If you’ve found your way to this page, you probably have questions about accessibility. Maybe you’ve heard it mentioned at department meetings, or perhaps you’ve gotten feedback from students about problems with your course site. Maybe you’ve gotten an accommodation letter and don’t know what to do next. No matter what’s brought you here, we’re here to answer your questions!
We’re going to start with two of the most basic ones. What is web accessibility? Why is it important?
What is Web Accessibility?
Accessibility, in the broadest definition, means simply “able to be accessed.” But when people talk about web accessibility, they generally don’t mean someone’s internet connection or computer ownership. The phrase web accessibility refers to whether or not disabled people are able to access and interact with web content.
In order to understand how disability intersects with internet use, we’ll need to look at the idea of disability itself.
Disability is Diverse
The symbol for disability is, most frequently, a person in a wheelchair. But disability is an incredibly diverse term and describes an incredibly diverse community.
Disabilities can be physical, sensory, emotional, and/or cognitive. They can be visible, such as if someone uses hearing aids, a white cane, or an emotional support animal. But the majority of disabilities are invisible ones, such as depression, anxiety, or traumatic brain injury, and conditions such as chronic pain, illness, or fatigue.
There’s also the realm of neurodiversity, which can cover autism, ADHD, and more. Some neurodiverse people don’t view themselves as disabled; they have a different way of processing information than what is seen as the norm. But many neurodiverse people do consider themselves disabled or have close ties to the broader disability community due to shared experiences.
Finally, it’s fairly common for people to have multiple disabilities, all of which can interact with each other differently. Someone may have a visible disability and multiple invisible disabilities.
What’s important to know is that each person’s experience of their disability is unique and individual. Some may regard it as a positive part of their identity and a culture they embrace. Some may regard it as a hardship that they struggle with each day. Some may not think about it much at all outside of doctor’s appointments and accommodation requests. And some people may swing through all of those attitudes about their disabilities at different points in their lives!
This can make the concept of accessibility feel a little daunting. How can anyone create a web experience that’s accessible to so many unique people? The good news is that while people come in infinite variety, software is much more limited. The tools and techniques to make a website accessible work for the overwhelming majority of people, in large part due to assistive technology.
Assistive Technology Tools
Assistive technology (AT) is a term that refers to tools used to help disabled people navigate and interact with the world. Wheelchairs, hearing aids, and glasses are forms of assistive technology, but we’re focusing on tools used to interact with computers.
Some of the most important AT is screen reader and text-to-speech (TTS) software. These tools read content on a computer out loud to a user. This is especially important for blind or low-vision users, who may not be able to see digital content, but many people with attention disorders or learning disabilities often find that combining their own reading with someone reading the text aloud helps with focus and memory. Screen readers are more robust and help users navigate through a digital system, while TTS software tends to assume that users can see menus and images.
Another important AT tool is keyboard navigation. Mouse and touch screen navigation don’t work for many people who are blind, who have arthritis, or who have limited mobility. You can use a keyboard to navigate through digital content, activate links, and more. (Try it now: press the tab key and watch as the “focus” jumps from link to link!)
There are many other AT tools, but when considering accessible web and course design, these are the most commonly used tools. And designing to be compatible with these tools almost always covers less common ones as well!
Why is Accessibility Important?
In addition to getting your questions answered, presumably you’re on this page because you know that web accessibility is important. But you might not know exactly why! You may have heard about new policies or been told that your course site needs to be more accessible before next quarter. But why is it such a big deal?
Ethics and Inclusion
The main reason that accessibility is important is because it’s the right thing to do. One in four people in the United States have a disability, making it one of the largest minority groups in the nation. Disabled students attend classes and pay the same amount of tuition as their non-disabled peers, and they deserve the same opportunities to learn and succeed alongside their non-disabled peers too. By creating an accessible course, you’re giving all your students a level playing field.
Why Not Accommodations?
Accommodations are one of the most common ways that instructors interact with AccessibleNU (ANU). A student will submit an accommodation request, and ANU will communicate it to the instructor. Sometimes there’s a dialogue between the instructor, student, and ANU staff. And in some cases, an accommodation is perfectly appropriate! It doesn’t make sense to have an ASL interpreter in a classroom if there aren’t any ASL signers present. A Deaf student would request an interpreter as an accommodation.
However, that same student shouldn’t have to request captions on videos or transcripts for audio as an accommodation. Readings, media, and other course content should be made accessible from the beginning. This benefits all students and is available for anyone who might come into the course. This prevents them from falling behind as they wait for access to their course resources.
What About Academic Rigor?
Some instructors worry that by allowing accommodations or making course materials accessible, they’re reducing the academic rigor of the class for some students. But that shouldn’t be the case! If an instructor required students to climb six flights of stairs to take a quiz each week, or solve complex puzzles before accessing the readings, that doesn’t indicate anything about a student’s mastery of the subject matter. It just means they had to work a lot harder to get there.
That’s the experience for many disabled students. Blind or low vision students will spend hours wrangling inaccessible PDFs into a format their screen reader can interact with. Deaf or hard-of-hearing students will wait days to get transcripts for a podcast, while their peers are already deep into discussion on the subject. Inaccessible courses create barriers to learning. Removing those barriers doesn’t cheapen the learning experience; it lets everyone in.
Policy & Legal Requirements
It may surprise you to learn that there isn’t a single, unified digital accessibility law in the United States. Instead, digital accessibility stands on a legal framework of multiple laws, legal decisions, and Office of Civil Rights (OCR) agreements. The two most important laws for web accessibility are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has been interpreted to cover digital spaces, and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was updated in 2018 to specifically address the requirements of web accessibility.
The legal background of web accessibility is complex and ever-evolving. But the heart of it is equal access. Disabled people must be granted equal or equivalent access to all spheres of public life, including education.
To support this goal, Northwestern has instituted the Digital Accessibility Policy, which governs digital accessibility throughout the university. In short, it requires that all digital content--including online courses--is designed to be as accessible as possible to all users. You can learn more about the policy by reading the FAQs.
Online Students and Accessibility
According to research, many disabled students find online courses more appealing for a number of reasons. Online courses provide greater flexibility, allowing students to do their work when they are most capable of it, rather than when the class is scheduled. They are easier to access for students with mobility issues, who can work from their homes instead of trying to navigate inaccessible campuses and classrooms. Students with attention or learning disorders can pause, rewind, and rewatch recorded lectures or other media in order to take the time they need to fully understand the concepts.
And they allow students to maintain their privacy if they do not want to report their disability. Disabled people face frequent prejudice and discrimination, and many students with disabilities report that they enjoy the freedom from stereotypes that online courses can offer. As one disabled student explained, “I’m not in a wheelchair, but you know, people are still judging. And in the distance learning environment I have the luxury of not revealing that I’m disabled.”2
On-ground classes can be difficult, both physically and emotionally, for disabled students due to prejudice and stigma. But online, students have more power over how they are perceived, and “their disability became invisible, offering the freedom to be viewed as a student without limits.”2
Approximately 70% of online students with disabilities do not disclose their disability or request accommodations1. Some of these students may not be aware of the support that is available, but for majority of students, they do not disclose because they want “the opportunity to allow intellect, skill, and character to become their observed identity, rather than their disability.”2 As a result, it is crucially important for online courses to be designed for accessibility from the beginning, so that all students can engage with the course materials. Students should not be forced to choose between maintaining their privacy and passing a class. Building an accessible course allows them to do both.
- Roberts, J., Crittenden, L., and Crittenden, J. (2011). Students with disabilities and online learning: A cross-institutional study of perceived satisfaction with accessibility compliance and service. Internet and Higher Education, 14, 242-250.
- Verdinelli, S. and Kutner, D. (2015). Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students With Disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9, 353-368.