‘Digital Accessibility’ or ‘Accessibility’ is a heated topic at the moment. Public sector bodies like us have the obligation by law to comply with Accessibility Regulations 2018 with a series of deadlines to meet. It is also an important part of our University Vision 2030 and Strategy 2025 where it says we should ‘respect and celebrate diversity and equal opportunity through an inclusive culture’.
But what does ‘Digital Accessibility’ mean and how does it apply to us in teaching and learning?
Before we look into that, let’s first find out what is ‘Accessibility’.
What is ‘Accessibility’?
Accessibility is about removing disability.
What is disability? Disability happens when there’s a barrier between people and their environment. It is commonly seen as a condition or a problem of the body or mind (impairment) that requires medical treatment. However, UK Equality Act 2010 recognised and acknowledged that disability, or barriers, can be caused not just by the impairment(s) but also by the way society is organised. This is defined in the social model of disability. According to the social model of disability, these barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets, or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things . For many people with impairment(s), the main barrier they experience does not stem directly from their bodies, but rather from their unwelcome reception in the world, in terms of how physical structures, institutional norms, and social attitudes exclude and/or denigrate them. 
This is where ‘Accessibility’ plays a part.
Accessibility is about finding and dismantling these social barriers, creating an environment that adapts to the needs, ideally as early as possible in the process. For example: accessible toilets, lifts, wheelchair ramps, braille on printed materials, even simple things like left-handed scissors etc. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent, autonomous and equal in society.
Accessibility supports and celebrates inclusion; it should be ok to be different, with impairment(s) or not. It is about ending exclusion and oppression so that people with impairment(s) are not required to change who they are in order to be entitled to the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
What is ‘Digital Accessibility’?
Digital accessibility is ‘Accessibility’ in digital media.
It is about making digital products like websites, mobile apps and other digital tools and technologies accessible to everyone. It is the ability for all users to have an equal opportunity to access and benefit from the same services or digital products, regardless of any impairment(s) they may have.
So, what is ‘Digital Accessibility’ in Teaching and Learning?
Digital accessibility in teaching and learning is ‘Accessibility’ in digital teaching and learning products – the courses’ contents and activities, and the service we offer to our students.
It means all students are given access to all teaching materials and the ability to participate in all teaching and learning activities, regardless of any impairment(s) they may have.
Taking digital accessibility on board in teaching and learning is very much about understanding that, if we’re creating inaccessible learning materials or activities, then effectively we’re responsible for creating barriers. These kinds of resources often lack structure, written and designed with a set of assumptions. It is about having the realisation when we create resources that fail to accommodate a certain group of students, effectively we have disabled them.
What ‘Digital Accessibility’ is not.
Now we know what digital accessibility is and its role in teaching and learning, let’s have a look at what it is not.
Misconception 1: digital accessibility is just about disability.
It’s not. Digital accessibility in essence is about inclusiveness and universality.
It’s about having good design and making resources that can be used by as many people as possible.
I believe every student, in fact, everyone was once in one or more of the situations below; maybe even more than once:
- In different cultural environments e.g. in a foreign country
- In a noisy environment or a public place where you can’t hear properly
- Using many different devices e.g. desktop computers, mobile phones, tablets etc
- Are temporarily or situationally impaired e.g. from injuries or with caring responsibilities
- Have age-related cognitive decline.
In these situations, everyone can benefit from the flexibility brought by materials and activities designed with digital accessibility in mind. In fact, many of us use elements of them without particularly thinking about them. We might think that only disabled students use assistive technology, but, in fact, we are walking around with a kind of assistive device in our pockets all the time – our mobile phones. Have we not used and enjoyed its built-in accessibility functions like voice over, browser enlarge, colour changes, speech recognition, screen reader etc ever? When digital accessibility is put in place, everyone benefits including ourselves; inevitably everyone grows old and will eventually be impaired by age. So, essentially, we are just helping ourselves.
This video from the Web Accessibility Initiative shows a variety of ways that content produced to be accessible is beneficial for all users regardless of their ability or disability.
Misconception 2: digital accessibility is not my problem.
Yes, it is. Digital accessibility is everyone’s responsibility.
We’re all in this together. As mentioned before, it is required by law and it is the University’s Vision. More importantly, as an educational institution, we are responsible. We are the teachers and role models, what you do makes a difference. We can change and have the responsibility to lead the change in society’s perceptions and practice. We can create a society that accepts and celebrates that everyone is unique, recognises and encourages the strength and talents of people with impairment(s).
The whole purpose of providing education is to give the young the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society; to impact and change lives. Digital accessibility helps us fulfil that purpose. It provides us with an opportunity for education to reach everyone who needs it, in a way that can benefit as many people as possible. It gives us an opportunity to improve our teaching and learning materials to fulfil their purpose of existence. It is our responsibility to make that change.
Misconception 3: digital accessibility is hard.
No, it’s very easy. All you need is empathy and consideration.
What you do at the start makes it easier at the end. Follow these good practices when designing and adding your content. When you start doing it, you will realise that most of them are really just common sense! Information should be consistent and easy to find, easy to read, and easy to navigate; documents need good structure and colour contrast; images and graphs are described well; videos have captions or transcriptions etc, just to name a few. It is all a matter of common sense. eLearning Tools website has all the support and information you need to create this kind of accessible content.
Remember that when you design and create your content with digital accessibility in mind, you will not only create better learning materials, you will have content that can be more easily reused and repurposed – saving a lot of time in the future!
- Codeacademy: What is Digital Accessibility
- Equality and Human Rights Commission: UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
- Social model of disability
- Rethinking disability: the social model of disability and chronic disease