Digital Accessibility: Small Steps for the Long Haul

19 Sep

 

Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.

-Victor Hugo

long haul, noun
  • a long distance (in reference to the transport of freight or passengers)
    • “a long-haul flight”
  • a prolonged and difficult effort or task
    • “getting the proposal passed is likely to be a long haul”

 

This is the Moment

Natalie Portman recently produced, directed, and acted in a cinematic adaptation of the novel A Tale of Love and Darkness. Portman says the movie was 10 years in the making; she was 25 when she first had the idea. In an interview with NPR, Portman said this in response to a question about taking on such a long-term project:

[It was] something I was passionate about, and curious about, and interested in, in a way that could be sustainable for as long as it takes to make a film — which is years and years.

In the same interview she described how a mentor director emphasized the importance of the story to her. This mentor reminded her to continually remind the cast and crew where they were in the story at that moment. From the interview:

‘This is the moment when they fall in love. This is the moment she realizes he’s cheating. This is the moment he sees his mother as flawed for the first time.’ And when you name that, you’re all on the same page and you can sort of connect the dots of your story — and that was really helpful.

The Limiting Language of Accommodation

Our accommodation-oriented language limits our thinking and keeps our story small. Our story of creating environments where people with disabilities belong demands the more spacious, inclusive language of accessibility.

The current moment of this “accessibility through small change: story warrants a reminder: Our dominant paradigm for including people with disabilities is still accommodation, not accessibility. And “accommodate” sounds suspiciously like “tolerate” to me. I believe universities – those of us doing the longterm work of learning and teaching – aspire to a higher standard than accommodation or tolerance.

We have gotten to this part of the story via laws establishing that children with disabilities have the right to public education, and those prohibiting colleges and universities that receive federal funding from discriminating based on disability. More recently, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act coupled with 2008 amendments broadened the scope and definition of “disability.” And we are in the midst of another chapter of change, this one seeing university actors involved in making digital materials – websites, multimedia, texts, and course materials – accessible to people of all abilities. In this moment when we move from understanding that people with disabilities are being left behind, to take small steps toward making our digital resources accessible.

On September 1, a University of Minnesota collaboratory launched a new “next steps” resource to help university instructors, staff, and administrators create more accessible the sorts of digital resources that we rely on daily: documents, web pages, and presentations. This team – people with different roles from across the University – built the site with and as users, so we’re hopeful you’ll find it easily useful, no matter your role or accessibility expertise. We also hope that Accessible U will support all of us in higher education generally to take small steps toward making accessibility part of our everyday work.

This is the moment we step into creating universities that are digitally accessible for broad ranges of learners, rather than maintaining ones in which we merely accommodate people with disabilities.

Six Small Ways to Do Your Part

As educators we aren’t going to make our course materials and teaching/learning resources accessible overnight. Yet if each of us commits to passion, curiosity, or interest in our collective pursuit of accessibility, we will be on a sustainable path that will improve people’s lives and the quality of the university experience for everyone, and especially for folks with disabilities.

This is the moment when we as teachers step up to visit the new Accessible U Web site and commit to practicing one of the six core skills. We make that skill part of our daily work. We add a second. Then a third. And then comes a time in an academic year or semester that we know how to embed these six core skills into documents, presentations, and websites for all of our courses, and we do this before we have even met our students.

This is a moment when we have the opportunity to widen the circle of belonging. Start small: Pick one of the six core skills and practice it for two weeks. Then practice a second. By the end of the semester, your documents, sites, and courses will be more accessible and practice will become habit. Will we? Will you?

Here are six small steps you can take in your daily work that will make for a much more accessible U:

  1. Create document structure (headings and style templates) that organize and format documents for easier visual and assistive technology navigation.
  2. Write useful hyperlinks that don’t make a reader guess where the link will take them, whether or not the user makes use of assistive technologies.
  3. Create bulleted or numbered lists so that users can scan content, whether with screen readers or in viewing online or print copies of resources.
  4. Use color and contrast appropriately to ensure information is displayed in ways that more people – including those who see color differently or don’t see it at all – can understand it.
  5. Add captions to your media so that a Deaf student and an English language learner have access, so that transcript content supporting your media is findable from a search engine, and so learners in general have access to supplemental descriptions of key diagrams, figures, illustrations, and photographs.
  6. Include alt text with all graphics and images so that students using screen readers will understand the content and context of your graphics, and

Whether you’re creating a word processing document, a Moodle site, or a web page, incorporating these six core skills into your work will make course materials much more accessible for people living with a variety of disabilities, including sensory (blind/low vision, Deaf), motor, speech, and learning disabilities.

As a currently non-disabled person I wonder, What does it mean to be accommodated? What does it feel like? How does accommodation affect a person’s sense of belonging? And what does that mean for their well-being and their ability to become who they are meant to become…to give their gifts? And what of the day when I need to be accommodated, either temporarily or permanently? Will I find myself in a community that values my gifts by making it possible for me to give them? Or will attitudinal barriers prevent me from contributing, from belonging?

Start small. Practice. Develop habits. Repeat. This is part of our story. At this moment we are beginning to understand that with small changes, we can make big improvements that allow our University community to be more accessible to more people. We are recognizing that habit change requires courage and vulnerability. And we are beginning to understand the importance and urgency of doing our part. We are setting aside our need to “get it right” in favor of “getting it started”. It won’t be perfect but as we make small changes, we realize we’re not alone and we help each other do better. And isn’t that the moral of the story?

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