Today, much more education is happening online. Online universities offer students from all walks of life the opportunity to earn college degrees. And many more traditional schools are using technology to support their programs and services. For example, class registration is often handled online, and teachers can distribute homework assignments through an online bulletin board. The convenience of using online resources has made it easier for everyone to access education.
As an educational institution, your first responsibility is to the student. There are other people who need to access your website (e.g., parents, teachers, prospective students), but students always come first. For students with disabilities, online resources remove many of the physical and social barriers to education, like coping with school facilities that are not physically accessible, carrying books, or coping with social anxiety or OCD.
Consider the tasks that an average student can do online:
- Register for classes
- Pay tuition
- Download homework assignments
- View class materials that are distributed electronically
- Email teachers
- Get feedback on assignments electronically
- Browse the course catalog
- Look at school maps
- Watch videos for class, including lectures
- Reserve a common room for an event
- Request and renew library books
- Request transcripts
This is only a small portion of the tasks that a student may need to do over the course of their educational career. Each of these tasks takes longer and is more tedious for a student with a disability.
Common Accessibility Barriers for Students
If simple digital accessibility features are not integrated into web systems, students can encounter significant barriers that prevent them from getting the resources they need and taking full advantage of their education. Here are a few examples of non-compliant aspects of a site:
- Improper field labeling. Labels are invisible to most users, but vital to people who use a screen reader. Those labels tell them whether a field is for “name” or “student ID number.” An improperly labeled form can leave your students frustrated and unable to accurately complete forms.
- Using color as a sole method to communicate errors. Students who are low vision or colorblind are going to be left out if errors are communicated with only color, for example, making the border of a form field red. Those students will not know where to look to correct the error and complete the form.
- “Invisible” images. For most students, diagrams and pictures can help solidify difficult concepts. But, if your image fails to provide alternative text or has insufficient alternative text, students who are blind or visually impaired will be left behind their sighted peers.
- No keyboard navigation. For keyboard only users, this removes any possibility of navigating through your website.
- Lack of visual indication of focus. Without this, it will be challenging or impossible for students using assistive technologies to navigate your website.
- Improper ARIA implementation. When ARIA is improperly implemented on a website, it impacts screen readers in a counterproductive way. The outcome? Frustrated students.
- No closed captioning in educational videos. Platforms like YouTube will generate (inaccurate) captions automatically, but if you have a script for your video, it will take mere moments to create accurate captions.
- Improperly tagged documents. Microsoft Office has accessibility-checking built in to its programs, but not everyone knows about it. For PDFs, a tagging process ensures they are accessible to screen readers.
- Captchas prevent access. Do you have a captcha anywhere on your website? Perhaps you have one on an online form for class registration, reserving study rooms, or getting football tickets. A captcha may prevent bots from submitting your forms, but it may lock out some of your students, too. It can be challenging or impossible for your blind, low vision, and hearing-impaired students to correctly complete a captcha. Even with alternative options, students can experience difficulties.
- Electronic feedback. Rather than breaking out the red pen, many professors will provide feedback on student assignments electronically. However, be sure the program you are using makes your comments accessible to assistive technology.
Getting Community Feedback on Accessibility
If you are trying to best serve your students with disabilities, you have to provide multiple paths for them to contact administration if they are having trouble. If you get a panicked call from a student using a screen reader who is trying to upload an essay to a class portal, you need to have a way to handle it. It’s important to consider multiple platforms to serve all your students:
- E-mail Contact Form: Whether you’re using third-party vendor or your own form, be sure that the fields are labeled properly, and error messages are clear. Forms are often coded “quick and dirty,” which works fine… unless you’re using a screen reader or braille device.
- Chat: Live chat boxes can be a boon for prospective students who want to chat with an admissions representative. But if a pop-up chat box is coded incorrectly, it can disrupt the user experience for people using assistive technology.
- Phone: Students may contact a school by phone, describing their accessibility issues. However, they often find that the people answering the phone know very little about accessibility or how to resolve the issue.