For many students, accessibility is not a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have for their learning journey. And that shouldn’t be a journey students have to embark on alone. Macmillan Learning has long invested in tools and services that make learning more accessible for all learners, regularly sharing best practices, including with publicly available checklists and guidelines .
The upcoming “Accessibility in Action” panel on March 7 at SXSW EDU brings together industry leaders for an important conversation on the accessibility journey including Macmillan Learning Senior Director of Accessibility Outreach and Communication, Rachel Comerford; Anaya Jones, Elearning Librarian & Assistant Professor at Southern New Hampshire University; Southeastern Oklahoma State University student Madison Saunders; and Benete ch Account Manager Ashley Wells Ajinkya.
Ahead of the panel, our team spoke with Rachel Comerford about her role, what accessibility means in education, and important advancements that are being made.
What does it mean to have "accessible" learning materials?
There are two sides to making something accessible - meeting the requirements outlined by standards like WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and meeting the needs of users.
Guidelines are important for establishing a consistent experience for students and in making materials work across the many platforms that students use. Assistive technology does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to introducing variation in how educational content is displayed on a screen or delivered, but it can only do that work if the appropriate accessibility standards are met.
The user experience, however, is more nuanced. Learning scientists discover more every day about how students learn and how unique the learning experience is. This goes for all students - checking off the accessibility to-do list is a great starting point, but every student is different and may need materials in different formats or styles. This is where flexibility plays a part in educational design. Making accessible learning materials also means being willing to re-make them according to user need. It’s in this spirit that Macmillan Learning offers alternative formats for all of its learning materials for students with disabilities.
Macmillan Learning became the first publishing firm to be "global certified accessible" in 2019. What, in practical terms, does that mean?
For Macmillan Learning, as it will be for most publishers participating in the certification program, this meant revisiting our eBook publishing workflow from the ground up. The first step was enormous; we made a format switch from PDF to EPUB3, which is widely considered to be a more accessible eBook format. From there, we made incremental improvements from adding alternative text to every image, to establishing accessible design templates, to tweaking our code until it reflected the best practices in the industry. We were supported on the journey by our partners at Benetech, who went through countless reviews with us to highlight challenges. We also worked with Tech for All, who trained employees and authored support documentation throughout the process, along with various industry organizations who have helped us create, maintain, and communicate these standards. We are very proud of the accomplishments we have made, but we also recognize that this is a journey that is ongoing.
What do you consider to be some of the most important advancements in moving forward accessibility?
People are the driving force behind accessibility. We are at a time where there's unprecedented awareness of the need for accessibility worldwide, which has led to widespread knowledge of the techniques necessary to make content accessible. Standards like WCAG and EPUB A11Y, certification programs, and an infrastructure of organizations, documentation, and training makes it easier than ever before to find out what still needs to be accomplished.
How has the pandemic-induced shift to digital and remote learning impacted students that need accomodations?
There were pros and cons to the sudden switch to remote learning. In a sense, the change was incredibly helpful to students in need of accommodations. Suddenly, students with chronic illness, pain, fatigue, and mobility issues had access to their ‘classroom’ when and where they needed it. And for many of these students, it worked. There was a downside as well though. When digital materials weren’t born accessible, students faced long waits from understaffed disability services offices for alternative formats. As the pandemic wore on, we saw an increased investment from procurement offices at universities in adopting accessible materials, which in turn led to students with disabilities getting the materials they needed at the same time as their peers and relief for accessibility offices.
What's something that would be surprising about accessibility in education?
It’s disappointing that we still hear from some professors that students with disabilities are not “their” students. Educators need to understand that there are students with disabilities in their classrooms, either in-person or virtual. Refusing to consider these students when choosing educational materials, however, will delay or halt these students’ studies. This cannot be a chicken or egg argument: if we create an inaccessible environment for all students, then some students will be unable to complete their studies, and in the long run, society misses out on the valuable contributions these students might make in their fields. Every educator has the chance to make a difference for every student. It starts with them.
The SXSW EDU Accessibility in Action panel is scheduled for Monday, March 7, 2022 from 3:30pm-4:30pm CT. It will provide context from various stakeholders about what goes into making an eBook, a textbook, or other course materials fully accessible.
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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of undergraduate students reported having a learning disability. As a company whose mission is to improve lives through learning for all students, that data is hard to ignore. So today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we celebrate the many accomplishments on our products and within our company framework that have taken place over the past year. Here are a few:
For the third consecutive year we were recognized as Global Certified Accessible by Benetech. This means that we provide “born accessible” digital learning options that ensure that all students, no matter their ability, have the same access to information. Benetech re-evaluated Macmillan Learning’s workflow for creating accessible books, as well as many samples of content across disciplines, and certified our conformance to the accessible EPUB creation guidelines, which are based on WCAG 2.0 AA+ standards put in place by the international standards organizations and the publishing community.
We had some big wins for accessibility on our new digital learning platform, Achieve, including adding audio descriptions to all videos. This allows students with visual impairments better understand what’s happening in the video. Similar to how closed captioning helps students to understand what’s happening on the audio in a video program, an audio description is essential to understanding visual information like charts, graphs, diagrams, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues. In addition to bringing our content more in line with WCAG, it reflects the accessible environment students have become used to on sites like Netflix.
Lab simulations also became significantly more accessible for chemistry; biology; and general, organic, and biochemistry classes . Our third party auditors, Tech for All, described the labs as fun to use for assistive technology users. They include an accessible ebook, an easily navigable lab environment
We continue to share best practices about our work in accessibility. Our Content Standards and Accessibility team, led by Rachel Comerford, has presented on more than a half dozen panels over the past year sharing what we have learned about accessible ebooks, incorporating accessibility into workflows, and alt text best practices. Macmillan Learning’s accessibility website is also regularly updated with best practices as well as an open source library of materials that were created in partnership with Tech For All. “We continue to share best practices about our work in accessibility because we want to advance the industry, not just ourselves,” said Macmillan Learning President Susan Winslow.
We’ve changed the way we hire employees with disabilities by making it even easier for them to request an accommodation. When you click on “view current job openings” on our careers page, we have an accessibility note at the top of the page offering contact information to request an appropriate accommodation. In addition, we’ve taken some extra steps to make sure that our candidates are aware of their accommodation options by adding in a note in all of our scheduling emails and email confirmations.
Susan Winslow explains, “These are the kinds of advances we can make when we put our collective minds to approaching accessibility not just as a series of requirements to meet, but rather as interesting and important problems to solve.”
For more information about our accessibility, visit the dedicated page on our website .
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People watching has become my favorite pastime during the pandemic. I watch out my window while a woman does yoga on her rooftop. Down below on the street there are bike riders, street cleaners, essential workers commuting, and morning runners. From my perch, I can make stories for each of them based on what I see. But what about what I can’t see? Does the woman doing yoga have a new heart? Does that runner have Crohn’s Disease? Is that nurse headed to work dyslexic?
Too often, when people think about disabilities, they imagine individuals in wheelchairs, or a person with a guide dog … and while some disabilities are visible, many are not. These are invisible disabilities, which the Invisible Disabilities Association defines as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” And if we are not careful, they can limit a person’s educational opportunities.
According to the National Service And Inclusion Project , among all people with disabilities of working age (29.4 million), 52% are employed. An accessible education is not the only change needed but it’s one important step in helping to increase that number.
Because disabilities are not always visible, it can be a challenge to create assignments and workloads that support all students. It’s an especially challenging time during COVID, where much of learning is taking place remotely. We put together some tips to help instructors support accessibility and all student learning, including those with disabilities they may not be able to see.
Tip One: Sometimes, students with invisible disabilities are perceived as lacking in intelligence, not paying attention, or even lazy. While some students will choose to disclose a disability to instructors, many will not. And, even if your student does share that they have a disability, they are not required to give you the details. Assuming that a student that isn’t achieving with the existing course structure is anything but doing their best is a dangerous path to go down. Work with these students to identify the points where they are struggling. It’s possible that being easily distracted or frequent bathroom trips might mean that they need extra time on tests. Chronic pain or fatigue may mean that a student needs extra time to turn over assignments or opportunities to use alternative formats. In Macmillan Learning’s course platform, Achieve, instructors can create student exceptions for assignment deadlines .
Tip Two: Find course materials that all students can use. For example, Macmillan Learning produces e-books in EPUB3 format and include accessibility metadata, short and long alt text, clear structure and organization, and a variety of navigation methods including page and heading navigation. The e-books reflow and respond to magnification, so the text is readable at 200% magnification. We also prioritize keyboard navigation and reading order in our e-book development. Macmillan Learning has a policy that allows 10 pages to be printed at a time and the copy/pasting of 2 pages at a time. And of course, beginning in 2019, all our e-books are Global Certified Accessible by Benetech . Bringing products that are already accessible to your class gives students the chance to be successful from the onset and allows them to make the personalizations they need to be successful.
Tip Three: If you’re creating materials and documents for your class or sourcing open educational resources, make sure they are accessible before you post them. Here’s a checklist to help you make accessible documents. We also have free checklists for .pdfs and slides on our Accessibility page on our website. Remember that accessibility is about more than passing the automated checkers that you can find in these tools. Try to limit the quantity of information you provide on slides - packing a single slide with information can be overwhelming for students. Could that pdf be a word document? Students can resize text, change the amount of information on each page, and resize images in a word doc in ways they can’t without an expensive editor in pdf.
Tip Four: Are your students no longer in your classroom? Consider how Universal Design could help enable teaching and learning. Reading from the text is a helpful learning experience for some students but can you present the information in the textbook in additional, alternative formats? Consider integrating an online lab experience so students can have a more hands on interaction with the materials or integrating interactives that focus on important concepts .
Recently, I was sent the definition of disability used by We Need Diverse Books :
“We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.”
The reason this definition resonates with me is because it includes not only what disability is but also how we can, unintentionally, create an ableist environment. Building, buying, and implementing accessible environments for students is important to their future whether they are continuing to more schooling or entering the workforce.
At Macmillan Learning, we take our commitment to providing accessible materials seriously. If you’d like to learn more about accessibility visit the Accessibility page on our website. We also encourage feedback from students and instructors on what we can do to improve and welcome any feedback about our resources or suggestions about future resources at email@example.com .
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