Accessibility for Learning Pt.1

Alternative text, closed captioning, accessibility, A11Y, screen readers, color palettes, keyboard navigation, and the list goes on. What do these words and acronyms mean, and why should you care about them?

If you are in the business of supplying web-based information (or any digital info that is accessed by electronic and informational technologies—E & IT), hire new employees via online applications, and/or receive any federal or state funding, then you better start paying attention. The lawsuits brought against pillars of the county’s educational system (Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley) by the Department of Justice should be a resounding a wakeup call; if they aren’t, then let me detail the reasons why you can’t afford to ignore this.

Accessibility. Everything mentioned above lives under the umbrella of ICT accessibility—a federal mandate that ensures people with disabilities have equal access throughout many domains of civil life. Accessibility in the form of wheelchair ramps, Braille signs in hallways, and chirping (audible cue) crosswalks is part of the original scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act—THE federal law prohibiting the discrimination of persons with disabilities regarding, but not limited to, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. And as times change, our public infrastructure has changed. Now, within the scope of the ADA are electronic and informational technologies affecting people, organizations, and governments.

Regarding the lawsuits, the DOJ v. UC Berkeley suit is “forcing” the school to make its online content accessible—especially its online videos. The captioning of the videos, as well as the audio for the videos, has been deemed subpar and (allegedly) doesn’t allow a disabled user the same access to the information. The situation is almost identical to the NAD v. Harvard and NAD v. MIT suits. (The National Association for the Deaf—NAD—has the full support of the DOJ in these instances.) The suits claim that Harvard and MIT violated the ADA and Section 504 (part of the Rehabilitation Act) because of their subpar and/or lack of closed captioning of online educational videos.

And because these institutions are federally funded and offer their online programing to the general public, all members of the general public qualify to utilize these services. The Department of Justice is quoted as saying, “[The] plaintiffs do not request different or additional content; they seek only access to the same content that Harvard makes available to the general public.”

As we unpack the digitally inaccessible world and mash it into an accessible framework, we will undoubtedly come across a lack of guidance and governance, implied rules that have real-life consequences, content and digital arenas that are seemingly inaccessible by nature, and other shortcomings of an ever-evolving, amorphous process of inclusion. Staying at the same level as others in your field is not an acceptable marker of compliance. Although the educational industry is leading the charge for accessibility in the digital world, other industries will be soon to follow. Those that lag behind do so at their own peril.

So what do you do? The path to accessibility will be difficult to navigate and (likely) expensive but is immensely important. The government takes discrimination very seriously, as do those that are being discriminated against. And it isn’t easy for a person with full-functioning faculties to anticipate all of the pitfalls and roadblocks for a disabled user/citizen. And thus, we have come to the purpose of this blog. This is the first entry of a series that will delve into the inaccessible world. The journey is meant to equip you with the necessary tools and understanding to view your field of work through different lenses, in the hopes of fostering a true understanding that will empower you to make the best accessibility decisions for you, your company/organization/group, or any of your affiliates in need. The next installment will cover alternative text.

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Created by: 
Brian Thompson