The World Health Organization (2020) estimate that over 1 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability. They are the largest global minority group and that number is increasing dramatically as people live longer and the number of chronic health conditions rises. In the UK alone, in 2019/20 332,300 students stated that they had a disability of some kind – that’s 17.3% of all home students. This represents an increase of 106,000 (or 47%) since 2014/15 (Hubble and Bolton, 2021).
The COVID–19 pandemic dramatically accelerated an already existing shift to online learning, with universities looking to achieve in a few months what many had planned to take several years to accomplish.
While the challenges of such a rapid migration are well documented (see, for example, THE, 2020), the move to online learning opens up significant avenues of opportunity for learners with disabilities, particularly those who may find attending traditional learning settings a challenge.
How to make online content accessible
So, how can we ensure that in this new wave of online learning, students with disabilities aren’t being left behind by the content they are presented with? While many of us would think nothing of watching a video, skimming a document for information, or even just looking at a graph, all of these things can prove a challenge for students with disabilities. This is where creating digitally accessible content comes into play.
So what is digital accessibility? It’s about ensuring that as many people as possible can access and use the content you’re creating, in a similar way that you would expect university buildings to have ramps to allow wheelchair users to enter. Students with visual, auditory, cognitive, physical and learning disabilities are all affected by digital accessibility. It’s also a legal requirement in the UK and many other countries that universities meet the standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG (Central Digital and Data Office, 2018).
A key component of digital accessibility is ensuring that the learning content you’re creating is designed and structured to make it universally understandable for students with and without disabilities.
Despite the focus on making content accessible to people with disabilities, there are numerous ways in which digitally accessible content can benefit students without disabilities. These include using the captions on a video when in a noisy environment or being able to read a mobile phone screen in bright sunlight due to the right colours being used in the content.
Obviously, it’s not feasible to take all possible combinations of student disabilities and needs into account, but you can avoid the most common accessibility barriers by taking the following approaches to creating your content:
- Avoid only using colours to highlight differences, for example on graphs and charts, use symbols, text or shapes as well.
- Provide an alternative text description for images, graphs, and charts. This describes the image so that people who have visual impairments or use screen readers can understand the information the image is conveying.
- Provide a transcript for all audio or video resources, as well as closed captions on pre-recorded video (your learning technology team should be able to help you with this).
- Use heading and subheadings settings to structure your content, this helps students using screen readers to understand and skim through written content more easily.
- Ensure there is a good colour contrast between the text and background.
- Avoid using interactives that can’t be completed using a keyboard alone, for example, some drag and drop activities.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Steve Krug, author of Don’t make me think: A common sense approach to web usability:
“The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?”
By Claire Poste, CPACC (Digital Producer)
Imperial College London Text alternatives for images.
Microsoft Accessibility 101: Introduction to disability and accessibility with Microsoft.
Patrick, M. (2020) Creating accessible academic content for online courses, UCL: London.
Pun, K. (2016) Dos and don'ts on designing for accessibility, GOV.UK: London.
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview
Central Digital and Data Office (2018) Understanding accessibility requirements for public sector bodies, Central Digital and Data Office: London. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/accessibility-requirements-for-public-sector-websites-and-apps (accessed 16 April 2021).
Krug, S. (2000) Don’t make me think: A common sense approach to web usability, New Riders Press: San Francisco, CA.
Hubble, S. and Bolton, P. (2021) Support for disabled students in higher education in England, House of Commons research briefing number 8716, House of Commons Reference Library: London. Available at https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8716/#:~:text=Download%20full%20report-,The%20number%20of%20students%20in%20higher%20education%20with%20a%20known,17.3%25%20of%20all%20home%20students (accessed 16 April 2021).
THE (2020) The Covid-19 pandemic forces UK universities to reimagine their campuses, THE World Universities Insights: London. Available at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/hub/coursera/p/covid-19-pandemic-forces-uk-universities-reimagine-their-campuses (accessed 16 April 2021).
World Health Organization (2020) Disability and health, WHO: Geneva. Available at: https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health (accessed 16 April 2021).