When we think of equity in education for students, faculty and staff with disabilities, we often think of the built-environment. This means making sure that ramps, good contrast on stairs, wide doors and good signage are available for students and staff.

We often forget that there are barriers to print and print-to-digital content encountered by students, faculty and staff who are blind, or who have a visual, learning, cognitive or other print disability. For those of us who cannot access, or process print or print-to-digital content, learning becomes reliant on memory, notes we’ve taken and other sources of information that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge. I know, I’ve been there.

My educational career spans the time when there were no digital/audio textbooks (only large print or Braille) to the present when I can have 600 or more audiobooks literally at my fingertips on SD cards for my Victor Reader Stream.

The accessibility of print or print-to-digital content in the K-12 environment is done on an ad hoc basis by Educational Assistants (here in Canada). Universal design of content is something not taught in faculties of education or colleges that graduate Educational Assistants. Most learn as they go. If we are going to evolve to an inclusive community, we need to start with the documents/content created in the K-12 classroom.

Consider the people who would need accessible digital content. Parents and guardians with disabilities need accessible web sites including forms and report cards, scheduling tools for Parent-teacher interviews and digital calendars with important dates throughout the school year. Students and faculty need accessible homework pages, homework assignments and calendars with assignment deadlines as well as access to their report cards. Faculty with disabilities need to be able to add information for parents and students with disabilities. Faculty also need to be able to acces all of the administrative tools they are expected to use. How accessible are these components for learning and student success in your school board or district?

When we talk about the accessibility of digital content, we are talking about some basic elements of a “document.” For example, in a word processing application such as Microsoft Word, those of us who use adaptive technology take advantage of headings in documents. If you look at any textbook, you can visually identify major topic changes like chapters and the sub-topics under each chapter. Visually the chapter title (heading 1) is different from an immediate sub-topic (heading 2) and a topic under that sub-topic. This is the document outline, the hierarchy of content in the document. Visually you know that something that is “bold and smaller than something that is “bold, italicized and larger” is a sub topic to that bold, italicized larger text. However, without the document author using styles in Word or any word processor to clearly identify that structure, all we know is that all of the pieces of text in a document are paragraphs.

What makes the headings navigational points, is the use of styles in word processors or desktop publishing documents. It is the same with websites, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG identify headings as a navigational method for those using adaptive technology. The concept is transferable to any type of digital content where the use of headings/styles is available.

The use of headings doesn’t make your document look different. It simply identifies clearly the visual and structural navigational points in a document.

For this reason, it is essential that when you are designing your word processed or desktop published documents, that the ehadings are sequential. This means using a heading 1 followed by heading 2 followed by heading 3 and not a heading 1 followed by heading 3.  Think o of skipped headings like trying to follow a map and finding that one of the cities or towns is missing. How much time would you spend looking for that town or city you thought should be there?

At the same time you begin adding headings to your documents you should begin adding Alt Text or “alternative text” to images, charts and diagrams. If an image, chart or diagram has no description clearly and concisely identifying the purpose of the image as it relates to the surrounding content, all those of us who are using adaptive technology will hear is “graphic, 4 inches by 5 inches” or whatever the dimensions of the image are. If the document is converted to tagged PDF (accessible PDF) then all we will have access to is “graphic.”

Karen McCall, M.Ed.
Senior advisor, Accessible Document Design
Open Access Technologies Inc.