Accessibility in online classes for everyone

By Kimberly Kaiser

May 1, 2019

Accessibility in online classes provides students multiple ways to obtain knowledge, express their knowledge, and interact. This benefits students with disabilities by giving them the chance to learn without anything getting in the way.

Accessible means “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability.”

For example, accessibility helps visually-impaired students by giving them the chance to listen to course work by using the audio setting, or they can use electronic braille, which is a device that can connect to any phone/tablet device and round-tipped pins rise through holes in a flat surface to display characters. This gives blind students the chance to read the course work.

Students have accommodations that are available to them which are adjustments made for specific persons when a product or service is not accessible to them. But according to Judith Littlejohn, an instructional designer at GCC, it’s hard to know exactly how many people are disabled in courses. “We don’t know how many students have disabilities,” she said. Not everyone with a disability will disclose it to their school or instructor so it’s much easier to make all course work accessible upfront.

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, all colleges became required to make all applications, such as the software, websites, videos, PDF files, and other IT, available and accessible to those with disabilities. Littlejohn said, “All colleges had to make online accessibility a priority.”

In the past, there have been lawsuits against colleges such as Harvard, Ohio State, Youngtown State, etc. The colleges had to settle civil rights accusations about not having the proper accessibility to those who needed it for online courses.

Craig Lamb, dean for Distributed Learning at GCC, said that not having the proper accessibility is “not fair to students,” and that GCC is “working really hard to make sure students who are taking an online course can access the entire course.”

Once an instructor submits course work, blackboard automatically generates different settings such as Tagged PDF, HTML, ePub, Electronic braille, and Audio. Videos that are uploaded are encouraged to be captioned. Instructors are able to see an accessibility score next to each document submitted to the course and they are either green, orange, or red and this determines how accessible a document is to students.

Unfortunately at this time, most textbooks sold for classes are not accessible to all students. Littlejohn said that Nancy Pabros is working on improving this inconvenience.

Littlejohn said that the courses become better for all students, not only for students with disabilities. It makes things much easier and more organized. Class course work on Blackboard can get a bit confusing, and it takes time for students to learn their way around it, but the accessibility techniques make it less complicated and stressful. Littlejohn said, “It’s such an easy structure,” Littlejohn said. “Students spend less time asking questions about finding course work.”