By Pamela Thomas, Digital Accessibility Specialist, Tufts Technology Services
According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 19% of students in post-secondary institutions have a disability. The percentage is even higher (23%) for students over 30 years of age . Those numbers may sound high to you, but they may in fact be quite low. NCES also reports that only about 1/3 of students with documented disabilities inform their college or university about their disability.
When thinking about disabilities, we tend to think first of sensory disabilities such as blindness or visual impairments, or deafness. It is important to remember that while we need to make sure that our content is accessible to people who may be blind or deaf, the largest population of students with disabilities in post-secondary education is students with various forms of cognitive or neurological disabilities including learning, reading, or attention disorders. Interestingly, students with cognitive disabilities often use the same assistive technology as people with visual or hearing impairments. For example, a student with dyslexia or with an attention disorder may use a screen reader as a reading aid. A student with a learning disability may rely on video captions to aid in retention of information.
Making your content more accessible to student with disabilities doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. Here are five things you can start doing right now to make your documents, presentations, emails, and Canvas content more accessible.
1: Use Good Heading Structure
Good heading structure, especially in longer documents or large blocks of text, ensures that your document is easily readable and understandable by sighted users as well as users who may be relying on screen reading software. Good heading structure also provides users with options for navigating a long document, for example by opening the Navigation Pane in Word or the Document Outline in Google docs.
Unfortunately, many document authors simply change the font size and color in the hopes that users will recognize text as a heading but this kind of styling is strictly visual. It carries no structural meaning. In order for your headings to lend structure to your document and allow them to be used as navigational aids you must use the built-in heading styles available in Word, Google Docs, Outlook, and Canvas. Heading styles can be modified to look however you like, but they still retain their semantic, or structural meaning. For example
usually used as the document title.
Represents major sections of the document.
Represents sub-sections within each Heading 2 section.
And so on…
2: Use Descriptive Links
Linked resources are a normal and necessary part of our digital communications. Unfortunately, if they are not created properly, they can make your document or website difficult to read and understand. For example, using a long URL as a link instead of using the name of the site may make it difficult for anyone with a reading disability or anyone using a screen reader to understand exactly what the linked resource is. It is considered best practice to use the name of the site you are linking to as the hyperlink. And if the link will take the user to anything other than a web page (a PDF or a video for example), it is a good idea to include the format as part of the link. For example:
3: Be Mindful of Color
Did you know that roughly 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have some form of color blindness? Use good color contrast to ensure that students with limited or low vision or students with one of the many forms of color blindness can read and interpret your content. Consult the Tufts Branding Guidelines: Color for suggestions of on-brand colors that have been reviewed for accessibility. Tufts is more than just blue and brown! There is a nice selection of accessible colors in the Tufts extended palette.
Good data visualizations often incorporate color in their design. Whether a simple pie chart, bar chart, line graph, or a more complex visualization type it is important not to rely on color alone to identify data, data series, categories, trends, etc. Most data visualization tools (Excel, Tableau, etc.) offer additional options including: data labels, pattern options in addition to color & shapes to differentiate trend lines.
4: Provide Alternative Text for Images
Not all students are able to see or process information communicated in the form of images or data visualizations. They may have a visual impairment and be relying on a screen reader or they may simply find it difficult to process information communicated visually. It is important to provide an alternative textual description for information communicated in images or other graphics. A brief textual description can be provided for screen reader users in the “alternative text” field of the image properties in Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, or Canvas for example. A visible caption describing a complex graphic can also be provided for users who may benefit from a textual description.
5: Provide Captions for Audio/Visual Content
Good quality captions are necessary for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and for many students with cognitive and learning disabilities who may rely on captions as a learning aid. Captions are especially important in higher education and in the STEM fields due complex and unfamiliar terminology. Luckily, most of our video hosing platforms, including Canvas and Zoom, offer automatic (machine-generated) captions that can be edited for accuracy. Visit TTS User Guides: Captioning for more information.
Adam, Tara, and Catharine Warner-Griffin. Use of Supports among Students with Disabilities and Special Needs in College. National Center for Education Statistics, 2022.
Students with disabilities. NCES Fast Facts, NCES.
Colorblind Population Statistics. Colorblind Guide, Colorwill.org.