is to create the transcripts and descriptions that are missing for some of the resources used in the course. Your work will focus on accurately presenting the words from the original as well as applying document design principles to ensure that the transcript is easy to read and navigate.


These resources provide how-to information and tips:


How The Activity Is Graded

The transcript activity is completely optional. If you create a transcript, I’ll check it for accuracy to the original, standard correctness, and good document design. If necessary, you can revise a transcript until it is usable for the course. Your transcript will be graded either Complete or Incomplete, meaning you can revise.


If you are working toward a grade higher than a B in the course, you can create a transcript as part of the extra work you do to build community in the course and share ideas. This transcript activity is just one of several options available to you.

How To Participate

Creating a transcript is an independent activity. You won’t interact with anyone other than me, unless you ask your writing group to give you feedback. Here’s the process you’ll follow:

  1. Choose a resource that is missing a transcript. They will usually be things that are posted in our Daily Discussion posts.
  2. Email me with the details on the resource you want to work with. I will check your request to make sure the task is not too big or too small. After I check it, I will send you an approval. Wait for that approval before you begin your work.
  3. Use the resources above for tips on how to create your transcript.
  4. Use a word processor to type and format the text from the video or image that you have chosen.
  5. Submit your transcript in Canvas in the Optional Transcript Assignment once you have finished.
  6. If your work is finished, I will mark it Complete in Canvas Grades, add it to the course website, and credit you. If it needs to be revised, I’ll mark it Incomplete in Canvas Grades, and you can revise and resubmit.

To make the assignment work smoothly, I add a note on every page that I publish that indicates which elements already have transcripts or and which need accessibility support. In the month that the activity has been available, several students have volunteered to create the missing materials. As a result, I now have support for resources that I had no time to take care of myself. 

I particularly like the multiple benefits that grow from this activity:

  • Students gain a better understanding of the needs of those with disabilities.
  • Students learn how to create accessible documents.
  • Students participate in an authentic writing and document design activity, with a concrete purpose and audience.
  • Students can focus on on editing and design skills, since the content itself already exists.

All that and I get resources that make my course materials more accessible too. This activity is definitely a keeper.

How do you talk about accessibility with your students? Do you have any assignments or classroom activities to share? Please leave a comment below with your comments or questions.

Credit: Accessibility Lab by Bill Scott on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.