While classrooms are best suited for everyday learning, as the coronavirus situation has shown us, there are circumstances that dictate learning take place at home or in a remote setting. This change in the learning environment presents a challenge for all students, but for those with disabilities, the hurdle may seem especially daunting.
School districts today find it difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the learning environment at home for students with disabilities and struggle to provide learning tools and technology to supplement remote learning. According to the Washington Post, “few districts have figured out how to extend this online learning and other critical services to the 7 million children with disabilities” in the United States. One way to help lessen the disruption to everyday learning is with edtech, but what should parents and teachers look for in determining the accessibility of the tools used to access online learning?
Our Accessibility Standards and Inclusive Technology team weighs in on what should be considered when evaluating today’s tools:
1. Check for accessibility options: Laptops, desktop computers and tablets from Microsoft®, Google®, and Apple® include many built-in accessibility features. While Windows®, MacOS® and Chromebooks™ provide tools like screen readers, read aloud and magnification, for example, it is also important to ensure the software and applications you use are accessible and work with the built-in accessibility tools.
2. Make sure the software and applications you choose are WCAG and/or Section 508 compliant. Learning management systems (LMSs) being used should adhere to these standards. A simple Google search of the learning platform’s name followed by “accessibility” should return results if the platform has made an effort to make itself accessible, noting a page dedicated to their features or stating their commitment. You can also investigate whether the software vendor has provided a VPAT™ (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template), which is a voluntary statement about their current level of compliance, including accessibility gaps.
3. Help navigate Assistive Technology (AT): Younger students who are just learning to use Assistive Technology (AT) such as screen readers may need some help from parents/guardians navigating the learning platforms, as they may not yet have learned how to navigate such complex material. Spending time with them to help them understand their AT, as well as the capability of the system, will help students access their school materials successfully.
4. Make use of convenient keyboard shortcuts: LMSs that are accessible may have custom keyboard shortcuts to access commands. Learning these commands, or at least knowing where to look them up, may help students more easily navigate content and decrease frustration.
5. Customizing LMS equipment for ease of use: Many LMSs offer user customization. If these features are available, students, teachers and parents/guardians should work together to customize the look and feel to optimize the student’s experience — for example, changing the background color of the platform, changing where the tools are visibly located or changing font size.
6. Free access to assistive technologies: For students who regularly use tools like JAWS® (Job Access With Speech), ZoomText® or Fusion®, but do not have access to them remotely, Freedom Scientific® is offering free access to these assistive technologies until June 30.
7. Check content for accessibility: One helpful tool is Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker (included in Office 365®) that allows users to check the accessibility of their documents. Content should conform with accessibility standards. If creating learning materials for your children or others, running an accessibility check will highlight potential problems that may make your content less usable for those with disabilities.
8. Make content manageable: Ensure content authors (e.g., teachers) are aware of the accessibility features in the programs they are using to create the content. For example, if using Microsoft products and/or Google apps, you can use heading styles to create sections in a document, making the assignment easier to navigate, or add document links to help students skip over content they don’t need.
9. Get the necessary training: School districts should provide training to parents/guardians on how to use the LMS that is being implemented. This will allow parents/guardians to be active participants with their students, and ensure that parents are prepared for school closures.