THE BLOG

Making Online and e-Learning Accessible to All

05/26/2015 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2016

American teens spend an average of seven hours a day connected to their electronic devices (computers, phones, etc.). So it you want to get into the hearts and minds of young people today, you have to where they are: online. That's why websites, emails and e-learning tools need to be accessible to all, including people with hearing and vision impairments who use screen readers or who need captions on videos or other assistive technologies.

The web is a great place for communications, social connections, gaming and even learning. Yes - online learning. This is a relatively new field that is extremely promising for differentiated learners - i.e. gifted learners, people with learning disabilities, and everyone else in between. I'm a big fan of the Khan Academy, Ted.org and MOOCs.

Soon we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act. We also have other laws that govern the accessibility of communications, including websites. Religious organizations are exempt from those laws, and many other institutions simply ignore them. But we are better as a community when we all our institutions practice inclusion both in person and online. To do that you need to follow the standards of http://www.section508.gov. The standards are going to be updated soon as experts from around the world are creating even better universal guidelines. And you don't have to go it alone. Indeed, groups like ours, RespectAbility, offer free webinars and tools on this, or you can hire experts.

One in five Americans has a disability - that is a total of 60 million people. It is of utmost importance to companies, organizations and individuals to have websites and social media that is fully accessible to screen reader software, has captions in all its videos and takes into account other disabilities. When a website is accessible people who are vision, mobility or hearing impaired, they can participate and contribute equally within our community.

Today, education is moving on a strong course to online learning. The effectiveness of this method of learning will be maximized only at the point when people with disabilities are able to fully use all of their features.

As a means to determine the 'right way', I consulted with some experts. We have a wonderful partnership with Accessibility Partners, a premier leader in web accessibility. They have a skilled staff of engineers with a multitude of various disabilities, including those are blind, low vision, deaf, hard of earing, have mobility impairments, and more.

Accessibility Partners provided me with some more suggestions and insight as how screen readers access web content and documents. The biggest suggestion that any developer should consider is alternative text. For example, if you put a photo into a text document or website, you need to save it with a label that describes it by utilizing the alt text tag. That way when used properly, when someone who is vision-impaired get to it, a user of a screen reader can audibly hear it say "photo of car", for example. But if you don't label it, they can't tell if it is a photo of a car or a dog, or a chart, or something else. They will miss intended information.

Another big issue is navigation. If links aren't properly labeled, repetitive, or if there isn't a skip navigation feature, a user might get frustrated and go elsewhere. If the index isn't up front, they may never find what you wanted them to read. Accessibility Partners reminded me of other items, like the tabindex, which allows for items to be tabbed to and activated using the keyboard without using the mouse. Another strong suggestion was to label buttons and form fields with their name and role, and always use native HTML elements. But that's just for static pages. For more interactive sites, there's Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA). ARIA creates ways to make web content and web applications developed in JavaScript more accessible to people with disabilities. It wasn't complicated, just a couple more lines of code here and there, and ARIA enables accessible navigation landmarks, JavaScript widgets, form hints and error messages, live content updates, and more.

The entire community has a stake in ensuring that people with vision or hearing issues can access learning, just like anyone else. Accessibility means more than just ramps into buildings. It means that every person with a disability can have full access, appreciation, and the ability to contribute to our community - whether it is online or in person.