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 Benetech 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.