October #a11ychat and a look back at September

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Photo of a trick-or-treater and other Halloween accoutrement October's #a11ychat topic is Accessibility Tricks and Treats, but there's a twist!  This month we want YOU to lead the discussion, and we want you submit and discuss your favorite a11y tricks and tips.  At the end of the session, the Deque team will vote on the best accessibility tips and tricks, and there will be prizes for the top 5 submissions.

Four second place winners will each win a $25 Amazon gift card, and first prize winner will receive a $100 Amazon gift card!  All five winning submissions will be featured in the October ACE newsletter; so if you want to find out who made the cut, you'd better sign up!

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Back to School: Accessibility in Higher Education

by Denis Boudreau

#a11ychat - September 17th, 2012

For most kids out there, September is synonymous with the dreaded realization that summer vacations are officially over. For us parents, September might mean a quieter office if you work from home, and endless lists of school supplies and labeling to muddle through. But there's also this unspeakable satisfaction of watching our beloved kids finally trade the living room couch and XBox controller for a school desk and a sharpened pencil.

These days, however, that pencil is leaving more and more room for electronic devices, such as interactive whiteboards, tablets, and hand-held devices.  The transition is even more prevalent in higher education, where practically every student has a personal computer, materials are exchanged electronically, assignments are turned in online, and entire courses can be taken through the internet.  Welcome to 2012, where the Internet has become so intrinsically linked to the classroom DNA that we can no longer imagine one working without the other. All of this, in the best interest of the student populations, who suddenly manages to unleash the tremendous potential of the Web. Or so we tend to believe.

Granted, bringing this amazing technology changes a lot of things for the better in the teaching and knowledge transfer dynamics happening in the classroom, whether this classroom is virtual or not. While this is certainly a positive improvement for most students, there is a margin of the student populations that feels otherwise.

Take people with disabilities for instance: according to the Office of Minority and Health Disparities (OMHD), around 49,7 million Americans live with a disability. That accounts for about 20% of the US population, making them the country's largest minority. Out of those 49.7 million people, how many students are struggling in our school system because new technologies just aren't adapted to meet their needs? How many more students who live with one or more disability feel like their chances at a better life dwindle with every blog platform, LMS (learning management system), video, or PDF document thrown at them?

Social inclusion

Photo of students studying with a laptopObviously, for advocates such as myself, democratized access to education is a matter of social inclusion and should be a top national priority. Students with special needs might not account for a majority of the student populations, but experience in the field of adaptive technology shows that improvements brought to the mainstream to cater for the needs of people with disabilities actually benefit everyone. One only has to think about features like screen zooming, word auto-completion, and text-to-speech in mobile technologies to realize we can all benefit from a little bit of accessibility.

Why then, should this be any different with students in education? Every time a blog platform or LMS is made more accessible, every time a video is captioned, every time a PDF is tagged, there is an increasingly high number of students who can then use them.

That, in turn, ultimately contributes to better training for individuals who will also become better doctors, better educators, better mechanics, you name it. It also contributes to creating a more educated population, who individually and collectively can contribute more to society. Simply put, from a global perspective, accessible education means everybody wins.

September #a11ychat

So, with that in mind, back to September and the usual back to school craziness going on. With #a11ychat right around the corner, we felt there was an interesting opportunity to take a look at what had recently been going on in Higher Education and ask ourselves: "What's a11y like in Higher Ed?"

So the usual suspects behind #a11ychat at Deque Systems gathered and decided to invite a11y @JohnFoliot to the discussion as well. Between John who'd been running the Stanford Online Accessibility Program at Stanford University for a number of years, @goodwitch who'd worked many, many years at the University of Texas in Austin and myself who'd been involved for over four years with the Quebec government promoting accessibility in higher education, we felt we could put significant meat on that proverbial bone...

There were a lot of topics we wanted to cover, ranging from general accessibility awareness progress observed to unavoidable issues with Google Apps accessibility, from ways to create accessible documents to making miracles with limited resources, standards fragmentation while creating internal guidelines, globally implementing accessibility in every facets of Higher Education, the accessibility promises of ePub3, and actual successes achieved in different University programs like the Stanford with Video Captioning.

With so many things to look at and to choose from, the list kept going on and on and on.

As the discussion kicked in, we decided to just go with the flow of the discussion and navigate freely from one topic to another. Before we knew it, we were at the top of the hour and it was already time to call it quits. While we could only skim through the whole list and not really dig deep into any topic (an inherent reality of the platform perhaps?), the discussions were very inspiring and thought provoking.

Given the increasingly high number of people attending the #a11ychat and actively contributing to the discussions, we barely managed to scratch the surface. Which is great really, because the whole idea behind #a11ychat is to stimulate discussion in our community! So mission accomplished and, with a bit of luck, we'll be even more next month as the next event takes place.

Basically, one of the nice things that came out of this discussion was that while there is still a lot of room for improvement and awareness when it comes to accessibility in higher education, there have been several significantly noticeable improvements over the past few years:

  • Universities and Colleges usually have at least some level of understanding of what it is we're referring to when we talk about Web accessibility today. If anything, they understand that there are legal requirements that need to be met and have heard of at least one teaching institution getting into some kind of trouble over inaccessible content.
  • Vendors are starting to ship out products that now have at least some accessibility features built in. Blackboard and Moodle are examples of interesting implementations. Vendors also understand that there are legal requirements that need to be met (probably even more so than teaching institutions), but they also understand that there are very lucrative market shares in there as well.
  • Students with disabilities are more vocal than ever when it comes to digital exclusion related issues in the classroom. As teachers rely more heavily on technology and as students find themselves in a context where their primary Internet access might only come through a tablet or hand-held device, educational content that strictly follows the desktop paradigm are usually quite problematic.

 

Though most students don't realize this yet, time is on their side. Time might not be a resource students have a lot of, however; the longer we wait to make Higher Education accessible, the more likely it will be too late for a lot of them out there.

So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work folks! As all stakeholders take position, no matter how imperfect things can be in 2012, I choose to see this as positive signs of a more democratized access to education in the years to come.

Sounds like it was an interesting discussion? You bet! You can get a feeling of what went on by going back to the transcript: Back to School: a11y in Higher Education ChirpStory. It's all there, so if you've missed parts or all of it, there's always the possibility to go back and check it out now.

I'd also like to take another minute of your time to thank all the people who participated in the September edition of #a11ychat, or any of the editions that happened before that one. Moments like this can only happen when you decide to play along with us.

If there is a specific topic related to accessibility that you would like us to cover in an upcoming tweetChat, just let me know in the comments below or send it to me over Twitter. I can be easily reached at @dboudreau.

Finally, also make sure to follow @dequesystems to know when the next #a11ychat will happen and what the next topic will be. We still have lots of great ideas for the upcoming ones.

About 

Caitlin is an "Accessibility Decoder" at Deque Systems. She joined the team back in 2011 and has taken on a variety of roles over the years. These days she spends her time exploring the best ways to communicate accessibility ideas and solutions to the general public.

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