Accessible by design

A few years ago, I started work with a colleague who uses a wheelchair. One day, we travelled down to London together. It was in spending this time with them that I noticed just how many barriers were created in the way of their engagement with all the things I took for granted.

  • Getting on a train involved booking in advance to alert staff to the need for a ramp. These tickets couldn’t be booked online but had to be arranged in person.
  • A train journey then invariably involved waiting for inordinately long periods of time as staff had forgotten or weren’t free to be there with the ramp.
  • On arrival into London, the raised bumps on pavements to support those with visual impairments to cross the road caused great difficulty when navigating using two wheels.
  • The tube couldn’t be taken because so few stations are accessible, and ‘step free’ stations aren’t quite as accessible as they sound with a ramp often required.
  • Getting into a taxi involved a ramp that took an age to unload and set-up at each end. It was far too steep to navigate with ease.
  • Arrival at a restaurant involved me going and requesting the pre-ordered ramp while my colleague waited outside.
  • The list could continue…

At every turn was a barrier. A wait. Something additional to be navigated.

There are a few lessons here:

  1. environments and society’s dominant way of being are the things that disable,
  2. making activities accessible for one person, or a group of people, may render it entirely inaccessible to another person or group and this is not always recognised by the designers,
  3. spending time with someone who experiences these barriers to access was an invaluable insight.

Since I don’t have the influence at work to change pavements or public transport, I turned my attention to online learning content instead. What I soon learned was that my engagement was to extend far beyond content creation and would reach all aspects of my online interactions including emails, social media and documents.

An online learning journey

As we embarked on the development of more online learning content over at the Chartered College of Teaching last year, we began to take a closer look at accessibility and questioned how we could make our content accessible to more people, how we could break down barriers and ensure we weren’t creating additional ones.

Taking a proactive rather than reactive approach would be essential. We would be aiming to bake accessibility into our thinking and approach from the very beginning. ‘At least one billion people—15% of the world’s population—experience some form of disability. That figure increases significantly when it accounts for temporary and situational disabilities. Non-inclusive content and experiences push people away. And it’s not always easy to pinpoint when that happens. Excluded web visitors often don’t complain: 71% just leave’ (Sehl 2020).

I began my journey by engaging with a range of the research, guidance and technologies available.

Guide to accessibility poster
Quick guide to accessibility

For our online learning content, we have a number of areas we’re focusing on at present. Content that might be experienced as inaccessible by some of our programme participants is provided in an alternative format where possible such as PDFs accompanied by Word or PowerPoint versions. Long chunks of text are broken up by headings, bullet points and images and they’re also provided in audio format where possible. Our videos are captioned and transcripts provided with Otter.ai captioning available during online events for our participants with hearing impairments. Our images have alt text added and our hyperlinks are linked to full phrases rather than ‘click here’.

It’s also worth recognising that there are other, less technical approaches, that support inclusive design. These include consistency of design: providing instructions in the same style or format each time. Listing timings or points for reflection in the same way across the content. Providing links and headings in the same way across all modules and programmes. These things reduce extraneous cognitive load of learning online and that will be of benefit to an entire audience.

We’re also learning about more specific aspects that relate to our delivery approach; ‘behavioural changes… beyond learning new technologies.’ These principles centre around removing and reducing the number of ‘implied rules and norms’ that exist in our practice and ‘pulling back the curtain’ on them, being ‘specific, transparent and mindful’ in order to reduce anxiety and enable the kind of engagement we want. This might look like having protocols for online events so participants know what’s expected of them, when the chat will be on and how they’re expected to participate in it. Which parts of learning are asynchronous, synchronous and why. Being explicit about assessment expectations in terms of referencing, academic language and how it will be graded (Melcher 2000).

The further we progress on this journey, the more I recognise that working towards accessible content will benefit absolutely everyone who encounters it. Of course designing with accessibility in mind will benefit individuals with specific or additional needs and disabilities such as hearing, visual, mobility and cognitive impairments. There are also specific benefits for users with English as an additional language and those who can only access our services on a mobile device or experience low internet speeds. We recognise that ‘needs are not necessarily linked to disabilities, which may vary over time, and accommodating them builds a better culture for everyone’ (Smith 2020).

During my learning, it was of little surprise to hear in a couple of webinars that colleagues in Higher Education who were most likely to engage with an accessibility agenda were also those colleagues already engaging with decolonising and diversifying the curriculum. A commitment to equity, in all forms, demands high levels of energy, time and learning. We need to change how we are used to doing things. We need to see the learning experience from a perspective other than our own. We must not only believe that everyone deserves equal access to education but be willing to do the hard work of making that access a reality.

Useful reources

For anyone seeking to make a similar journey towards accessible online design, the starting point would be the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This can get a little too detailed and may take you away from some of the more practical aspects of accessibility with its technical language.

I found a number of University guides helpful and more accessible (!) for these practical aspects including this one from the University of Lincoln and this one from UCL. The webinars from the Future Teacher project at Jisc have been incredibly helpful and being part of the Jisc digital accessibility mailing list has also provided useful insight as colleagues in Higher and Further Education ask questions and share their learning.

A number of tools are supporting us to learn more and find solutions:

  • Turning on this screen reader helps us gain an insight into how online content is read out to its users with visual impairments,
  • Readometer helps us to estimate and then publish the reading time on content where our platforms don’t already enable this automatically,
  • Readable helps us to ascertain whether our content is written in a ‘readable’ way,
  • Funkify simulates a number of disabilities, which is helping us to appreciate how people may experience our content,
  • This tool is helping us to identify accessibility issues on our websites.

Explore a full set of articles, technologies and guides.

Get started today

There are a whole host of things you can do to make your online interactions more accessible and I’ve selected 5 things you could try. My challenge to you is to do one thing differently tomorrow that you didn’t do yesterday. ‘There are some things we can all do, we don’t have to do them all at once, we can do them incrementally.’ Let me know how it goes!

  • Written content: All text is left-aligned. Avoid justified and centred alignment wherever possible. Some users may prefer right alignment but left is more universally accessible and fully justified should always be avoided due to the ‘rivers of white’ it creates.
  • Documents: Use the in-built ‘styles’ feature in Word and Google (Normal, Heading 1, Heading 2 etc.) to create a logical structure. Use a table of contents based on the headings, particularly for longer, more complex documents. Add page numbering and put these in the same place on each page.
  • Presenting graphs: When sharing a graph as part of a presentation, replace, ‘please take a look at the graph’ with ‘we can see on this graph that the X axis displays achievement whilst the y axis displays time. We can see that over time, achievement increases for groups aged 12-14 but for those aged 16-18 we see a decrease especially in the sciences.’
  • Captions while presenting: If you’re presenting a set of slides, you may like to turn on automated captioning. This translates what the speaker is saying into text on the screen so that any audience member with a hearing impairment can still follow along. On PowerPoint, in the Slide show tab, click ‘Always use subtitles’. In Google Slides, when presenting, click the ‘Captions’ on button. It’s good practice to script your presentation wherever possible. Put technical words on slides as the auto-caption may struggle to pick these up. Rehearse your presentation to improve diction and place more exaggerated pauses at the end of sentences. This will aid better captioning and understanding for those listening over time. There is some research that suggests this isn’t always an accessible approach as it can’t be turned off by live viewers, and it isn’t always accurate. Where we know the needs of our audience, we make use of Otter instead for those who need it. Live captioning is an approach we’re still experimenting with.
  • Sharing images on social media: Images shared require alternative text (‘alt text’) with them. Explore this guide on how to write effective alt text and Ashley Bischoff’s presentation is very helpful. Facebook – upload your photo, then click ‘edit photo’ and write your description in the ‘Alternative text’ box. Then just click save and you’re ready to publish. Instagram – for feed posts, upload your photo, click next, then ‘advanced settings’ and then click ‘write alt text’. Then simply add your description and then click done before sharing as normal. Unfortunately, Instagram Stories don’t currently have the option to add image descriptions, so you can just write a description in your post. Twitter – first of all, you need to activate the ‘Image Descriptions’ feature, which you can find in ‘Twitter Settings’, under the ‘Accessibility’ tab. After that, just attach your image as normal and then click ‘Alt’ to add your description, and post as normal. LinkedIn – simply click ‘Add description’ at the top right of your image and add the alt text.

References

Melcher M (2020) Working with neurodiverse and disabled students. Jisc accessibility clinic. 11 November 2020.

Sehl K (2020) Inclusive Design for Social Media: Tips for Creating Accessible Channels. Available at: https://blog.hootsuite.com/inclusive-design-social-media/ (accessed 19 February 2021)

Smith S E (2020) What If Accessibility Was Also Inclusive? Available at: https://catapult.co/stories/what-if-accessibility-was-also-inclusive-column-unquiet-mind-s-e-smith (accessed 19 February 2021)

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