Kyle Shachmut, the manager of digital accessibility at Harvard, spoke at the college about making digital content accessible to students with disabilities on Oct. 30. The event was co-organized by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Information Technology, Communications, Accessibility Services and the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Director of Academic Technology Services Jaya Kannan introduced the event by describing the current state of the college’s accessibility services. While the 2010 census showed that 11 percent of college-aged people disclosed that they had a disability, about 25 percent of Amherst students are registered with the Office of Accessibility Services.
“One way to explain that is the conversation about inclusivity and diversity proceeds,” Kannan said. “A student [can come in] and say they need these kinds of services. I think there’s a kind of trusting environment that’s allowing students to ask for these services and ask for it openly.”
In developing new accessibility initiatives, Kannan listed four principles that the college considers: clear intent, diversity, a knowledge base and community engagement. Despite these goals, Kannan pointed to the barriers that technology poses in making them attainable.
“With the advent of technology it has been great for connectivity … but at the same time it’s also a monster that has created too many barriers. So when we are talking about equity and inclusivity, [technology] is actually rampant with inequity,” she said.
Web pages, for example, have been non-compliant with federal standards, prompting the college to remodel its websites and ultimately decrease the number of non-compliances by 93 percent. Increasing accessibility in Moodle and creating more accessible educational material have also been priorities within the past year.
“There’s a lot more work to do moving forward,” Kannan acknowledged. She then welcomed Shachmut to the stage to discuss what accessible technology looks like across higher education institutions and offer possible solutions that Amherst could adopt.
Shachmut started by defining accessibility. According to him, accessibility encompasses “making sure that everybody has access to digital content at the same time.” To achieve this definition, he added that colleges should ensure that technology is perceivable to users, operable, understandable and robust. He also emphasized the need for all of these components rather than a select few.
“We can’t say, ‘Well, don’t worry about being operable,’ to someone with a disability, to tell them that they can receive content but not interact with it,” Shachmut said.
To show the importance of these features, Shachmut ran a simulation of how a disabled person experiences accessibility features like screen readers, which provide an audio component to a website’s text. He also demonstrated how screen readers can describe a website’s images for those who are visually impaired.
“Things that are important to know about alternative text are that we’re trying to describe the importance of what’s happening in the image,” Shachmut said. “If something is a link — if you had the Amherst logo at the top of the website — you’re not going to be describing the logo but you’re gonna say, ‘This is a homelink [and] tell me where it’s going.’”
Context also matters, Shachmut said. An image should be described differently depending on its use. Rather than describing the “intricate details” of what an image looks like, content creators should write alternative text that speaks more about its function, Shachmut said.
Shachmut then asked the audience to participate in an activity in which one partner creates and communicates alternative text descriptions to a partner whose eyes are closed.
“I want us to think about how we can use those technologies to make our communities more inclusive and welcoming,” he said after the activity ended.
He described a number of examples of everyday actions that individuals can take to increase accessibility. Professors and students who use learning management systems such as Moodle can add alternative text on the platform. In Microsoft Office documents, users can add alternative text by right-clicking an image and formatting the picture. Twitter allows image descriptions, but Facebook does not. Shachmut said he makes sure to include short descriptions of any photos he uploads to social networks that do not have dedicated space for alternative text.
Users can also add image descriptions when sending images or graphics over email. One time, Shachmut received an attachment of an event flyer with no text other than the words “Can’t wait to see you there!”
“I was like, ‘Can’t wait to see you where, can’t wait to see you when?’” Shachmut said.
“If we’re producing content for a broad, diverse community, we want to think about the message we portray through the medium for communicating that,” he added.
Those involved in teaching and learning can incorporate accessibility by providing transcripts for videos and scripts of speaking events.
“If I’ve thought about what I’m going to say and deliver it in that way … I can be more precise in language,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘The graph went from here to there,’ I can say, ‘The graph went from 20 to 30.’”
Annotation tools and document headings are additional ways to increase accessibility. “If we create heading structure and alternative text, then the next time we reuse it, it’ll be that much better,” he said. “There are many ways we can integrate little tidbits of accessibility into our day to day.”
He asked the audience to think about ways they can enhance accessibility in their personal lives and ended the talk by emphasizing the importance of “the critical lens we get to bring to the technology that we use or whatever medium we might engage in.”
“We can really think about how we are taking the medium and using it to make the world a better place, whether it’s people having greater access to something in the sense of the whole world being able to use something, or something like inclusivity for students and people in the world with disabilities,” he said. “I encourage you — as we all are authors of content, whether it be the home webpage for our university or the email to the office — to ask yourself: how can we enhance the inclusivity of the messages we are sending with technology?”