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Without the need to use a screen reader or other assistive technologies, it can be difficult to imagine what it is like to experience learning that wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind.
It’s easy to take for granted how much information is conveyed through the layout, size, and placement of the elements on a web page. In the same way, it’s easy to forget how much context an image can provide and how difficult it would be to interpret information without images present.
Accessibility is the design of products, devices, services, vehicles, or environments so as to be usable by people with disabilities. (Henry et al., 2014).
When thinking about disabilities, most people tend to think about life-long conditions that affect a person’s ability to perceive and interact with the world.
However, there are unavoidable situations in life—even temporary ones—that can create a lack of access (or disability) for users. For example, imagine trying to access a website:
In the context of online education, accessible design is about ensuring that users have both direct (unassisted) access and indirect access (access through assistive technologies) to learning.
More than one billion people worldwide experience some form of disability (World Health Organization, 2021). How learning is designed could mean including or excluding any number of people.
When online learning is built with accessibility in mind, it helps all users perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the content in a meaningful way (W3C, 2022). Specifically, individuals with disabilities are given unprecedented access to information, overcoming barriers to print, audio, and visual media and unlocking previously unavailable opportunities to grow personally and professionally (Education and Outreach Working Group, 2009).
Curb cuts—the slanted ramps that create a smooth transition from the top of a street sidewalk to the street itself—have been around since at least the 1930s (Incorporated Association of Municipal and County Engineers et al., 2010).
It’s not clear who they were first designed for, whether wheelchair users or moms pushing their babies in prams, but what is clear is that they benefit everybody: people in wheelchairs, delivery drivers, and the elderly can all navigate the streets and sidewalks much more easily. More simply, “a sidewalk with a curb cut is simply a better sidewalk” (Goldberg, 1995).
This example shows how “unusual things happen when products are designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.” In fact, curb cuts are an often-cited example that shows that research and development into accessibility helps everyone (Jacobs, 1999).
Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities (Oxford Languages, 2022a).
Equity is the quality of being fair and impartial (Oxford Languages, 2022b).
Equity and equality are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Equity may look different for each individual, especially when it comes to accessing education.
Achieving equality in online education is easy: If every user is given access to the same resources and support, that’s equality. However, equal access to opportunity is not the same as impartial access to opportunity and does not usually translate to equal outcomes.
Equity recognizes that each user has different circumstances and different supports are needed for everyone to have a fair chance at achieving the same outcome (Juda, 2021).
In education, accommodations support a wide variety of learners, giving impartial access to opportunities and thereby achieving equity.
These supports could account for poor bandwidth, vision impairments, physical limitations, and many other circumstances—all of which impact a user’s access to learning through technology.
But accessibility is not merely providing accommodations to users with disabilities.
Accommodation asks, “how can we change this thing we built to accommodate someone with different needs.”
Accessibility asks, “how can we design this thing with all kinds of needs in mind, forever.”
— George van der Riet, Construct Scriptwriter, 2022
Accessible design sets the bar for the future. Instead of retroactively adding fixes on a case-by-case basis, it’s more effective to proactively design learning solutions to provide fair and impartial access, because—as you’ve already seen—accessibility matters to those who need it, but it helps everyone.
Construct’s mission is to unlock opportunity through transformative learning experiences. We believe that transformative learning can help unlock opportunities for our clients, their learners, and our team.
Construct is also a global, vocal leader of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for learners wherever they are found, from K-12 to higher education and employment.
Simply put, accessibility matters to us. If we are to provide our services with integrity—to achieve our mission of unlocking opportunity and fulfill our promises of inclusivity—it should matter to us just as much as all the other aspects of our course design.
Many different web accessibility laws promise individuals with disabilities equal access to electronic information and data comparable to those without disabilities. While the language and enforcement of these laws vary from region to region, more and more are employing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the measure for testing and validating websites for accessibility. (AudioEye, 2022).
The most recent iteration of these standards is WCAG 2.1. Most laws do not require conformance to the most recent standards, but at Construct, we use WCAG 2.1 as our guidelines.
Accessibility in education can no longer be an afterthought. At Construct, we have already seen tertiary institutions requiring that their courses conform to the WCAG guidelines. For learning in the public sector, Level AA WCAG 2.0 conformance is becoming the norm the world over.
We have to intentionally address accessibility at every stage of the learning design process. And, if we do it well, we will create learning opportunities that are better for all learners.
AudioEye. (2022, August 5). Digital & website accessibility solutions [Blog Post]. https://www.audioeye.com/post/international-accessibility-law-repository/
Education and Outreach Working Group. (2009, June 8). Social factors in developing a web accessibility business case for your organization. Web Accessibility Initiative. https://www.w3.org/WAI/EO/Drafts/bcase/age/soc
Goldberg, L. (1995, December 11). Electronic curbcuts: Equitable access to the future. Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/19990427111220/http://www.ahip.getty.edu/cyberpub/goldberg.html
Henry, S. L.., Abou-Zahra, S., & Brewer, J. (2014). The role of accessibility in a universal web. Proceedings of the 11th Web for All Conference On – W4A ’14. https://doi.org/10.1145/2596695.2596719
Incorporated Association of Municipal and County Engineers, Institution of Municipal and County Engineers, & Association of Municipal and Sanitary Engineers and Surveyors. (2010). Proceedings, 62, (3). University of Virginia.
Jacobs, S. I. (1999). The electronic curb cut. The Center for An Accessible Society. http://www.accessiblesociety.org/topics/technology/eleccurbcut.htm
Juda, E. (2021, December 9). Equity vs. Equality: What’s the difference? GW-UMT. https://onlinepublichealth.gwu.edu/resources/equity-vs-equality/
Oxford Languages. (2022a). Equality. In Google Dictionary. https://www.google.com/search?q=equality
Oxford Languages. (2022b). Equity. In Google Dictionary. https://www.google.com/search?q=equity
W3C. (2022, March 31). Introduction to Web Accessibility. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/accessibility-intro/
W3C. (2019, October 4). How to Meet WCAG. Quickref Reference. https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG21/quickref/
World Health Organization. (2021, November 24). Disability and health. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health