Is your uni’s tech accessible to learners with disabilities?

Using educational technologies to make uni life more inclusive, equal and diverse involves mindset change, says Anna Dutton at video tech firm Kaltura

There is no magic checklist. Instead it involves students, instructors, universities, Universities UK, disability advocates, and technology providers working together to look for new ways to make education more accessible to everyone – a broader task than focusing solely on legal or technical requirements. 

When it comes to edtech specifically, ‘accessible’ generally means that people with learning/physical disabilities have the same exposure to educational materials, guidance, interactions and services as anyone else. Easy access to educational videos is an indispensable part of student life: it’s also increasingly an advantage in recruiting the best students and staff. No university in today’s highly competitive market wants to lose brilliant people simply because they couldn’t accommodate their needs.

The legal stuff

It’s also necessary from a legal perspective. In the US, Harvard and MIT have already been sued by advocates of the deaf for violating anti-discrimination laws by failing to provide closed captioning in their online lectures and other educational materials. 

This type of lawsuit could be brought in the UK too under the 2010 Equality Act, which mandates that all services need to be accessible to anyone who needs it. The standards are often different depending on how someone is trying to view the video too: mobile, web and desktop all have slightly different standards.

In the UK, meeting the UK government’s digital service standard includes the requirement to at least meet level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 – the gold standard for online content worldwide.

But as the Harvard/MIT case demonstrates, not all video content – or the tools used to watch it – are created equal. Many have not been designed from the outset with inclusion in mind, but this needs to change. Finding ways to work around specific impairment issues is now imperative. 

‘Ultimately accessibility is about helping everyone get the information they need to succeed.’ 

Building in accessibility from the start

Universities also need to keep abreast of technology changes. Technologies can enter the mainstream relatively quickly: for example, automatically ordering video captioning is something that’s pretty easy to do nowadays. 

New ways of helping people access materials are continually being developed, while at the same time entirely new technologies are also emerging – for example, augmented reality and virtual reality, which are set to revolutionise the ways we teach, learn and work. 

The key is to design new courses and technologies from the ground up to deliver learning experiences that are fully accessible. 

Platform Vs. Content accessibility

Something to bear in mind is the difference between platform and content accessibility. ‘Platform’ refers to the video technology you’re using: the software you use to create and manage the videos, and the video player. The standards and policies around platform accessibility are much more stringent and defined than those applying to content and include:

 – Everything functional on the screen (eg buttons) needs to be able to be ‘read’ by a screen reader when hovered over, so the screen reader can convert text and graphics to audible or tactile output

 – All buttons and graphics need to be available in enlarged formats and in high-contrast

 – Players will need to be able to display captions and textual descriptions of the audio

 – All actions performed with a mouse also need to be able to be executed by keyboard commands, which can also be translated to other assistive technologies such as eye-gaze tracking

From a content accessibility perspective, each individual video needs to support the following:

 – Closed captions for the hearing impaired

 – Captions describing audio (eg music) for the hearing impaired

 – Audio descriptions of actions performed on screen for the visually impaired

Some of these aspects are easier to produce than others: captioning dialogue is relatively straightforward today thanks to some great captioning tools, but descriptions tend to be far less automated. 

If you haven’t already done so, you should consider forming a Strategic Plan for Accessibility for your university. This involves mapping out the long-term goals and timelines for accessibility and can save time and money in the long run. Trying to address accessibility concerns on a case-by-case basis can lead to inconsistent policies, overspending on last-minute solutions, and liabilities you didn’t foresee.

Ultimately accessibility is about helping everyone get the information they need to succeed. With competition to attract the best students intensifying, going beyond the minimum necessary to ensure your university can offer every student a level playing field makes long-term financial sense too. 

For more on Kaltura, click here.

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