Accessibility: Make content accessible as you build it

Take accessibility into consideration during the course design process. It is both time consuming and often cost prohibitive to go back retroactively and update an existing collection of course content to meet ADA standards.

When I am designing new multimedia, I often ask faculty for a copy of their script. I run the audio through a Closed Captioning program and try my best to make updates to captioning as I’m editing. Or, if I am simply uploading a video to YouTube, I’ll take a minute to check the captioning while I’m there.

The workload of the departments I have served would not allow us a whole lot of time to dedicate to Closed Captioning. I would retain scripts and captions, even if we did not finish them, and place those files within the project archive (original files that we go back to if faculty submit requests for updates and revisions the following semester). If a student were to enroll in one of our courses, we would know very quickly about their needs and would jump into action. And, if we needed to caption, we would have something to help us get started (and likely save us a good chunk of time compared to starting from scratch).

Any media that would be public-facing would have Closed Captioning – no if’s or but’s about it. I don’t know who may utilize these learning objects. I also wouldn’t know if another university or organization linked to one of our videos. This decision was made entirely by me and I received no direction or guidance from anyone at the university.

Most of my accessibility-related tasks focused on Closed Captioning. At one school in particular, we had a guy who happened to work in our IT department who was visually impaired and used a screenreader. He was more than happy to chip in during our Learning Management System testing, and I would often load in different faculty lectures, made in various eLearning software packages, and ask for his feedback. Not every university is fortunate enough to have an employee with this skill set on their staff and this was arranged completely out of coincidence.

In my own experience, making accessible content has been an uphill battle. So I’d like to share some of the types of arguments that I use when trying to convince faculty and administration to invest time and resources to doing this right the first time. Faculty initially do not see the value in providing us with a script (if they have one) and administration doesn’t always allocate us with enough time for what they see as “extra” work. While I have never been able to convince a university to provide funding for an additional staff person, I have been able to take very small steps (as I described above) by bringing up recent cases in the news during my conversations with faculty and administrators. I’ll hit the highlights and link to the full articles.

Berkeley Will Delete Online Content

The University of California, Berkeley, will cut off public access to tens of thousands of video lectures and podcasts in response to a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities…

The Justice Department, following an investigation, in August determined that the university was violating the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The department reached that conclusion after receiving complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, saying Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues…

The department ordered the university to make the content accessible to people with disabilities. Berkeley, however, publicly floated an alternative: removing everything from public view.

“In many cases the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free,” Koshland wrote in a Sept. 20 statement. “We believe that in a time of substantial budget deficits and shrinking state financial support, our first obligation is to use our limited resources to support our enrolled students. Therefore, we must strongly consider the unenviable option of whether to remove content from public access.”

Now the university has settled on that option.


Berkeley’s decision to take down 20,000 pieces of educational content did not go over well. One camp cried foul, accusing disability advocates of hunting for content and taking it away from the masses. Others took issue with how Berkeley handled the decision, accusing them of placing blame on those with disabilities.

Access Denied: A group of scholars object to a decision by the University of California, Berkeley, to remove many video and audio lectures from public view as a result of a Justice Department accessibility order

In August 2016, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the University of California, Berkeley, asking it to implement procedures to make publicly available online audio and video content accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf and blind, and blind. Rather than comply with this request, the university took the outrageous step of ending public access to those valuable resources, which include over 20,000 audio and video files, to avoid the costs of making the materials accessible.

We, the undersigned, strongly object to Berkeley’s choice to remove the content, and its public statement that disability access requirements forced the decision. That is not the case. Berkeley has for years systematically neglected to ensure the accessibility of its own content, despite the existence of internal guidelines advising how to do so. Further, the Justice Department letter left room for many alternatives short of such a drastic step. It was never the intent of the complainants to the department, nor of the disability community, to see the content taken down…

The Department of Justice’s letter did not seek the removal of content, either. Indeed, Berkeley’s peer institutions have affirmed that they will continue to make their materials publicly available while striving to make them accessible as well.

The letter cannot have come as a surprise to Berkeley. In February 2013, seven months after the university announced its partnership in edX with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, faculty and staff members on Berkeley’s now-dismantled Academic Accommodations Board met to discuss how to “make sure students with disabilities have access” in “online education, including MOOCs.” There, board members warned that the university needed strong and immediate plans for disability access in its MOOCs.


Take note that Berkeley was captioning educational content within courses and there were no complaints in this particular case related to Berkeley students enrolled in Berkeley courses. Berkeley’s official MOOCs (massive, open online courses) available for public enrollment were appropriately captioned and accessible by screenreader as well.

If you were an instructional technologist at Berkeley, charged with making 20,000 existing pieces of content accessible, how would you have handled this? What challenges would you have faced? Would you have paired the content down into a more manageable, timely, and relevant collection or remove the entire collection? How does a university tackle such a sizable, existing collection of content years after the content has been published?


New Era for Disability Rights

Miami University in Ohio last month became the latest institution to overhaul its accessibility policies for people with disabilities. Within a year and a half, students there will receive personalized accessibility plans and encounter course materials, learning platforms and websites that conform to accessibility standards.

The university agreed to the overhaul as part of a settlement with Aleeha Dudley, a blind student who — with the help of Disability Rights Ohio, a local advocacy group — in 2014 sued over a lack of accessible course materials and trained assistants. In 2015, Dudley gained another powerful ally: the U.S. Department of Justice.

Disability studies scholars and legal experts say lawsuits like Dudley’s against Miami represent a shift in activism, where high-profile cases help raise awareness about the challenges facing students in an increasingly digital world. More than two decades after the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law, advocacy groups are pushing to clarify how it and other laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities apply to technology that at the time seemed like science fiction but now has become reality…

“Without a doubt, there’s been an increase in formalized, organized advocacy,” Hunt said in an interview. “In addition, there’s a lot more smaller, more organic, more grassroots things happening. … Students are pushing a little more for what they believe to be their civil rights to equal and equivalent educational experiences.”

Of course, since the ADA was enacted (and even before), students with disabilities pushed colleges to deal with physical barriers (such as sidewalks without curb cuts and buildings one could enter only via stairs), for sign language interpreters or other accommodations that would allow them to fully benefit from all that higher education offers. While most college officials now know better than to build facilities that some students can’t physically enter, many routinely overlook the accessibility issues raised by technology.


Universities may feel as though they are meeting the needs of their students with documented disabilities and following the law. Disability advocates are pushing for more than 1 to 1 accommodations, seeking accessibility to be the standard for educational content creation. Some advocates seem to be gaining traction by filing lawsuits in massive batches. Most of these lawsuits are against those with whom the plaintiff has no existing relationship.


Michigan woman fights for accessible websites in U.S. school districts

School districts across the U.S., be warned: If your websites aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, Marcie Lipsitt is ready to take action.

Lipsitt, a Franklin resident and an outspoken special-education advocate, has been on a one-woman crusade, filing hundreds of federal complaints against schools, school districts, state education departments and other public agencies nationwide if she finds their websites aren’t accessible to people with vision and hearing disabilities.

Common problems include websites missing text that describes images to blind or visually impaired people who use special software, content that can only be used by people who have a mouse, and videos that aren’t captioned or aren’t accurately captioned…

Her crusade is getting action: Of the 400 complaints Lipsitt has filed — most of them within the last six months — the federal Office of Civil Rights that is part of the U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations into about 175.




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