Accessibility in Online Education
▶ Determining how accessible an online course is ▶ Letting your school know about your disability ▶ Using assistive technology for online courses When it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities, we’re being brutally honest in saying that the field of online education is still working on getting it right. Even the most committed institutions rely on individual instructors and outside vendors who aren’t always familiar with the design and development strategies best suited for persons with disabilities. However, we can honestly say that this is a hot topic within the field, and more state and federal laws are forcing institutions to be more cognizant of the subject.
Does this mean you shouldn’t attempt to take an online course if you have a disability? Absolutely not. The benefits of online education, as we explain in Chapter 2, definitely extend to people with disabilities. Federal laws prohibit any school that receives federal funding, whether private or public, from discriminating based on disability. These same institutions are also required to provide reasonable and appropriate accommodations to insure equal access to all students. Plus, there are a lot of assistive technologies that can help when needed.
We believe this topic is extremely important, and that’s why we include this chapter. Here, we explain how to figure out the accessibility of courses you want to take and how to let your selected school know about your disability. We also describe assistive technology options to help you during class. However, a single chapter isn’t enough to cover all that there is to say about this subject. Therefore, following are a few additional resources that can help you better understand your rights and responsibilities in an academic setting:
✓ The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as Amended (ADA): The ADA (www.ada.gov/) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities and has additional standards for public organizations. (We talk more about the ADA in the later sidebar, “Defining ‘disability’ according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.”)
✓ Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Section 504 (www.section508.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=Content&ID=15) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by schools receiving federal funds. ✓ Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): FERPA (www. ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html) protects your privacy. This law allows information specific to your disability to be shared only with faculty and staff that are involved in the development and implementation of an accommodation plan. ✓ The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): The rules and regulations of IDEA (http://idea.ed.gov/) require public schools to provide all eligible children with disabilities a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. IDEA does not apply to postsecondary education.
Determining Whether the Courses You Want to Take Are Accessible As promoters of self advocacy, we provide you with a list of questions specific to accessibility and accommodations that you can ask online schools you want to apply to. By asking the questions in the following sections up front, you can find out very quickly how well-equipped an institution is to accommodate a variety of learners’ needs. Unfortunately, what you find may not please you, but figuring this out before enrolling in courses can save you a lot of headaches.
Note that when you ask these questions, your academic advisor may not know the answer. Though we hope that the instructional design and technical staff are providing some level of information to those marketing the program and answering student questions, that may not be the case. Therefore, be patient if your advisor needs to find out the information and get back to you. On the other hand, if the advisor doesn’t respond in a timely manner, you’ve received good information that will allow you to consider eliminating that school from your list of schools to which you may apply. (See Chapter 5 for additional questions to ask your advisor as you research online schools.)
Do the courses follow any accessibility standards? This question is a tell-all question. Institutions that are committed to making content accessible to all students are able to easily answer this question. The guidelines and standards for creating accessible Web sites and course content are so specific that any instructional designer responsible for developing content will
be able to provide you with specific examples of how the content meets those standards. It’s easy for a school to claim accessibility. The level of detail they’re able to give you in terms of the standards to which they adhere is telling.
Commonly used guidelines Schools are required to follow federal guidelines when developing Web content. A few organizations in particular are heading the pack when it comes to creating standards for Web accessibility. Here is a list of those organizations:
✓ Section 508 Information Technology Accessibility Standards: A federal law that mandates federally funded organizations to provide employees and members of the public with information that is comparable to the information provided to employees and members of the public without disabilities (www.access-board.gov/sec508/standards.htm). ✓ World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): An international consortium where contributors work together in the development of standards and guidelines for the Web. The organization has an initiative specific to developing Web accessibility standards and guidelines (www.w3. org/wai). ✓ Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): Recommended guidelines for creating Web content that is more accessible for persons with a wide range of disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these (www.w3.org/TR/WCAG/).
Defining “disability” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability in respect to an individual as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” The act provides good examples for determining whether a person’s inability to do something is due to a disability or due to other reasons. For example, a person’s inability to participate in a program due to a lack of financial resources isn’t considered a disability. However, a person who’s unable to participate in a program because of a documented physical or mental condition such as dyslexia is considered a person with a disability by law. Find out more about the act at http://www.ada.gov.
The preceding standards are geared towards Web-based content only. However, your online class may include links to external content such as word-processing documents, PowerPoint Presentations, and multimedia clips. Some states already have guidelines covering these types of content. For instance, all Illinois agencies and universities are required to implement the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA) Web Accessibility Standards in order to ensure that all Web content, documents, videos, and other resources are accessible to persons with disabilities (www.dhs.state.il.us/page. aspx?item=32765). Be sure to ask the institutions you’re interested in whether all their content is created in an accessible manner, especially if you want to attend a school based in a state that doesn’t have guidelines similar to Illinois’s. For further information as to the guidelines every state is required to follow, visit the ADA’s Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities page at http://www.ada.gov/websites2.htm.
Examples of accessibility Here are a few examples of how institutions should be making content accessible to all students (these are the sorts of answers you should look for when you ask this question of academic advisors; see the later section “Using Assistive Technology Online” for more information about these options):
✓ Using heading styles inside documents: Heading styles are text formats that tag important text. Headings are used to organize a Web site by importance. Each Web page should have one Heading 1, which serves as the title for that page. Heading Style 2 is used for topics within the page, and Heading Style 3 is used for subtopic information. Heading styles help screen readers quickly navigate from topic to topic without having to read an entire page. This is extremely helpful, especially when you have to reread the same document multiple times. For example, a person who needs to check a course policy within the syllabus doesn’t want to listen to the entire document via a screen reader. She wants to scan for headings and subheadings to find the respective policy quickly. ✓ Providing transcripts for audio files: Audio files bring a nice touch to a class and often reduce the psychological distance between the learners and the speaker. They can be especially helpful to students who learn better by listening. However, they’re not helpful to students who are deaf or have hearing loss, so instructors should provide a transcript of every audio file used in class. Transcripts can also be helpful to students whose first language is not English. ✓ Providing captions, auditory descriptions, and transcripts for videos: Videos are another alternative way to deliver content to students that stimulates visual learners. However, students who are blind or have vision loss and those who are deaf or have hearing loss don’t benefit from these delivery methods. Captioning videos (displaying text on the screen as a subtitle in real-time with the video) and providing an accessible transcript
is an easy way to make the same content accessible to a lot more learners. Auditory descriptions are interspersed narrations of what is happening on the screen. This helps a person listening to the video to understand the context in which the dialogue is being used.
You probably noticed as you were reading this list that accessible design benefits not only students with disabilities but also students with a variety of learning preferences, by providing multiple ways to access the same information. For example, someone who prefers to read information rather than hear it may choose to subscribe to a captioner during a live session rather than pay attention to the instructor’s voice. This is the goal of universal design.
Are the courses tested for accessibility? Institutions that have a centralized process for course design usually have established standards for designing and testing new courses. In an ideal world, every institution would have a variety of users with a variety of learning styles and needs to test every course before it goes live. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and many institutions don’t have a centralized process for testing. Courses are often developed by individual instructors with little to no understanding of accessible design. As accreditation becomes more prevalent specific to online courses (see Chapter 5 for more information), these types of courses are becoming less common.
Asking whether the institution’s courses are tested for accessibility will help you understand the school’s design and testing process. If your academic advisor doesn’t know, ask her to help you contact someone who does. If course design isn’t centralized, it’s important that you work with your academic advisor to develop a schedule of all the courses you want to take. That schedule needs to be provided to someone who’s responsible for coordinating your accommodations. That person should research your course list to determine what the challenges will be and what accommodations will be made to overcome those challenges. If you’re unable to get this type of information from the institution, and staff haven’t convinced you that accessibility is a forethought, consider looking at other institutions.
If you find that the courses you’re enrolled in aren’t as accessible as you thought they’d be, contact your instructor, academic advisor, and accommodation team leader as soon as possible (see the later section “Understanding why and when you need to disclose” for more about accommodation teams). Provide a detailed description of the information that is inaccessible to you and explain why. In this situation, you may want to offer to help test changes to the content and/or course. Even though it isn’t your responsibility to help the institution test the course, you’d be doing future students a favor by helping the institution create more accessible content.
How will the school help me if I’m unable to access information in the courses? Depending on your specific needs, institutions can provide a variety of assistance types to accommodate your learning needs. Determined strategies are based on a comprehensive review of your disability, documentation, and discussions between you and your accommodation plan team (see the later sections “Understanding why and when you need to disclose” and “Figuring out what information to disclose” for more information about this process). During these sessions, it’s important for you to share any experiences that you’ve had in the past and what has worked best for you and why.
Here are a few examples of some accommodations that can be made for students taking online courses:
✓ Extended time on assignments and quizzes/tests: For students who need more time to access and absorb information due to their disability, institutions may arrange for assignment deadlines and testing times to be extended. ✓ Access to tutoring services: Several institutions subscribe to online tutoring services that provide academic assistance in a variety of areas. Tutors can be accessed 24/7 via the Internet. ✓ Content in text form and large print if needed: For content that isn’t in text form or isn’t scalable, printed and large-print documents can be mailed to students needing these accommodations. ✓ Content in Braille: For students who are blind or have low vision, Braille versions of content can be printed and mailed when deemed necessary. ✓ Early access to online courses and course materials: Early access to the virtual classroom provides students with access to course materials such as the syllabus and calendar. By accessing this information early, students can begin to organize and better determine what additional accommodations may be needed. ✓ Oral examinations or assignments: Institutions can request that instructors meet with students via the phone or another audio device to conduct interviews as a way of completing assignments and exams orally. During these sessions, the instructor can ask the student to answer questions about the assignment to determine whether the student truly understands the material. Again, exam dates and assignment due dates can be altered on a case-by-case basis for students whose disabilities warrant that accommodation.
Disclosing a Disability to Your Chosen Online School In any academic setting, including an online course, students want to feel independent and be known for their contributions to the class. Therefore, we understand the desire to avoid disclosing a disability to peers, instructors, or even the administrative staff. However, sometimes accommodations that are needed can only be provided if requested. This section provides some general information about disclosing a disability and devising a plan to create and implement appropriate and reasonable accommodations in a respectful and private manner.
By the way, people with temporary impairments don’t qualify for disability services under the law. For example, a student who breaks her arm and requires a cast over the hand she types and writes with isn’t considered to have a physical disability. In this situation, you should work with your instructor directly to see whether temporary accommodations can be made, such as oral exams or recorded presentations.
Understanding why and when you need to disclose Simply put, institutions can’t provide services if they don’t know that the services are needed. Also, accommodations are not retroactive. So, if you receive an assignment or course grade that reflects negatively on you because your accommodations were not in place, the institution doesn’t have to change that grade, even if you document the presence of a disability at a later time. Therefore, disclosure is in your best interest if you need special accommodations. For example, for the most part, a person who is deaf could easily participate in an online course without disclosing and without needing accommodations. But what happens when the instructor wants to use a synchronous (real-time) audio tool for meeting with students throughout the semester? Many synchronous technology tools have captioning capabilities; however, these tools don’t automatically transcribe voice to text. They require a person with captioning skills to log in and type using a dictation device similar to what you see in courtrooms. These people are often hired out-of-house and need time to gain access to your virtual course, test the technology, and meet with you to discuss logistics. (We describe captioning videos in more detail later in this chapter.)
So when do you need to disclose your disability? Institutions should include a statement either on the application or acceptance letter that provides information on disclosing a disability and requesting accommodations. If you can’t find the statement or it’s unclear who to contact, ask your academic advisor for direction. She can provide you with the proper forms and submission policy.
If you know you’ll need accommodations from the start, it’s best to disclose as soon as appropriately possible. Institutions need time to confirm documentation and meet with experts who can review your specific situation and develop an accommodation plan to match (see the next section). This process can take a couple weeks, depending on the staff and resources available. (For example, if you need a captioner for synchronous sessions, it may take two weeks to find a person available on the dates and times of your sessions.) If you wait until classes begin to request services, you risk not receiving the service in a timely manner and falling behind in your academic progress.
If the question is a part of the application process, and you feel uncomfortable disclosing at that time, that’s okay. Waiting until you are formally accepted is understandable. However, waiting could delay accommodations and possibly your start date, as well.
In most cases, discussing your situation with your academic advisor first is perfectly acceptable. This person will be able to help you complete the proper documentation or point you in the right direction regarding how to get additional help. And don’t worry: Anyone you disclose to is obligated by law to only share this information with staff directly involved with creating and implementing the accommodations necessary for you to be successful. (See the later section “Keeping privacy in mind” for more about this topic.)
Most institutions require you to request accommodations every term or at least once a year. This allows the accommodation team to reevaluate the accommodation plan and see whether anything needs to be modified.
Figuring out what information to disclose In most cases, when completing the disclosure information, you’re asked to provide formal documentation regarding your disability. Formal means that the information is provided by a licensed professional who is familiar with you and your respective disability. Your academic institution will have specific requirements for documenting a disability (disclosed on the institution’s Web site or outlined in a Request for Accommodations form provided by your academic advisor), but documentation may include the following requirements:
✓ Diagnostic description of the disability: This helps your academic institution understand your specific situation and provides them with the proper documentation to justify making the requested accommodations.
✓ History of diagnosis: When you provide the history of your diagnosis, staff are better able to understand specific challenges you may face. For example, a person who recently lost her sight as an adult may need more assistance than a person who has been blind since birth. ✓ Functional implications of your diagnosed disability: This information is extremely important and must be as detailed as possible. Knowing how your disability impacts your daily life, staff can develop a more successful accommodation plan specific to your needs.
If you’re blind or deaf, you may not have needed to provide this documentation in the past due to the obvious nature of the impairment. However, online institutions aren’t able to make such visual judgments and usually require all students requesting accommodations to submit formal documentation by a licensed clinician.
Keeping privacy in mind Specific to health issues and education, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects your privacy (see the reference to this resource in the introduction to this chapter). Assuming your institution adheres to FERPA requirements and properly trains faculty on how to implement an accommodation plan privately, your information will be only between you and the professionals charged with helping you succeed. As a matter of fact, your instructor should know only the accommodation plan to implement and very few details about your medical record, unless you choose to share.
It may also help to know that your information isn’t shared with other staff or students. Therefore, you may come across times where you feel the need to disclose because the services you’re receiving don’t meet your needs. For example, your in-class resources may be accessible, but research materials found when conducting library research may not. Therefore, you may be required to ask a librarian for help in getting your necessary information in a more accessible format. This may require you to disclose your situation and provide staff with proper documentation.
On another note, at times you may choose to disclose to other students in your class. For example, say you’re a person who is deaf, and you’ve been assigned to work in a group. Your group members post that they would like to meet synchronously using the phone. You can consider a couple of options:
✓ Try to inconspicuously persuade your group to meet in a chat room. ✓ Disclose to your peers that you’re a person who is deaf, and suggest using a telephone interpreting service.
Working in a group with someone who has a disability If you’re in a class where a person has disclosed publically or privately to you that they are a person with a disability, there are a few things you can do to help create a successful environment: ✓ Maintain the person’s privacy: Whether your classmate discloses publically or privately, that is her right. Maintaining your classmate’s privacy is important. Don’t share any information about the disability or medical history with anyone else — inside or out of the virtual classroom. ✓ Focus on the work at hand: As curious as you may be, which is completely natural, keep focused on your coursework and refrain from asking personal questions about your classmate’s impairment. ✓ Don’t make assumptions about your group member’s abilities: Remember that the qualifications to participate in your program are the same for every student. You will only embarrass yourself if you make assumptions about your group member’s abilities to complete the assigned work based on stereotypical conjecture. If the person is not completing the work, then address the issue privately and respectfully first with that person, and include the instructor when appropriate. ✓ Be flexible and comply with special requests when possible: If you’re asked to communicate with your classmates using alternative methods, be flexible and positive about complying with this request. For example, if you’ve requested to meet synchronously as a group over the phone without knowing that a group member is a person who is deaf, be willing to conduct the meeting using text chat or an interpreting service. It may take a little longer, but it’s necessary. When attending a synchronous session where an interpreter or captioner is present, use the following netiquette guidelines: ✓ Speak at a “normal” pace and articulate. ✓ Restate your name each time before speaking. ✓ If you reference something that was asked in the text messaging box, repeat the question and the name of the individual asking the question before answering. ✓ If applicable, when working in groups, use text-only chat upon request. (The captioner can’t be everywhere!)
The decision is up to you. Some may interpret this as a teachable moment, whereas others may want to focus solely on the task at hand. Meeting with your accommodation team and discussing your preferences in these types of situations may help. If your instructor knows your preferences ahead of time, she can assign groups and dictate the technologies to be used without singling anyone out.
Using Assistive Technology Online Assistive technology is a term used to describe tools that help people complete daily tasks. For example, the spell check on your word-processing program is considered an assistive technology. It helps people write faster by automatically correcting most misspelled words and highlighting those it doesn’t know. This helps speed up the writing and editing process.
People with disabilities can benefit from assistive technology when they take online courses. The following sections describe a few assistive technology tools that institutions should provide and/or design coursework for.
Depending on what accommodations you need, your institution may be able to supply some or all of the assistive technology to you for free. This doesn’t mean the institution will buy your computer for you, but other resources may be available for free or reduced costs if needed. This is another reason why it’s important to communicate openly with the staff member in charge of your accommodations plan.
Reading Web pages with screen readers People who are blind or have other visual impairments often navigate the Web via sound. An application that runs in the background, called a screen reader, reads the information on the Web page using a digitized voice. Screen readers rely on good site organization and design to allow the visitor to quickly scan each site and navigate more efficiently. This technology is also helpful to students with dyslexia.
Think about how sighted people navigate a Web site. They go to the site, look to see what links are on the page, and quickly click on what interests them. The links they use may be the first thing on the page or on a navigation bar on the left of the screen. A screen reader goes to that same page and starts reading every word on the site from top to bottom. If the site is designed appropriately, the user can ask the screen reader to announce all the navigation links and headings on the page (see heading style information in the “Examples of accessibility” section earlier in the chapter). This allows the person to more efficiently browse the page and navigate to desired links.
Screen readers are software applications that either come with your computer or have to be purchased and installed separately. For example, Mac computers have a built-in screen reader, so there’s no additional charge for the application and it works out of the box. Windows machines also have
built-in accessibility tools including a screen reader. However, the robustness of these tools is sometimes questioned, requiring users to purchase and download an external program. For example, Windows users can purchase and download a screen reader called Jaws for Windows from Freedom Scientific (www.freedomscientific.com). It’s not cheap ($895), but if your accommodations require you to use a screen reader, you may be able to get a copy of the program from your institution at a discounted price or for free. Contact the person in charge of your accommodation plan for more information.
Transcribing and captioning audio and video files A transcript is a text-based document that provides a word-by-word account of what was said in a separate audio or video file. Providing a transcript for audio and video files is a must for making content more accessible to students with a variety of learning styles and special needs.
Another option for video files is captioning, which provides synchronized text that matches the video in real time. This allows viewers to read what is happening while seeing an image that coincides with the text. This is helpful to students who are unable to hear the audio correctly or prefer to learn by reading versus listening. Figure 18-1 illustrates a video with closed captioning.
Courses that are designed with accessibility in mind caption videos and add transcript links directly within the course where everyone can easily access them. For example, you may click on a link that has a video pop-up on it. In an ideal situation, the video would be captioned and a link to the video transcript would be directly under it. If this isn’t the case, the institution may hire an internal or external resource to add captions to video or transcribe the audio on the spot. Once complete, the video is reposted and/or the transcript is provided by the instructor.
Considering accommodation options for synchronous sessions A person with a disability can attend a synchronous (real-time) session using any of the following assistive technology tools:
✓ Closed captioning: Programs that require synchronous sessions should either provide a captioner for those events or a live video of a sign language interpreter; these options benefit students with hearing impairments. Videos occupy a lot of bandwidth and are often very small, making it difficult to see the interpreter’s hand signs. ✓ Archive links and transcripts: In case a student misses a synchronous session or needs to review the session to better understand a topic discussed during the session, each session should be recorded and an archive link provided to all students in the course. When necessary, a written transcript of the event should also be provided by the instructor. ✓ A telephone bridge: A telephone bridge allows a person to connect to an Internet meeting by calling a phone number instead of logging on to a computer. For example, if you’re a person who is blind or has other visual impairments, the screen display may not matter to you. A phone bridge allows you to call in and listen to everything that is going on without having to log in using the computer.