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Why Accessibility Matters to an Instructional Designer

A Reflection on How Accessibility is Woven in to My Instructional Design Practices

The open door

In my experience as an Instructional Designer in the last decade, many overarching issues have surfaced as to how the university systems work on an administrative level. Higher education institutions are struggling to keep up with the changing technologies and meeting the needs of their students. For students with disabilities, technology can be  a major stepping stone and tool for communication and access, or it can be a barrier.

Higher Education officials are facing the need for our ever-changing technologies to meet the needs of all students. Legal cases are setting the landscape for higher awareness and liability for institutions that are not in compliance with disability laws. It has always been my hope, through the many committees and groups I work within, that I can help facilitate change from the ground up, and further awareness of accessibility issues one program at a time.

The ideals surrounding Universal Design (UD) and accessibility as it relates to course and online materials first came to light for me while working as an Instructional Designer at the UAA Center for Human Development (CHD). There, many issues popped up that were centered around accessibility that I had not previously conceptualized. As a center that serves people with disabilities, it is more likely that a student or community member with a disability would be enrolled in a course or attending a training. These individuals request support and accommodations, and much of the time that meant accessible online materials.

Having a background in web design, I had experience with web accessibility practices, but before coming to UAA and working with our Disability Support Services office, no one had really laid out what it meant to design with accessibility in mind. At CHD, I experienced first-hand how much time it takes to retro-fit and correct materials that were not universally designed in the first place. Much of my time was spent correcting PDF’s to better read from a screen reader, testing and correcting our websites, and adding captions to videos.

Universal Design and proactive design concepts began to sink in for me when I was serving in an Instructional Designer role in an “Accessible Multimedia” course in Summer 2011. I was able to not only learn from the content, but also to provide feedback on  the content delivery, organization and usability. I was able to take my experience with distance delivery and learning theory, and share it with the instructor, and at the same time learn the much needed skills and techniques of accessibility that the course content had to offer. This was was a unique opportunity to look at the course from the viewpoint of the instructor as well as the student end user.

For the “Accessible Multimedia” course, we solicited student feedback, and compared students’ pre- and post-course survey results. It was clear that many of the students were in need of this information in their field of work, and benefited greatly from the course. The students were all adult working professionals with a personal and/or professional stake in accessible media and information dissemination. The students ranged from journalism majors, to UAA staff and faculty, to State of Alaska employees. Some identified themselves as “tech savvy”, and some claimed they were not. In my review of their comments, pre- and post-course, there was a clear increase in their sense of awareness of issues and the availability of resources to deal with those issues. I also noted an increased sense of responsibility to further share these ideals and resources in their own professional environments. This experience brought a bigger need to light for me, and led me to feel a greater sense of responsibility to spread awareness and training. I realized I have a unique opportunity as an Instructional Designer to both reach out to the faculty I am working with as well as the technology staff that I work with in the University system.

This led me to a path of focusing my Masters Degree project on proactive accessibility planning processes, which included a baseline inventory and improvement plan. I worked with a cohort program at my center called TAPESTRY. The cohort was comprised of students who experience intellectual disabilities. The TAPESTRY program was already using technology-enhanced models of teaching by giving the student iPads and delivering content through UAA’s online Learning Management System, Blackboard. Using the TAPESRTY’s students as the primary audience for my pilot “Accessibility Plan” added an emphasis on the need for their materials to adhere to a Universal Design (UD) approach for those with cognitive impairments, an area that is often overlooked.

This experience offered me a unique service learning opportunity. This was real work for real “clients” and the the work would continue on as a living, evolving entity through an ongoing evaluation and revision cycle. When I first conceptualized this accessibility planning project, the plan was to work with the Center for Human Development as a whole. CHD has 50 employees and an myriad of grant-funded projects and courses for academic credit and the community. After a few meetings with the management, its was clear that this project had to start smaller. One of the major factors for the decision to scale down this initial target group was the realization that the “accessibility inventory” was going to be nearly impossible to capture with CHD’s structure. The volume of their projects, along with their varied dissemination logistics and staff organization, made it virtually impossible to think of a digestible process for collecting the inventory data.

Looking back, I am glad to have caught this issue early in the process, and to have changed my project to focus on one program. The structure at CHD mirrors the structure at UAA as a larger system. A smaller planning project like this can be implemented program-to-program or department-to-department, as the groups are ready. This model lends to the template being more scale-able for other departments.

When planning for accessibility, visual and hearing impairments are most often thought of first, and planning revolves around testing materials with screen readers and adding captions to multimedia content. For individuals with cognitive disabilities such as learning disabilities, distract-ability, comprehension, and dyslexia, content is the most important barrier to accessibility and their ability to interact with online content. These individuals benefit more from well structured, semantically organized pages that provide instructions, illustrations, diagrams or any process that helps make the content easier to understand and navigate. These principles directly relate back to effective content design practices in the Instructional Design field, and are practices I already encourage, so this all really clicked for me.

I researched many  “Accessibility Plans”  from which to pull ideas. Naturally, there are many plans and templates to follow for physical structure accessibility, mainly for state and federal agencies and departments. The work being done towards electronic information accessibility was a relatively newer issue, but one that was moving at a fast pace. I found a few plans and templates that touched on website accessibility, but it wasn’t until I found the materials offered by the State of Minnesota Office of Accessibility that I saw something akin to what I was trying to do. The Minnesota accessibility planning materials were created specifically for Minnesota state agencies, but the structure and the template concepts were what I needed to get me thinking of how my templates could be easily used on a smaller scale. One main difference I had to keep in mind while pulling concepts from their materials, was that Minnesota actually has state laws and standards for electronic accessibility. This is a fairly innovative concept for state law. Alaska does not yet have these standards on a state level, but I was able to pull from our own UAA standards as well as some industry standards at a federal level.

One observation that has come to light through this project for me, that is an inherent hurdle for those of us committing to this sort of proactive design, is that it seems people do not think about accessibility issues unless they have first hand experience with disabilities. That is not to say that people do not care, it is just that they are unaware. This lack of awareness made me realize there is a deeper need for awareness and outreach on the topic. I structured a review of the legal landscape for my studies to raise awareness from a legal angle. That is to say, if you can’t find the time to become aware of this issue because it hasn’t affected you or a loved one first-hand, then perhaps you will care if you know that ignorance of the issue and how we handle our electronic materials can lead to costly legal repercussions for you and your workplace.

I have heard the excuse that “faculty just don’t have the time to learn extra things”, as well as that staff don’t have the time or resources either. It is my experience that faculty want to comply and do the right thing, they just need to know how and who to go to. There needs to be a plan put in place at the administrative level for professional development around these topics.

Curb #1

In my time researching these issues, I have come across many analogies that have struck a chord with me. One example is that we, as a Higher Education institution, would not erect a building with multiple floors without including an elevator. Why are we developing complex online systems for students without ensuring accessibility features? Another is the concept that if a class was going on a field trip, we would not leave behind a student because he was in wheelchair and couldn’t get on the bus. We would use a bus that accommodated that wheelchair. Why are we designing systems and disseminating course material that cannot be used by all?

We need university administration to take that stand that we all go together or we don’t go at all.  We need to put resources towards providing training opportunities for our staff and faculty, as well as provide incentives for professional development around accessibility. Waiting for a lawsuit to put these plans in action is a costly alternative.

There are recommended practices in accessibility field and they can be put on the radar and prioritized at the institutional level. Many institutions house “Accessibility Coordinators” or a single point of contact for these duties. As we allocate more money and resources towards new technologies, and it is a natural fit to keep accessibility in the conversation, and a proactive approach can lead to a larger end result. Encouraging the administration to make an official commitment towards accessibility is key, even if it is one department at a time.

I see it as part of my work to serve in a capacity to get the word out. As an Instructional Designer I am able to bring accessibility to the table with Educational Technologists and other professional teams in which I am involved. As we look at new hardware and software technologies to implement for teaching and learning, it is not hard to bring up accessibility before it gets to the procurement level. Working with vendors of the products we look into, I just simply ask them what their accessibility features are, and get an idea of their willingness to make changes towards accessibility if we were to purchase their products.

We can also put accessibility features as a requirement when soliciting for vendor proposals. This helps push them to provide us with accessible products. They are not required by law to make their products accessible, but since the Higher Education market is, it sure does make good business sense for them to do so. Language can then be written into the contract at the procurement level to ensure the vendor’s commitment. In this way, higher education is helping to drive the market. We are helping to redefine what is normal. Accessibility becomes normal.

Having a long-standing background in Graphic Design, I also find myself geared up to learn more about accessible graphic print and web design in general, and how I can create layout and design that is visually appealing, providing the end user an equally rich experience, rather or not they can see it. This is a specialized interest in the design field, and a new and exciting path for me!

I feel grateful to have served in an advocate role for accessibility planning, as it has furthered my understanding of, and commitment to, designing with accessibility in mind, and at the same time provided many service learning activities in Instructional Design. This work has motivated me and helped shape my technical skills for further use in the areas of accessible course design in my career. I am excited to see how that evolves over time for me and the entities I work within, as new laws regarding accessible material are put into place.

Have you woven accessibility into your design practices? I would love to hear from others who hold this as a priority.


Published inAccessibilityDigital Citizenship

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