9. Removing barriers

We want to design courses that allow all of our students to be successful. Students, though, often face barriers that interfere with their learning. In this episode, we examine how we can use universal design principles to help remove some of these barriers and help facilitate learning by all of our students.

Our guest is Kristen Flint, an instructional designer at the State University of New York at Oswego. Kristen is currently spearheading a campus working group on accessible teaching. Rebecca is also working with this group.

Show Notes


John: Our guest today is Kristen Flint, an instructional designer at the State University of New York at Oswego. Prior to joining the team at Oswego, she was part of Syracuse University’s School of Education technology support team. Kristen is currently spearheading a campus working group on accessible teaching that Rebecca is also involved with. Welcome, Kristen.

Kristen: Thank you. Happy to be here today.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Ginger peach green tea.

Kristen: Ginseng Peppermint.

Rebecca: Lady Grey.

John: What is accessibility?

Kristen: When many people hear the term “accessibility,” they immediately start thinking about accessibility in terms of disability and they think that they don’t need to worry about accessibility unless they have a student in their classroom with a letter of disability.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think we can focus on or emphasize for people to understand this better is that we all take advantage of accessibility features on our personal devices. For example, if I want to read late at night on my e-reader… my eyes are tired from working on the computer all day… I just bump up the font size on my e-reader, but that’s an accessibility feature.

Kristen: Yes, and the accessibility feature that I use is the voice recognition software,, especially when I’m driving on my long commute to work. If I receive a message, I can say “Hey Siri, read text messages.”

John: …and your phone is asking you what you’re asking right now. [laughter]

Rebecca: She’s ready… she’s ready for you.

Kristen: She is always ready… and it just makes it so that if something very important comes through, I can be aware of it and I can pull over and stop and make a safe phone call if I need to.

Rebecca: I think the audio interfaces are becoming much more popular as we’re getting the Amazon Echo and all these other sorts of things that are available where people can ask it questions and get information. We’re starting to use these technologies more and more without realizing that they come out of a history of accessibility, and what that really means is that we’re designing and developing content that is in some ways machine readable so that the adaptive technologies and software knows what the content is that it’s sifting through because it’s not a human, right? So it needs prompting… for it to work correctly.

John: …. and it can converted into a format that is more accessible in a certain context for people with disabilities or people who just benefit from that in general. For example, a lot of students will sometimes turn on captioning if they’re watching a video in a noisy environment

Rebecca: …or likewise in a quiet environment where they don’t want the sound to come out, right?

John: Exactly. You have someone you don’t want to wake up for example while they’re sleeping.

Kristen: Absolutely, and then we have other student populations like our international students that use it for better comprehension with their secondary language.

John: A really nice feature there is they can slow it down as well and listen to it. While they may have some instructors who talk very quickly, it’s hard to get them to slow down, but if they’ve recorded what they’re presenting, they can move it to half speed or something similar.

Kristen: Yes, absolutely…. and so, on our campus, we’re really starting to talk about accessibility and raise our campus community’s awareness of accessibility more as having an ability ,and then a barrier to that ability, resulting in a disability… and that can be something that is a permanent disability, a temporary disability, or a situational disability. So when people first think of accessibility being related to disability, they tend to think of those individuals with a permanent disability first. For example, we have individuals with eyesight that is changing and it can go from just being nearsighted or farsighted, but then as individuals get older their eyesight tends to start requiring bifocals and so some of these accessibility features that are designed into our devices will make it so that text can be increased or decreased without potentially changing glasses or contact lenses prescriptions.

John: One of our colleagues also had spinal surgery where some discs were fused together and she was unable to move around very much and she wasn’t able to write, so she used the audio interface to dictate notes and to respond to students while she was recovering from the surgery.

Rebecca:: So the definition that we’re sort of using really comes from a book called The Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences written by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery. It’s a formula that is: ability plus barrier equals disability. Our goal is access for all in removing those barriers.

Kristen: …and one of the ways that we’re approaching access for all is through one of the principles of Universal Design for Learning. There are three principles: one is providing multiple means of representation, which is the presentation of information and content in different ways… and so that is, with a video you also have the closed captioning and a transcript. So you have not only the audio but you also have the text. The second principle is multiple means of action and expression, which is allowing students to identify a different way of providing, or expressing, what they do know… and then the third principle is multiple means of engagement, which is a way of stimulating the motivation and interest in students to learn…. and so we’re really focusing on that first principle of the multiple means of representation and the way that you present the information to your students, and maybe presenting it in ways so that, regardless of their ability, they can consume that information and content in a way that they prefer to consume it.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how accessibility fits into your role in extended learning and working with online courses?

Kristen: Sure, so when we work with faculty in developing online courses all the content that these students are accessing online needs to be designed in a more accessible fashion, and so we have begun working with faculty and talking to faculty to raise their awareness of the need to keep accessibility in mind as they’re designing their courses… and we’re just getting started on this process… and we’re working on developing not only resources to assist them but really developing kind of like a checklist of here’s what we want you to look at.

Rebecca: and workflows too right?, like what/how to do these things efficiently and effectively without making it feel so daunting.

Kristen: Yes, absolutely.

John: ….and it becomes much easier when you do this in the design stage rather than trying to retrofit and do these things later.

Kristen: That’s very true.

Rebecca: Kristen and I have been working on some accessibility things for a while on campus together. I teach web design courses, and part of our curriculum is teaching accessibility, so I spend time in my classes doing simulations and accessibility checks and teaching some of these principles. And, then, in our role at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching we started thinking about these being really important principles and things to share out through professional development opportunities on campus. This led to a working group that was formed.

Kristen: Yes, we formed a work group on accessible teaching and we have individuals involved from our library, from our disability services, from our marketing group, and also from our technology group, in addition to myself from extended learning and online education. And, we are having conversations about how we can work together to create a faculty resource that will let them know who can help them with what aspect of accessibility and also provide resources for how do you make certain types of content accessible.

Rebecca: I think there’s also an assumption that when something is accessible somehow it’s not pleasant or not visually interesting, right? So part of my involvement, as a designer, is to help make sure that the resources and things that we’re pointing out also help to make sure that that breaks down that stereotype of accessibility as well.

Kristen: Oh, yes. What we’ve found so far, at least with the instructional designers, is we can make content accessible but it’s not always the the nicest thing to look at. And so having Rebecca available and working with us to help address the design concerns for pleasantness is very important.

John: An analogy is often made in terms of construction of new buildings and so forth, that if you try to convert bathrooms to an accessible format when you already have the pipes in the ground and in the walls it might look kind of ugly when you go in and try to patch it. But, when you start from the ground up you can design very pleasant looking facilities, and I think that that sort of analogy works pretty well here. That if you build this in… into your design process, as I mentioned before, it makes it a whole lot easier to go forward. What are you doing to help people do that? To help people create more accessible courses, documents, and so forth?

Rebecca: We’re going to work on some templates and also some tutorials, but we can share out some of the key things that we want to communicate right now. For example, one of the key principles is document structure and making sure that the content that you’re providing has a clear hierarchy…. and you’re using the tools that you’re building things with to actually demonstrate that hierarchy. So, for example, if you’re in Microsoft Word you’re using the Styles feature in identifying what’s a heading what’s a subheading, what’s a paragraph. No, I think people think that those are they’re just for stylistic purposes, but actually it’s providing some metadata in the document so that other devices understand what kind of content is there…. and really only a human can identify what kind of content that is so that’s why we’re responsible for marking that up and providing that document structure.

Kristen: Another area where accessibility can be improved is through the imagery that’s being used in various academic materials. When you add an image into your content, there needs to be alternative text that will actually describe what is in that image. If that image is being used as a decoration or to break up content but it has no real meaning behind that image, then there are steps that need to be taken so that screen readers will skip over those images. However, when you’re using an image that has content and meaning, that needs to be described so anyone relying on a screen reader or who has images turned off on their browsers (because they have a very slow internet connection), that they will get the meaning of that images providing regardless of whether they can see that image. That also goes for graphs and charts in terms of… you need to provide that explanation… what that chart where that graph or that data is giving if it cannot be seen.

Rebecca: When I’m teaching text equivalents, I like to always remind students that you’re thinking about the image’s purpose… and what it’s trying to communicate and whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate is what should be written as the alt text or the alternative text. So, in other words, if a chart says 65% of students live on campus, or something then like that’s exactly what the text equivalent is…. shouldn’t just say “graph of where students live,” right? That’s not giving the same information.

John: It should contain essentially the same information so that someone listening to will get the same takeaways as someone able to see it.

Rebecca: Right. You had experience with this in the past right, John?

John: Yeah, about maybe 10 or 12 years ago. I had a student who was taking one of my online classes who downloaded these videos I had provided and was listening to them as a podcast so I would be describing or I’d be referring to shifts in curves and she wanted… she needed… to know what curves were shifting and how they looked. So I became much more careful whenever I was talking about curves to describe what was happening and including the appropriate alt tags as well so that anyone listening to it would get the same picture as someone who is participating… who was able to view it .

Rebecca: Color is another key thing that we need to keep in mind. There are contrast standards that need to be used to make sure that text, for example, against a background color, stands out enough… especially if someone has color blindness or even your device, right, has different kinds of color corrections… and lack of corrections. So you have to kind of adjust for that. So there’s contrast checkers that can help you with that. I recommend using the Webaim contrast checker… and then the other thing to always remember is to not use color alone to convey information. So, for example, if you’re trying to make sure a heading stands out, don’t just make it red… (don’t use red on the screen…) don’t just make it red… but maybe it’s also bold… or it’s red and it’s all in capital letters or something, alright?

Kristen: ….and one of the things that I always share with faculty is if you’re not sure, print it out in black and white and if you can distinguish from the color then leave it as is if you can’t then you need to do something else.

John: Because that will indicate that there’s not enough contrast.

Kristen: Exactly, so hypertext is another item that really needs to be looked at differently.

John: Many faculty, for example, used to say click here to do something. The text was often not very descriptive. So, what would you recommend?

Kristen: I recommend that that link had a meaningful name, so that when they are clicking on it, they know exactly where it’s taking them to without having to go back and read prior or latter information. Some individuals will tab through a website to go from link to link to link to scan information.

John: If the link only has the word “here” it’s not very informative.

Rebecca: Yeah, and this becomes even more problematic if you’re using an audio interface and you ask it to read what the navigation for example and it just says here… here… here… here… here… like where’s “here?” Help! So, using something that says, for example, if we were linking out for the Tea for Teaching podcast, it would say “Tea for Teaching podcast” and when you click on it it would go to the Tea for Teaching podcast url.

John: Similarly, if we’re going to have a registration form that we want people to click on, we will have the words “workshop registration form” or “winter breakout registration form” highlighted so that anyone who’s just getting the information from the link knows what the link will go to.

Kristen: Right, and another instance that’s used a lot is just to provide the website URL so https: etc… and when someone is listening to that audio lee or relying on a screen reader, it’s going to be identified as link HTTP and the rest of the UR.

Rebecca: Can you imagine listening to a whole page of that?

Kristen: I don’t want to listen to a whole page of that.

Rebecca: The last area that we want to share is that, you know, a lot of applications that we use for general data entry and making our documents that we share with students, like Microsoft Office, actually have accessibility checkers built into them… as well as Adobe Acrobat also has it. So these are checkers that you could run once you’ve created your document that will alert you if you’re missing things like text equivalents, if there’s contrast issues, and if there is hierarchy or order issues.

John: In the case of faculty, whose responsibility is it to make documents accessible… to make the course materials accessible?

Kristen: The responsibility really lies with the content creators. As you’re creating your document, it’s important to keep those accessibility features in mind so that you don’t have to go back and redesign your document. However, it’s not always been faculty’s responsibility to design documents.

Rebecca: So, yeah, the democratization of software has really changed who content creators are, so we don’t always think that we’re content creators.

Kristen: So faculty are responsible for making sure that the content and the documents they create are accessible and they have not always been responsible for the actual design of those documents. I think the one thing that many people struggle with is they don’t see themselves as content creators as we use more and more media while we’re creating things, we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as designers and we’re not even trained to be designers, right? If we look at our general education, for example, students aren’t trained in design or any of these techniques. We don’t necessarily think about these things, but we need to start thinking about them and recognize that they’re our responsibility. In the past, perhaps secretaries did some of this work for faculty, or designers, or other individuals with expertise in this area. So as we become the makers we also ethically take on that responsibility

John: What are some resources that would be helpful for people who are working to explore how to make their courses more accessible?

Kristen: One resource is the National Center on Universal Design for Learning that will provide some information and a starting point for how to think about employing those Universal Design for Learning principles that we discussed earlier.

John: We’ll share that resource as well as any others that you’ll mention in the show notes.

Rebecca: For those that are a little more tech savvy, webaim.org might be a really good resource if you’re doing things on the web or using HTML as part of your document creation.

Kristen: …and webaim also does give a nice tutorial on how screen readers work. So if you’re curious about how it works or why certain things are being asked of you to do a certain way, that will give you a really good basis to understand why we’re asking you to design in certain ways…. and then another resource is the University of Minnesota’s Accessible U website. It provides a lot of resources that are geared toward faculty, to help them understand what steps need to be taken, and how to make those documents more accessible…

Rebecca: …and what’s nice about that particular resource is it’s written for a fairly general audience and using the tools and technologies that many of us use in our classrooms already.

John: I’d also like to put in a plug for the SUNY MOOC that was created as a collaborative project growing out of a SUNY level task group which is available for self-paced work as well.
Okay. Well, thank you Kristen.

Kristen: Alright, thank you for having me.

Rebecca: Love to talk accessibility again soon.

Kristen: Okay.