Accessibility 101

Accessibility, which is often abbreviated A11Y, is a civil right for students, faculty, and staff. Accessibility makes content available to all users.

Accessible means that “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability” (The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights).

As educators in higher education institutions, it is our legal and professional responsibility to meet accessibility standards. With our fast-growing online programs at Gies College of Business, we have a variety of learners in the courses that require various accommodations to ensure success in their learning pursuits. Addressing the needs of all learners in online or face-to-face courses is challenging and can be overwhelming. Nevertheless, making accessibility a priority, in particular in digital media (also known as digital accessibility), is our mission to accomplish because it improves access and usability for everyone.

Digital accessibility is the ability of a website, mobile application, or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a wide range of users, including those users who have visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities (Digital Accessibility).

For example, to ensure equal access for people with disabilities, we are required to provide alternative text for images in particular for those who cannot see. Text description for images can benefit other people as well such as people with a low or aging vision, auditory learners, people with autism, English as a second or foreign language learners, cell phone users, and text-based browser users with a slow connection speed. It also helps search engines to index the image and make it searchable.

With new technologies, we believe students with disabilities can easily study and perform learning activities online. However, this can only be possible if the course site and the content are accessibly designed, meeting the accessibility standards. To create and run accessible online courses, faculty and staff need to purposely plan, build, and test for accessibility. Every learning material that students use such as a video lecture, a Word document, or a PDF needs to follow certain criteria to make them accessible.

In the Office of eLearning, we strive to proactively make courses more inclusive and flexible as a team, regardless of the delivery format. Inclusive courses can be created by planning for access and inclusion in mind. Traditional targeted individual accommodation models will not work for an online course with 100,000+ students. Instead, we must employ at-scale accommodations targeting the online learner population in a MOOC learning environment with a full adoption of a  universal design (UD) perspective in consideration of accessibility and usability. Accessibility makes things possible while usability makes things easier. Universal design is “the design of something to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (The Center for University Design). Proper planning and design can make building and supporting accessible courses much easier, rather than being reactive and retrofitting the course later.

To build awareness and promote inclusion and accessibility in the Gies College of Business, the Office of eLearning provides useful resources and training for faculty and staff who create content for their courses. Accessibility begins with the first document, the first slide, and the first video. You do not need to or should not be alone in this journey. It should be a team effort. Engage with the Office of eLearning to find the optimized path to an accessible course. There is not a single right answer or method, but we will find that process to suit your content and teaching style. Accessibility will be a part of all course development and can become instinctive every time you sit down to do course prep.

This manual gives basic guidelines to learn how to provide inclusive learning experiences to every student, including students with disabilities in online courses, so anyone can feel welcome and be engaged resulting in a full learning experience. We hope you can 1) learn regulations and standards on accessibility, 2) understand the importance of accessible design incorporation into online course design, and 3) identify the process to include accessibility into course design and development with best practices and recommendations/suggestions.

If you have any questions or suggestions on this topic, please contact Jinhee Choo (eLearning@business.illinois.edu).