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May 20, 2019

Electronic Accessibility: Shifting Teaching Practices Towards Inclusion

Every fall semester brings about feelings of expectation, excitement, and energy to a college campus. Both students and faculty wonder what this new year at a university will hold. What new experiences will be gained? What will I learn and how will I grow? As a new professor straight out of my doctoral program, I was feeling a similar rush of emotions as I anticipated what laid before me in a new position at a new university and with new learners. As they say, “expect the unexpected.”

The unexpected soon arrived at my university office. The student who showed up to talk with me was in our program of study and had work expertise in the area of electronic accessibility. This is an area of work that ensures electronic media (i.e., electronic word documents, PowerPoints, PDFs, etc.) are accessible to individuals with various disabilities. After pleasantries were exchanged, she informed me that she wanted to talk to me about making the courses that I was teaching that semester more electronically accessible for all students.

As I sat listening to this student talk about this topic, I noticed some hesitancy and a feeling of timidity from the student. Being a counselor by profession, these are elements I am trained to notice. I am also trained to ask questions. When I inquired about this nervous presentation, the student responded that it had been her experience that some professors do not like to discuss this topic. She verbalized how some may hear this topic as more work that needs to be done in a schedule that is already exhaustively full. I had a feeling that maybe this student had delivered this same speech before and experienced more closed-off responses than invitations for further dialogue. She confirmed my suspicions.

But why? Why are all educators not producing material for courses that are accessible to all students? Why was I able to go through an entire doctoral program that centered on education and not hear the phrase “electronic accessibility,” let alone be taught how to implement this in the work that I do with students?

Some individuals may supply faulty and ill-informed answers to these questions that can be quickly rebutted.  Some teachers may argue that electronic accessibility is “extra” work.  Yet, the work on making teaching material, classroom tools, and course content electronically accessible is necessary. The number of students with reported disabilities continues to grow (Arnold, 2010) and we must help meet the educative needs of these students. As teachers, we are held to professional standards. Many of these standards insist upon how all students can access the information that we utilize in our practice of teaching. We also have ethical codes that assert our responsibility to be competent and skilled professionals at our job. This competency and skill-set includes meeting the needs of all students. Furthermore, federal legislation (i.e., the Americans with Disabilities Act) safeguards the rights of individuals with disabilities. With such standards, ethical codes, and legislation, we teachers must admit that meeting the needs of our students with disabilities is not “extra” in the least! As one of my colleague-friends would say, it is merely doing my “j-o-b.”

Other teachers may argue the process of converting documents into an electronically accessible format is hard and tedious. In actuality, we can engage in making teaching material electronically accessible in very simple ways. Have a PowerPoint that you want to make accessible? Simply open the PowerPoint document on your computer, click “File” in the upper left corner, select the “Check for Issues” box, and then click “Check accessibility.” Simple! In a matter of seconds, we can see a list of issues to address in the PowerPoint file. Through a few clicks, we have created a list of concerns that block someone with a visual disability from accessing the PowerPoint material in a meaningful and educative way. As we often spend hours creating beautiful and rich PowerPoint presentations, why would we not want anyone and everyone to be able to access the work and utilize this material? Simple solutions to problems, such as adding in alternative text to pictures, graphics, and shapes, helps a wider audience profit from our hard work and gain needed education.

Still, other teachers may argue, “What meaning does electronic accessibility really have for students?” In short, it can be very meaningful! Common electronic teaching strategies can cause a “digital divide” creating a barrier to learning for students who, due to a disability, may not be able to access presented information (Seale, 2006). Evans, Broido, Brown, and Wilke (2017) stated that electronic information presented in a way that is not accessible to all students creates systems of “exclusion that are as substantial as those presented by the absence of ramps, curb cuts, and other recognizable examples of universally designed physical environments” (p. 329). Through creating our teaching material in an electronically accessible way, we can easily imagine the meaning, value, and sense of inclusion students may experience at not having to educate us as their teachers on this matter. Through practicing these methods, we allow an individual with a disability in the classroom to be in the role they want to be in – that of a student.

In my new role as first-year professor, my unexpected learning came from a student who gave me a lesson in the power of inclusion. Electronic accessibility in my teaching does not have to be extra work, arduous, or devoid of meaning. Instead, we can all choose to view it as the very heart of education work: doing our part to reach as many learners as possible in varied and meaningful ways!

Arnold, R. (2010). School counselors trainees’ perceptions of future roles in special education. In NAAAS conference proceedings (pp. 295-303). Scarborough, ME: National Association of African American Studies.

Evans, N. J., Broido, E. M., Brown, K. R., & Wilke, A. K. (2017). Disability in higher education: A social justice approach. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Seale, J. (2006). E-learning and disability in higher education: accessibility research and practice. New  York, NY: Routledge.

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