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Accessibility Issues in Online Courses
Every student learns and engages with course materials differently, especially students with disabilities. How a disability impacts a student’s learning will vary by individual. However, here are some common things to consider in presenting course content online and accommodations that may be provided for students with disabilities. Below are some of the most common issues that impede accessibility and the ways in which these issues can be addressed:
- Images: When inserting content-related images into a course, be sure to include an “alt tag” that is descriptive of the image. Make sure the alt tag clearly describes what is in the image, such as “photo of young children playing” or “portrait of George Washington” as opposed to “image” or “children.
- Video: All video material that are "necessary" to a course and/or will be assessed MUST be open or closed captioned (minimally) and/or captioned and transcripted (optimal). In producing your own video, you should begin with a script. This makes the transcripting and captioning processes easy.
- Audio: You must provide transcripts of audio presentations, such as podcasts or narrated slideshows. Again, using a script makes this process very easy.
- Creating Web Content: Do NOT use tools that create Flash-based content, such as SoftChalk® -see Flash below
- Flash: Multimedia content presented in Flash is most often NOT accessible to students with disabilities. It is also not usable on many mobile devices, especially iPads. Avoid using content created using Flash. HTML5 is a good alternative to Flash.
- Take care when evaluating publisher and other third-party products. A great many of them are flash-based and do not take accessibility into account, although they are beginning to change to HTML 5. Be aware that HTML5 content does not guarantee accessibility. ALT tags and other accessibility processes must still be built in.
- Colors: All text should be dark on a white/light background. Use bold or italics only to add emphasis to text, not colors. Underlining is considered a bad practice for the web as it can confuse users into thinking it is a hyperlink.
- Fonts: Keep use of fonts consistent. Sans serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica are easier to read.
- Styles: Use headers and other style elements to indicate a header or new section. Screenreading software does not pick up on changes in font size unless they are indicated with a style. Using consistent styles for headers also helps screenreaders navigate around large documents. There should be only ONE H1 per page of content. Subheadings should be used in order, for example, H2, H3, H4.
- PowerPoint. Microsoft PowerPoint is perhaps the most popular tool for creating slideshow presentations or online lectures. PowerPoint files, however, present accessibility problems. Look at these tips on making your PowerPoint files as accessible as possible: http://webaim.org/techniques/powerpoint/
- PDF Files: PDF files are only as accessible as the document they are based on. Be aware that PDF files created as a scan of an original document are actually images and are not accessible to screenreaders. It is recommended to post the file in an alternate format such as HTML, if possible.
- Tables: Screenreading software reads tables by going across cells. Avoid using bullet points or numbered lists within cells. Instead, split cells into separate rows if needed. If you are using tables to display data, make sure you have clear headers for columns or rows. Use tables for displaying data only - NEVER to organize elements on an HTML page.
- Links: Make sure that linked text makes sense and could point the user to the target location or site. Links should make sense out of context. Avoid using links that say, “click here” or “more”.
- Forms: If you have forms for students to download and fill out, make sure they are in an accessible format and clear directions are given for submitting them. Visually impaired students may not be able to complete a form that must be filled out in writing.
- Navigation: Not everyone can use a mouse. As much as possible, make sure that students can use applications or navigate through pages using a keyboard. Keep navigation simple with as few buttons as possible. Avoid activities that require the use of a mouse, such as drag and drop activities.
Compliance Standards: Accessibility
All college online or hybrid courses must comply with both federal and state laws that require accessibility for students with disabilities. Course materials must also comply with copyright restrictions.
Any content shared between faculty and staff must be in full compliance with the Americans with Disability Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and current copyright laws.
For a comprehensive discussion on accessibility and copyright, what it is and how to determine if it can be used, see the Center for e-Learning's Compliance Issues learning object in the Getting Started in Online Teaching course. Below are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
Accessibility - The Law
There are several Federal civil rights laws that ensure equal opportunity for students with disabilities.
Disability laws define a person with a disability as someone who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.
Specific laws that relate to higher education and online courses include:
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504
Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by recipients of federal funds and requires them to make all programs and activities accessible to everyone.
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508
Section 508 requires recipients of federal funds to make electronic and information technology systems and materials accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes web-based information or applications such as online or blended/hybrid courses. This means that all course content, video, and multimedia resources must be accessible to students with disabilities.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) applies to all public accommodations, state and local governments, telecommunications, transportation, and employment. The ADA prohibits discrimination in nearly every sector of life, and requires accommodations for accessibility for individuals with disabilities. The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), effective since 2009, expanded the ADA to include a wider range of mental and physical impairments.
- The Family Educational Privacy Act (FERPA)
FERPA protects the privacy of student educational records, including disability documentation. Along with Section 504 and ADA, under FERPA a student’s disability status and use of accommodations should be kept confidential between the instructor, student, and support personnel involved in providing accommodations.