Accessibility in Online Education: WCAG 2.0 AA and Section 508 Guidelines

person using a braille keyboard
Online education has many benefits. One of them is enabling as many qualified students as possible to access low-cost and flexible certificate, diploma, degree, and even Ph.D. programs. However, offline and web-based learning management systems that lack full-accessibility features are locking out or disadvantaging learners with disability. Not only is that unfair, but also in breach of several web accessibility regulations.

What does ADA Compliance Mean to Online Education?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires agencies and institutions, such as schools, funded by the Federal government to ensure their digital learning platforms and their content are equally and fully accessible to all persons, including individuals with hearing or vision complications. Disobeying the law can result in the withdrawal of government funding or costly lawsuits.

A critical step toward ADA compliance is developing and authoring accessible electronic text content as per Section 508 guidelines. For example, you could have all the documents on your university website available in HTML. Also, consider responsive design to enable students to access and view the content using common digital devices like smartphones and tablets.

Be sure that learners can read and discern text using assistive technology. Convert where necessary, such as from PDF to MS Word, and remember to test your digital books or course material for accessibility. Likewise, use descriptive file names to help all students as well as assistive technology to identify learning material.

Learners with eyesight disabilities often struggle with seeing and discerning images, graphs, or graphics, and you can help them with expressive phrasing that provides context. It’s also vital to format lists, such as bullets and numbers, for automatic recognition using assistive technology.

It’s common for educational text to feature colors and visual attributes whose interpretation is essential to learning. For instance, each color in a pie chart represents unique data. It’s, therefore, necessary to explain to people with vision difficulties what each color represents in such a feature.

What about using Ms Word forms to collect learners’ information?

It’s highly inadvisable because you can’t make the data capture tools accessible to all. That’d make it impossible for students with specific forms of disability to register for a course or enroll in a program online.

Avoid providing web-based informational text, such as digital textbooks, in the format of scanned images. You can have the content either converted to text or retyped manually.

In the case of an online learning management system that features video instructions, ADA compliance means providing synchronized captions for people with hearing challenges to follow. Likewise, video content is not fully accessible to learners with visual disabilities unless it includes synchronized audio descriptions. Synchronized multimedia captions are also a WCAG 2.0 level AA requirement.

How Complying with WCAG 2.0 Enhances Education Accessibility

By adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, you can make sure individuals with a disability can access all the features of your online learning platform and resources. The standard defines the success formula you can apply to your educational website, digital documents, or software.

One of the main WCAG 2.0 requirements is that content and controls (commands) should be easy to recognize or perceive. For example, synchronized audio descriptions provide the context for prerecorded video learning materials. Similarly, applying a contrast ratio of at least 4:5:1 to text enables students with a moderately poor vision to tell characters (such as letters) from their background. It should be possible for learners with such difficulty to recognize words or sentences without using assistive technology.

Usability of interfaces is also an enforceable web accessibility issue. Keyboard operability is a primary concern because the input device provides essential command keys and most of the characters that students require to interact with online learning systems effectively.

As per WCAG 2.1.1, it should be straightforward to register a keystroke and accomplish the intended keyboard function without necessarily holding down a key for several seconds or hitting a key in quick succession. Complying with the requirement enables learners with no eyesight, and who cannot use computer mice, to operate keyboards when performing activities such as drawing shapes or “drag and drop.” However, the rule doesn’t apply where it’s impossible to dictate the route of the user’s movement from a keyboard in computer applications such as painting or flight simulation.

Can all your current and future students with disabilities understand user interface operations along with the information you provide on the school or university website? Complying with that legal requirement includes making it possible for speech synthesizers or assistive technology to programmatically recognize the human language of every sentence or paragraph in the web content.

Take the example of Latin terms, which are common in anthropology topics. If you provided study material (in English) containing the words “Equus grevyi” (Latin for the Grévy’s zebra), a multi-language speech synthesizer should recognize the language change and pronounce the text correctly and in the right accent. A graphical browser would then display the term as per the presentation rules of Latin. The feature would be useful to learners who struggle with reading written content, recognizing letters, or decoding phrases.

Equally important, make your web pages and interfaces intuitive. You can start by ensuring the consistent identity of features with the same functionality, such as the web navigation menu. Make it easy to look up content via a search field to the top left, middle, or right of every page. These measures enable learners with intellectual or cognitive challenges or vision disorders to quickly access course material or other online information that’s vital to successful learning.

The law requires you to provide web-based course materials in a way that a variety of user agents can interpret successfully and accurately. Students who need to use speech-to-text software to read will benefit from the robust design of your web pages.

WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 guidelines cover the critical measures that schools, colleges, and universities offering online education should implement to make their websites fully accessible to people with disabilities. In the education sector, the objective of the rules is to level the playing field so that any student with disability can access the same digital educational resources and information as an individual without disability in an equally convenient and effective way, wherever technologically feasible.

 

Mike Bills

Mike Bills

President at Cranium Cafe
Michael Bills is the President of Cranium Café. Cranium Café creates the in-office experience for off-campus students by providing easy to use technology that enables students to receive real-time student services from anywhere in the world. By providing real-time, face-to-face connection with academic advisors, financial aid officers, tutors, professors, career service offices, and alumni mentors; Cranium Café is able to dramatically increase enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.
Mike Bills
About the author: Mike Bills
Michael Bills is the President of Cranium Café. Cranium Café creates the in-office experience for off-campus students by providing easy to use technology that enables students to receive real-time student services from anywhere in the world. By providing real-time, face-to-face connection with academic advisors, financial aid officers, tutors, professors, career service offices, and alumni mentors; Cranium Café is able to dramatically increase enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.