This article builds upon information first presented by Laurie Vasquez, Santa Barbara City College, at the League for Innovation in the Community College's "Innovations 2004" Conference.
As technology becomes an integral part of teaching, so do issues relating to accessibility. While issues of having access to technology (i.e., having use of a computer and the Internet) have long been discussed, today the emphasis has shifted to ensuring that the technology used in teaching is accessible to everyone and that the technology can be used by those with some form of disability. In addition to simply being something that must be done in order to accomplish our mission of serving the community, Section 508, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires that all electronic and information technology that is federally funded be accessible by people with disabilities. California Senate Bill (SB) 105 codifies Section 508 to apply to all state agencies as of January 1, 2003. Thus the requirements of Section 508 are now applicable to community colleges whether or not California continues to receive federal funding.
Ensuring that courses and classrooms are accessible is something that we must do as law mandates it, and it is something that we should do as students are harmed when accessibility issues are overlooked. While previous articles have addressed how to ensure accessibility, this article will address why accessibility matters to our student population. This article will focus on the human side of Section 508, that is, the side that involves the problems faced by disabled students using technology. In addition, some practical approaches to help colleges comply with Section 508 will be discussed. Beyond the need to comply with Section 508, why should we invest time and energy into making our courses accessible? Consider the scenarios that follow and how they illustrate the importance of accessibility.
Jonathan is taking two courses through mediated technology at his local community college. He is an honors student, works full time, and is learning disabled. Due to Jonathan's work schedule, he needs the flexibility of courses offered through distance learning. One of his courses utilizes the college's adopted Course Management System (CMS). However, the instructor for the other course has chosen online courseware provided by the publisher. Due to his learning disability, Jonathan needs extra time when taking tests. While the college's CMS can accommodate him, the instructor who is using the publisher's online courseware does not know how to increase the allotted time for exams. He has referred Jonathan to the DSPS office to take the test on campus.
The assistive technologies specialist had to become involved to remind the instructor that as an online course, all students must have equal access to online tests. The specialist had to call the publisher of the course to find out how to increase time for tests for individual students. The publisher had never received such a request but worked with the assistive technologies specialist to resolve the issue. The specialist then contacted the instructor and provided him with the steps to accommodate the student.
(adapted from "How People with Disabilities Use the Web" [working draft], Julie Berger, Ed. http://www.w3.org/WAI/EO/Drafts/PWD-Use-Web/, retrieved March 15, 2004.)
Ms. Martinez, a deaf woman, is taking several distance learning courses in physics. She had little trouble with the curriculum until the college upgraded their online courseware to a multimedia approach, using an extensive collection of audio lectures. For classroom-based lectures, the college provided interpreters but for web-based instruction no such accommodations were made. The college staff did not recognize the need to ensure that their online courseware was accessible and claimed that they had no idea how to provide the material in accessible format. The college staff also claimed that they were not required to find a way to make the material accessible. Ms. Martinez persisted and was able to demonstrate to college officials that the college was clearly covered by a policy requiring accessibility of all online instructional material. The college then had the lectures transcribed and made this information available through their website, along with audio versions of the lectures. For an introductory multimedia piece, the college used a SMIL-based multimedia format enabling synchronized captioning of audio and description of video. The school's information managers quickly found that it was much easier to comprehensively index the audio resources on the accessible area of the website, once these resources had been captioned with text.
The professor for the course also set up a chat area on the website where students could exchange ideas about their coursework. Although she was the only deaf student in the class, she quickly found that the web-based chat format, and the opportunity to provide web-based text comments on classmates' work, ensured that she could keep up with class progress.
How could the students have been better served in the preceding scenarios?
Knowledge of Section 508
According to Section 508, each student must be provided with full and equal access to all of the dimensions of the online course, including online test taking and accessible multimedia formats. In the first scenario, the instructor thought that he was accommodating the student by allowing him to have the extra time, but was unaware that he had to provide the test in an online format. In the second scenario, the college staff was unaware that they needed to provide accessible online format for the multimedia portion.
A Proactive Approach
Although the students were helped in a timely manner, some of the problems they experienced could have been minimized and possibly avoided if the faculty members had taken a more proactive approach. In the first scenario, the instructor had the freedom to choose the publisher-based courseware over the college's CMS. However, by doing so he created some problems that he didn't anticipate. Moreover, the student was frustrated that he had to use (and learn) two different course management systems instead of one. In the second scenario, the college staff could have taken into account accessibility issues when upgrading to a multimedia format for their online courseware.
The preceding scenarios also demonstrate that collaboration is the key to minimizing our students' down time to accessing course content. The student, assistive technologies specialist, the instructor, the course publisher, and/or the IT managers and technicians all had to work together to ensure accessibility and 508 compliance.
As colleges integrate the web and other electronic resources more into their curriculum, it will be difficult to anticipate all of the accessibility issues that arise. However, as faculty we can't view these issues as interruptions or inconveniences to our teaching. Disabled students greatly benefit when we become better aware of their needs and become more proactive when deciding on accessible web and electronic media for our courses. We can also influence key campus decision makers in choosing 508 compliant and usable course management software and student information systems.
Our disabled students also benefit when colleges adopt accessibility standards and policies. It is always better to work from top-down rather than bottom-up one when implementing such standards. The president, budget administrators, deans, division chairs, curriculum committees, and instructors should have an understanding of web and other electronic accessibility in college wide planning and purchasing. They must collaborate with the college Webmaster, assistive technologies specialist, faculty and DSPS office to produce policies with timelines to ensure successful compliance. New faculty should be given the college's web and digital access policies. These policies must be revised periodically to address emerging technologies. Practical workshops on how to comply with Section 508 should be provided to faculty on a routine basis as well.
We invite you to join our breakout, "The Human Side of Section 508," at our April Plenary Session to further discuss Section 508 compliance and accessibility issues. Following are some online resources that you may find helpful as you work collaboratively to accommodate students with disabilities.
"Achieving Accessibility: Demystifying Section 508 Compliance."
1194.22 Web-based intranet and Internet information and applications.
Training new faculty about universal design, access and disabilities
How people with disabilities use the web
Policy design and guidelines