Options for Accessibility

Digital instructional materials should offer alternatives to empower learning.

Topics: Equity and Diversity, School Management

Tony is an eager fifth grader who has deuteranopia, a form of red-green colorblindness. When his elementary teachers teach letters and sounds, they use color-coded pictures that Tony doesn’t understand but the other kids seem to, making him feel less capable.

Down the hall, Tony’s friend Sabie is also struggling. Her dominant hand was injured in a car accident that affected her motor skills. When her class does work on computers, she isn’t able to resize objects on the screen, scroll through text, or enter responses as easily as the other kids.

Frustrated, Tony’s mother makes an appointment with the principal and explains colorblindness and its effects: “My son faces challenges as a reader because he does not see the colors others do,” she says. Sabie’s father calls with similar concerns and suggests that the inaccessibility of the materials might be cause for legal action.

The principal acknowledges that digital instructional materials with more accessibility features might improve the children’s experiences and wonders if other teachers and learners might also be having accessibility issues. But while the principal knows there are legal requirements for accessibility of digital materials, they aren’t sure how to support teachers in evaluating such materials.

Legal Aspects of Accessibility

Students in U.S. public schools are guaranteed a free appropriate public education across all learning modalities by the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Tony and Sabie might not qualify for services through IDEA, but they can turn to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a 1973 anti-discrimination law.

Section 504 provides that schools make accommodations for students who demonstrate a need for them, and these accommodations are overseen by designated administrators. Section 504-friendly accommodations such as additional time to complete assignments and modified instructional materials would serve Tony and Sabie in an online environment.

Principals can use their evaluating authority to find and acquire materials with built-in accessibility features. Educators unfamiliar with accessible features might have trouble evaluating these features, but many resources are available to help gauge the accessibility of web interfaces and evaluate online instructional materials.

Features to Find

The most common accessibility features digital instructional materials should offer out of the box are:

Text-to-speech/speech-to-text. Text-to-speech software can be used by anyone who wants to listen to digital text rather than read it themselves. There are also software programs that convert text into synthesized speech for people who have no or low vision, have trouble reading, or have difficulties seeing a web page due to issues such as colorblindness. Some screen readers can produce Braille output that allows users to access information by touch. Many students can benefit from having text read aloud. Speech-to-text programs allow learners to transcribe oral responses.

Alt text. When using images in digital materials, alternative text should be provided so that individuals who are using screen reading technology can hear a description of the image. Alt text descriptions must be concise but include enough information to describe an image. The goal is for a learner who uses screen reading technologies to know as much as any learner who doesn’t. Tony might benefit from hearing descriptions of images he can’t see clearly due to his challenge in distinguishing colors.

Color/sound selection and contrast. Digital instructional materials often incorporate colors and sounds to help students engage in concepts more thoroughly. But some color and sound combinations can be confusing and distracting. Learners like Tony will struggle to use materials that rely on the user to distinguish between colors to learn information or do tasks, so accessibility improves when colors, sounds, and other aspects of appearance can be adjusted to suit students’ preferences and needs.

Captions. Learners often appreciate materials that incorporate video into online lessons. But captioning benefits learners who can’t hear or process sound well, those who are trying to watch videos in noisy places, and those who are learning new languages. Some learners find that captions help pay attention to the lesson, and others simply prefer having captions.

Open captions appear on the screen automatically, and closed captions need to be enabled in the device or software settings. Descriptive captions include information about the action in the video, and captions can be set in languages other than the one used in the original dialogue, which might be beneficial to language learning.

Documents in multiple formats. When digital lessons require students to view online documents or add information to them, they should be offered in multiple formats. Using multiple formats—a Microsoft Word document and an Open Document Format document, for example—increases the chance that all learners will be able to complete the assigned tasks successfully. Documents that allow users to increase font size and style and access the text through screen reading technologies are more accessible.

The goal is to allow Tony, Sabie, and all learners to access digital materials with the same facility so they can learn the same information within the same time frame—as the Office of Civil Rights defines accessibility. Accommodations can be made through Section 504 when necessary, but look for basic accessibility features to support the educational experience for all students and families.

Mary Frances Rice is an assistant professor in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Raymond Rose is co-founder and president of Rose & Smith Associates, an educational consultancy focusing on online learning and educational technology.