A roundup of news articles, journal articles, essays, opinion pieces, and other items of interest about accessibility and universal design for learning.
News and Opinion
First and foremost, national accessibility legislation is an act of human rights and inclusion. Nobody wants to live in isolation or feel forgotten by society. Through my research on employment trends, I found that a large majority of people with disabilities have a strong desire to work and pay taxes. Unfortunately, these individuals still make up a disproportionate number of people working in jobs below their skill level, a trend called mal-employment.
A poll commissioned by CIBC in 2017 found only half of Canadians with a disability are employed.
Canada, it is time for a paradigm shift.
There is a strong business case for the Accessible Canada Act; it is a shrewd move for the Canadian economy. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, making Canadian businesses architecturally, physically, technologically and attitudinally accessible will significantly help their bottom line. After making reasonable accommodations, business owners will also find that they can recruit from a new pool of highly skilled workers.
Recently, I attended a conference presentation ostensibly about accessible online learning, where I watched a man we’ll call Steve fumble over gadgets at the podium. After a few assurances that we would get started right away, folks, a woman’s face appeared on a large, projected screen. Catherine (not her real name) was introduced by Steve and began talking. The trouble was that nobody could understand what she was saying.
Catherine’s voice was a loud, jarring hum of electronic crinkles, like a jammed Skype call. It was impossible to understand her, not because of her speech impairment, but because the presentation was inaccessible. She was the epicenter of a technical disaster and there was no transcript to support the audience. Even so, we got the message from Steve’s quip: “What I love about Catherine is that she’s a real go-getter!” Catherine, a disabled woman, completed an online degree program. She was an inspiration. But what was she saying? Something about discussion boards, maybe. This went on for 10 minutes. Astonishingly, at the end, people clapped.
As online learning becomes the norm across Canada, faulty conversations about making online learning accessible are cropping up in higher education conferences. These conversations fall short when they fail to uphold standards of inclusivity that are at the heart of basic, proactive Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies – that is, when they do not include gestures of access such as transcripts, live captioning, or American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation. Or, when they present disabled people in stereotypical ways. In this case, Catherine was served up as a “supercrip” – a term commonly used in disability studies to describe someone who is celebrated for overcoming impairment by performing like a “normal” person.
Would you want to be a learner in your classroom? That’s not a trick question—think about it. Perhaps some of the activities and lessons wouldn’t resonate if you were sitting behind a desk listening to them yourself. This may be especially true in classrooms where material is presented in a one-size-fits-all format. After all, the more options students are given to complete assignments, the more likely it is they’ll find one that interests them.
Such an approach is nothing new. Many educators know it as the building blocks behind Universal Design for Learning, or UDL. Developed by CAST, UDL is comprised of three guiding principles that seek to increase engagement and accessibility: Providing learners with multiple means of engagement; representation; and action and expression.
The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) has introduced a series of original reports to keep people in education up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of digital learning. The first report covers accessibility and addresses both K-12 and higher education. The series is being produced by OLC’s Research Center for Digital Learning & Leadership. The initial report addresses four broad areas tied to accessibility:
- The national laws governing disability and access and how they apply to online courses.
- What legal cases exist to guide online course design and delivery in various educational settings.
- The issues that emerge regarding online course access that might be unique to higher ed or to K-12, and which ones might be shared.
- What support online course designers need to generate accessible courses for learners across the education life span (from K-12 to higher education).
Like many of her peers, Ann Wai-Yee Kwong struggled in statistics while working towards a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UC Berkeley. But because she is legally blind, she had an added challenge of not being able to see the diagrams and notes projected in the lecture hall or assigned for homework.
Tools like screen readers could ease this issue for Kwong, who is now a Ph.D. student at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. But a common problem prevented that: some faculty have been slow to catch up with technological advances, and many wait until students ask for accommodations rather than having accessible materials from the start.
“I think the onus is still placed on the student with a disability” to ensure they have learning materials that they can benefit and learn from, says Kwong. “You have to advocate for yourself.”
On the heels of one another, two tech titans recently announced higher-education partnerships that leverage transcription technology to make educational materials more accessible to a broader swath of learners.
On April 5, Microsoft announced a partnership with the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Via Microsoft Translator, a translation service, students in classes and lectures can get automated transcriptions on their mobile and desktop devices. Professors can also choose to show the transcriptions on a big screen behind them. The partnership’s primary aim is to support students who are deaf and hard of hearing. . . . Amazon followed with an announcement of its own on Monday. The e-commerce giant announced that Amazon Transcribe, a service that converts audio from speech to text is partnering with Echo360, a video-platform for higher education institutions, to provide automated captioning of lectures that will be displayed side-by-side along the video. Students will be able to download the transcripts and reference them later.
A Civil Rights Activist Filed Thousands of Disability Complaints. Now the Education Department Is Trying to Shut Her Down | The 74
Marcie Lipsitt used to enjoy checking the mail. But these days, not so much.Over the course of several years, the disability rights activist has filed thousands of federal civil rights complaints against school districts and universities across the country — all part of a personal crusade to make websites accessible for people with disabilities.
Lipsitt said state education departments, prestigious universities, and large school districts — even specialty schools geared toward students who are blind or deaf — often provide sprawling websites that fail to comply with federal accessibility laws. Filing civil rights complaints en masse, she found, was an efficient tool to improve web access for people with disabilities, including those who are blind or deaf or have fine motor impairments.
As a result of her complaints, her mailbox was routinely flooded with letters from the Education Department, and often, she was pleased with what she found inside.
Each month, the 58-year-old said, the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) would open as many as 150 new investigations based on her complaints. Simultaneously, she received as many as 100 letters a month notifying her that an institution had signed a resolution agreement to fix the problem.
But in 2018, things are looking bleak for Marcie Lipsitt.
For a moment, let’s put aside the debate over whether laptops are a distraction in the classroom.
Disregard the Twitter threads and op-eds alternately calling for a ban on such electronic devices or a ban on banning devices. Let’s instead recognize that the debate over whether laptops belong in the classroom — or even technology writ large — misses the fundamental issue.
The heart of the issue is not whether technology is a distraction in the classroom. It’s that different students learn differently. We should be discussing how to organize our teaching to engage diverse learning styles. And yes, some of those strategies involve the use of technology. There is a great need for professors to be both pedagogically trained to support learning differences in the classroom and to understand the changing landscape of learning accommodations.
As national-level conversations continue to take shape around supporting accessibility and sharing resources, community colleges must be included: the issues are too critical to us and to the populations we serve to not have our voices heard.
Most teachers will agree that student brains are as diverse as their fingerprints. Each student is compelled by different interests, aided by different strengths, and hindered by different struggles. Universal design for learning, or UDL, provides a framework for embracing the neurodiversity that exists in all our classrooms. It asks teachers to create flexible learning environments and practices to support a broad range of learners. It might seem like you have to be an expert to start employing UDL principles in the classroom—but in fact, you can start laying the groundwork as early as tomorrow.