Reflecting on the Loyola Digital Accessibility Conference

by Christine Scherer and Kristina Wilson

Introduction

The Loyola Digital Accessibility Conference was organized by graduate students in the digital humanities program at Loyola University. The event drew presenters and attendees from all over the country, including a team who called in from University of California-Davis! Content Specialist Christine Scherer and Learning Designer Krissy Wilson represented the School of Professional Studies Distance Learning department on the Tackling Large Scale Accessibility panel.

The presentations covered a wide range of issues, from accessibility of digital library resources to podcast transcripts to retrofitting inaccessible web pages. But there were common themes raised throughout the conversations.

One theme was that majority of disabilities are invisible: mental health issues, learning disabilities, chronic conditions with no outward symptoms. These disabilities must be considered as well in accessible design. But the majority of conversations around and planning for accessibility focus on physical and sensory disabilities. For example, Amelia Brunskill (UIC) presented on the early stages of her research into the accessibility of library resources and found that majority of accessible resources focus on visual disabilities only.

Another theme that came up across all of the presentations was the importance of designing for accessibility from the very start, rather than tacking it on at the end of the process. Digital humanities content is often designed to be viewed and interacted with under very specific (and very limiting) conditions, so making it accessible after the fact is extremely difficult. PDFs and WordPress sites both benefit from pre-planning and research on how to make them accessible before the document is published or the site is built. And of course, Krissy and Christine talked about the importance of ensuring that accessibility is considered from the very beginning when building an online course.

Twitter Discussion

Conference discussion on Twitter was tagged #LUCdigiA11y. Check out some of the conference talk as the day progressed.

This is a question we ask ourselves all the time in the Distance Learning department at the School of Professional Studies. While we’ve made strides in faculty training and development policies, we can always improve.

One often-neglected corner of accessible design is design for students with a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Rebecca Nesvet described students without a desktop or home internet who use their mobile phone and data plan to complete coursework from home. Can students contribute to your digital humanities project or online course from their phone?

Often, we discuss accessibility compliance as meeting standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). J.J. Pionke described how important it is to acknowledge that meeting these standards is just a starting point, and that we should move beyond compliance toward more universal accessibility.

For those of you interested in learning more about the library perspective on accessible resources, consider checking out this list of e-resources testing results and standardized licence language in the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

Jonathan Singer, who created and maintains the Social Work Podcast, talked through his responses to accessibility requests, first creating podcasts to meet the needs of students with long drives to campus and then crowdsourcing transcripts for his podcasts upon receiving e-mailed requests. He also discussed the professionalism that transcripts lent his podcast; transcripts are expected of high-quality podcast providers.

Christine and Krissy weren’t the only Northwestern representatives at the event. Jim Stachowiak, Director of Assistive Technology and Assistant Director of AccessibleNU, discussed the particular challenges that PDFs pose to students with disabilities.

Although there are many accessibility-checking tools available, including the Universal Design Online content Inspection Tool (UDOIT), the human element of accessibility cannot be neglected. For example, software might be able to flag images without alt-text, but it can’t assess the quality of the description, unable to determine the context surrounding the image. For more on alt-text, check out our May 2017 webinar, Spotlight on Accessibility – Alternative Text.

During development of an online course, we are often asked, “Why should I go through this extra effort? How many students will this really help?” In addition to responding, “More than you think!” this response by Kate Sonka–“Don’t you want your students to be successful?”–could make a difference.

Conclusion

Overall, the conference was an opportunity to connect with a broad community of digital accessibility experts, working in a wide variety of fields. It was a great opportunity to exchange knowledge with web developers, doctoral students, librarians, and more. As more and more educational content becomes digitized, it is all the more critical that accessibility be a central part of the conversation.

 

If you’re interested in reviewing the discussion yourself, please check out the archived video of the panels.



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