Accessibility: Designing for All Students

What Is Accessibility?

Most likely you’ve heard about web accessibility. You may be aware of the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at FIU. You probably have received a notification about a student in your course who needs accommodations. However, accessibility encompasses more than extending deadlines or allowing extra time for exams – the most common accommodations listed on those notifications. Accessibility means ensuring all parts of your online course can be accessed by anyone, regardless of cognitive or physical disability or limitation. 

Watch this video from Portland Community College below to get an idea of some obstacles encountered by these students:

Accessibility by the Numbers

The National Center for Education Statistics’ Fast Facts site states that 19% of undergraduates reported having a disability in the 2015-2016 academic year. FIU’s DRC reports that in the last six years, the number of students who have registered with their office has doubled to 2,500. They expect to reach 3,000 within the next two to three years. 

Designing your course with accessibility in mind helps more students than you think. Three thousand is only the number of students who have a self-reported disability. When you take into account other students who may be benefitting from accessible design, the need for it becomes more apparent. There are students who do not want to report their disability, as well as students who may not even recognize that they have a disability. As the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) points out in their Introduction to Web Accessibility, you may also have students with temporary disabilities. There may be students who don’t have a disability but still benefit from accessible design because of “situational limitations”, slow internet connection, or the use of an alternate device to access the course. According to Jessica Rodriguez, Manager of Academic Support Services at FIU Online, 

As educators, content creators and service providers, our mission (and responsibility) is to build and create courses with full and uninterrupted means of access in various formats to meet the needs of our diverse learners. 

Out of the 2,500 students currently registered at FIU’s DRC, a whopping 65% are taking online or hybrid courses. It shouldn’t be surprising that such a high percentage of students with disabilities (reported or not) are choosing online education. According to FIU Online Instructional Designers Carolynne Framil and Liliana Blanco, in a presentation at the 2019 FIU Online Conference, students choose online learning for many of the same reasons as their peers – flexibility and convenience. Beyond that, they choose online courses because it allows them to remain in an environment where they feel comfortable and avoid social stigma. Also, online courses are usually mapped out from day one with a detailed calendar and content that can be made available all semester long. That sort of consistency and predictability makes learning easier for everyone, but most especially for students with a learning disability.

Accessibility Guidelines

Developing or revising a course that follows all of the Web Content Accessibility 2.0 Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) can be daunting. As providers of public higher education, we should all be striving for complete compliance in order to meet the needs of all students. Not only is it the right thing to do for those students, but a focus on accessible design has been driven by local, state and national laws.

Universities that faced lawsuits brought by students with disabilities have been losing. In 2016, the University of California (UC) Berkeley was sued for inaccessibility and was mandated in a letter from the Department of Justice to make its online content more accessible. Unfortunately, their response was to remove over 20,000 free-to-the-public online lectures from its website after deeming it too costly to comply, as reported by the Berkely News. That decision was widely criticized and Essential Accessibility translates that action to a decision that they are “unwilling to meet their [students with disabilities] needs.” 

Effects of Accessible Design

Accessible design can make a world of difference for these students’ futures, especially when you consider the unemployment rate of adults with a disability. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Measuring the Employment Status of Individuals with Disabilities in the Current Population Survey, unemployment rates drop for all students when factoring in higher education. However, that drop is sharper among adults with a disability, making it even more important for them to achieve at least a bachelor’s degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16.4% of students with a disability have completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to 34.6% of adults without a disability. The need to ensure that these students have everything they need to succeed in college is clear. 

The good news is that at FIU Online, you have a team of instructional designers, multimedia producers, and compliance consultants that will help with accessible design, so you’re not in it alone. By devoting the time and attention to create an accessible course, we are ensuring the success of all students, but most especially those with disabilities. And we are honoring President Mark Rosenberg’s call in this year’s welcome letter to get better at being better. 

Access these resources to learn more or contact your FIU Online instructional designer.

Banner image by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production on Unsplash

Claudia Fernandez is a proud FIU alumna ('05) and has been a part of the FIU Online family since 2012. A former librarian and storyteller, she has brought those research and storytelling skills into her work as a Senior Instructional Designer in order to create engaging learning experiences for online students.

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