Whitepaper: US Department of Justice and Department of Education Warn Educational Institutions That ‘Accessibility Cannot Be an Afterthought’
The letter covers accessibility challenges, legal framework, enforcement actions, and guidance and regulations, as well as highlights valuable resources for obtaining guidance. It also sends a strong message that accessibility is a priority at the federal level and that the government will use its authority to ensure institutions are meeting accessibility standards.
“Online accessibility for people with disabilities cannot be an afterthought.”
We’ve created a whitepaper that highlights the importance of digital accessibility, along with each of the sections of the letter and what they mean for higher education today.
Read the full whitepaper
July: Celebrating Disability Pride Month
July 26 marks the anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in a variety of areas, including in institutions of higher education that receive federal financial assistance.
One in four people across all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and religions have a disability, according to the CDC, and many more will have a disability at some time in their life, whether temporarily or permanently. Disability Pride Month is a time to celebrate and honor the diverse experiences and contributions of those living with a disability, as well as to promote acceptance, inclusivity and advocacy for disability rights.
A Brief History of Disability Pride Month
The ADA was signed into law in 1990, but the first Disability Pride celebration didn’t take place until 2015.
“Disability is a part of the rich tapestry of human diversity, and something that nearly all of us will experience at some point in our lives,” said Jackie Dilworth, communications director at The Arc of the United States, a disability rights organization. “It’s also a significant identity that defines how we experience the world. Yet people with disabilities have been marginalized and misunderstood for generations.”
A flag was designed in 2019, but the initial design with zigzagging bright colorful lines caused symptoms for those who have certain types of disabilities. The redesigned flag, which was created in 2021, has diagonal stripes of the same colors, but softer and in another order (because the original flag didn’t accommodate those with red-green colorblindness) set against a black background.
The charcoal gray background is in memory of those who have lost their lives to ableism, violence, negligence, suicide, illness, and more. Each stripe represents a different type of disability:
- Red: Physical disabilities, such as mobility impairments, loss of limbs, or chronic pain
- Gold: Neurodivergence, such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia
- White: Invisible and undiagnosed disabilities
- Blue: Psychiatric disabilities, including mental illness, PTSD, anxiety, and depression
- Green: Sensory disabilities such as deafness, blindness, lack of smell or taste, audio processing disorders, and other sensory disabilities
Honoring and Supporting People With Disabilities
From Thomas Edison, who lost his hearing, to physicist Steven Hawking, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to athletes, scientists, inventors, and more, people with disabilities make significant contributions to their fields. “The disability community is full of problem solvers, creative thinkers and innovators,” Easterseals said on its website.
Here are some thoughtful ways people and companies can foster an environment of inclusivity for people with disabilities:
Create a culture of inclusion and accessibility, both physically and digitally. This includes providing accommodations like wheelchair ramps, closed captions, and making sure content is compatible with assistive devices like screen readers.
Support disability rights advocacy. There are many worthy advocacy groups and organizations that need financial and other resources to help advance the rights and wellbeing of people with disabilities. Consider volunteering or donating funds.
Promote an inclusive workplace by hiring people with disabilities. Companies should actively work to create diverse workplaces by providing equal opportunities for those with disabilities. Not only is it the law, but it’s the right thing to do.
Educate and raise awareness. Learn and teach others about various types of disabilities to break down stereotypes and promote inclusion and understanding.
There are many resources available, but here are a few places to get started on your educational journey*:
- Easterseals: For more than 100 years, this organization has worked to empower people with disabilities to enhance quality of life and expand access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities.
- The Arc: The Arc is the largest national community-based organization advocating for and with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and serving them and their families.
- The National Disability Rights Network: The Network operates in Washington, DC on behalf of the Protection and Advocacy Systems (P&As) and Client Assistance Programs (CAPs), the nation’s largest providers of legal advocacy services for people with disabilities.
*YuJa is not affiliated with any of the advocacy groups listed above and is listing them for informational purposes only.
How Gradient Text Makes Content More Accessible to All
Oftentimes, when people are reading, they lose information between lines and have to go back to re-read text. Many have to repeat the process more than once, making reading inefficient – especially in the format of black-on-white texts in large blocks.
Gradient readers can help people process information. Studies have shown that while using this type of technology, people read further down a page and are more likely to read to the end than when text was presented in a traditional format.
“Meanwhile, people who aren’t especially skilled at intake of text in the traditional format are systematically penalized. People who don’t read well in this one particular way tend to fall behind scholastically early in life. They might be told they’re not as bright as other people, or at least come to assume it. They might even be (incorrectly) diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, or a learning disability, or overlooked as academically mediocre,” The Atlantic said in the article “A Better Way to Read.”
What is a Gradient Reader and How Can it Help Students?
A gradient reader provides text in color that shifts between lines to help guide a reader’s eyes quickly and accurately to the next line.
“Meanwhile, people who aren’t especially skilled at intake of text in the traditional format are systematically penalized. People who don’t read well in this one particular way tend to fall behind scholastically early in life.”
The shift in colors helps:
- Aid in visual tracking
- Pull the readers’ eyes between lines
- Improve speed of reading
- Decrease screen fatigue
- Enhance focus and attention
Gradient Readers are shown to help with reading comprehension for all, but it can be especially helpful for those with certain disabilities, such as ADHD, dyslexia, or vision impairments.
Examples of Gradient Text
With text in a gradient, the key is that each line begins with a different color than the line below, which helps move the readers’ eyes from line to line with less of a chance of skipping to the second or third word and missing that information.
This example has shorter lines of text, which provides less processing time, but still helps the reader maintain their place, keep focus, and read efficiently.
The Gradient Reader is just one of many accessibility features in YuJa’s suite of ed-tech tools. Learn more about YuJa Panorama Digital Accessibility Platform.
Quadrants of Digital Accessibility in Higher Education
Importance of Digital Accessibility
“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
Digital accessibility is critical to ensuring those with disabilities can navigate and use materials presented online in a way that suits their needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an evolution in how institutions view digital accessibility, especially when instructors had to quickly convert learning materials to online resources for students. “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect,” said Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
Not only is digital accessibility a civil right, it’s required by law. Hundreds of universities have faced lawsuits or have had complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Justice for failure to meet laws related to digital barriers. Regardless, creating an accessible learning environment is the right thing to do.
Quadrants of Digital Accessibility in Higher Education
Accessibility in higher education can be complex. Finding a tool that serves as a complete solution to accessibility can help guide your institution through the journey. Any potential solution must span an institution’s entire digital footprint, which can be broken down into quadrants:
Your Institution’s LMS Accessibility Module: A fully-integrated digital accessibility solution for all learning management systems content, including uploaded media, WYSIWYG web-based content, real-time scores, trends, remediation suggestions, math equations and other LMS content.
- Website and Intranet Accessibility Module: This consists of a website accessibility tool for all public intranet web content. It is integrated into all organization web portals and websites to provide customizable accessibility views for users.
- Library and Reserve Desk Accessibility Module: This quadrant is focused on providing accessibility to the campuswide distribution of images, newspapers, books, maps, audio, and video content in an accessible manner.
- Student Self-Service Accessibility Tools: This refers to all web app, mobile, and self-service tools for students to make their own content and web experiences more accessible based on their individual needs.
A Higher-Ed Digital Accessibility Solution
Despite institutions understanding the case for digital accessibility, some fall short in implementing user-friendly solutions that make accessibility a priority from the start. Deploying an accessibility compliance suite like the YuJa Panorama Accessibility Platform can provide peace of mind that your institution is putting the right emphasis on digital accessibility for students with varied learning needs.
The Legacy of Judy Heumann, “The Mother of Disability Rights”
As a child in 1949 living in Brooklyn, New York, Heumann contracted polio and began using a wheelchair for mobility. At the age of five, she was deemed a “fire hazard,” and denied entry to school, according to her website. As a child, her mother advocated for her and she was eventually allowed into school. Though this was among the first discriminatory acts against her, it was not the last.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world, but really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
“It was still a radical claim that disabled people didn’t see themselves, or their conditions, as something to be pitied. Or that they insisted what most held them back wasn’t their health condition but society’s exclusion — maybe attitudes that they were less capable to do a job, go to college or find romance; or a physical barrier, like a sidewalk without a curb cut,” said NPR’s Joseph Shapiro in an article about Heumann.
Shapiro shared that he wrote an article about disability rights in 1987 in which Heumann said “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example,” she said. “It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.” The article was not published because the idea she relayed seemed so “unexpected and strange.”
Starting a Revolution
In 1970, after Heumann passed her oral and written teaching exams, but she ultimately failed the medical exam where she was again deemed a “fire hazard.” This time, examiners said she would not be able to evacuate children or herself during an emergency. Heumann sued the board of education to allow her to become a teacher. The New York Times headline read “Woman in Wheel Chair Sues to Become Teacher” and the article noted she would be the city’s first teacher in a wheelchair. Her lawyers said the case was the first such civil rights suit ever filed in a federal court.
She was instrumental in the development and passage of Section 504, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which “have been advancing the inclusion of disabled people in the US and around the world and fighting to end discrimination against all those with disabilities.”
“Section 504 became a model for the ADA, which would extend the principles of non-discrimination to all public accommodations, employment, transportation, communications and access to state and local government programs,” NPR said. That means if you’ve ever used an elevator in a subway station or busy public area, if you used the curb cuts to more easily get on a sidewalk, or if you’ve used the accessible restrooms in a public space, you’ve benefited from the ADA. Closed captions, transcripts, and website accessibility, are all other examples of services for disabled people that benefit everyone.
When Richard Nixon vetoed the 1972 Rehabilitation act, Heumann helped lead a protest that shut down traffic in Manhattan. She also launched a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco to get Section 504 of the revived Rehabilitation Act enforced. “(The sit-in) has often been described as the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in American history,” The New York Times reported.
More Advocacy Efforts
Heumann never stopped at securing rights for herself, but continued her work for others. Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability (WID), which was among the first global disability rights organizations led by people with disabilities. The institute is “dedicated to designing, building, and supporting whole community solutions by removing barriers to include people with disabilities.”
Heumann served the Clinton Administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education from 1993 to 2001. From 2002 to 2006, she was the World Bank’s first Adviser on Disability and Development.
She was appointed by President Barack Obama as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the U.S. Department of State, a position she held from 2010-2017. She also was the Director for the Department on Disability Services and responsible for the Developmental Disability Administration and the Rehabilitation Services Administration.
The American Civil Liberties Union said she traveled to countries on every continent to help change the way people perceive those with disabilities and to help remove barriers they face in their everyday lives. Between 2000 and 2015, 181 countries passed disability civil rights modeled after the ADA, according to NPR.
Documentary and Book Release
Just before the pandemic, Heumann was featured in a documentary released at the 2020 Sundance film festival. “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” was about Heumann and others who attended a summer camp (Camp Janed) for children with disabilities in the Catskills. Heumann later was a counselor at the camp. Camp Janed became “the beginnings of a revolution.”
“What I want is for the book and the film — and other books and films — to allow people to recognize the real absence of representation of disability in media, broadly speaking”
Heumann also has a memoir, “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.” Heumann told The Cut, “What I want is for the book and the film — and other books and films — to allow people to recognize the real absence of representation of disability in media, broadly speaking. Black disabled people, Latino disabled people, Asian disabled people, indigenous disabled people, disabled people with visible and invisible disabilities — they’re pretty absent. And yet, in the United States, it’s more than 20 percent of our population. Disability is something that all families experience, temporarily or permanently.”
“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” she wrote, “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
Learn more about Judy Heumann on her website.
Photos courtesy of Judithheumann.com
Creating Screen-Reader Friendly Resources
Screen readers work by reading aloud text content presented on a screen, and they may be used in combination with other assistive technologies like a screen magnifier. Most screen readers are software-based, and offer a number of features. They are controlled via keyboard commands, using a standard or Braille keyboard and can identify the cursor’s position, read text, locate particular words or text in a set color, and perform other key tasks. Screen readers can also work with Braille display technology.
When users are using a screen reader to understand a website, they need an array of information, including what language is being used; however, they may not need as much information when they’re reading documents.
Making Documents Accessible to Screen Readers
While video content is often quite accessible to users, either through carefully describing what is on the screen or integrating audio descriptions along with a video file, text-based files may pose additional challenges for users with vision impairments.
Learning how to create screen reader-friendly documents can enable you to improve accessibility for users. The tips here apply to a variety of document types, but are most relevant for the types of documents content owners are likely to provide to users, including .PDF, .DOCX, and .PPT files.
“Including headings and subheadings in your content is important, as 67.5% of screen reader users jump through headings as their primary way to navigate content.”
- Create a logical underlying structure. This typically relies upon tags. These tags, just like tags in a website, help the screen reader software to understand the correct order of information in a document.
- Provide alternate text (or alt text) information about image and graphics. For instance, if you have presented an image of a red car, driving down a highway alongside the beach, the alternate text should enable the user to listen to the screen reader to understand that there is a picture on the document and the content of that picture. Longer alternate text descriptions may be needed for some graphics.
- Incorporate navigation aids, such as a table of contents or bookmarks to improve the ease of navigation for all users.
- Avoid the use of unusual or specific fonts. These can confuse screen readers, leading to difficulty for users.
- Keep paragraphs short. The most common way to read content is by paragraph, so keeping paragraphs short enables users to go back and re-read content on a page more easily.
- Incorporate headings and subheadings. Screen readers can jump to headings, which is a primary way users navigate pages (67.5%), according to WEB Aim’s Screen Reader User Survey.
Provide Accessible Digital Documents for All Users
In classrooms and offices, many people rely upon documents in both paper and digital formats, whether these are meeting minutes, supports for multimedia presentations, or other course materials. To meet the needs of students who use screen readers, consider providing content prior to the meeting or providing the document in a digital form. The YuJa Enterprise Video Platform enables:
- The ability to upload a variety of file types directly into a media collection, which makes documents available to every user.
- Math equation support for screen readers. Math equations can be read aloud to users, including equations embedded in documents and included in images.
- The ability for content owners to upload documents directly associated with a particular media file. These documents can be viewed while viewing the media or can be downloaded for a later or separate review.
Listed are some of the most effective ways institutions can supplement media-based learning and information sharing while providing users who need screen readers and other assistive technologies with an improved understanding of content.
Increasing Accessibility with Audio Descriptions
Audio descriptions are an additional audio track within a video that describes what is on the screen that’s not spoken. Designed to meet the needs of visually impaired users, these helpful narratives are sometimes called descriptive video.
Audio description tracks fill in information that may be missing in the standard audio track, but is displayed to viewers visually. This information may include information about actions being taken, characters, scene changes, and more.
Audio Description Helps Paint a Comprehensive Picture for the Visually Impaired
Imagine a video for a history course on 17th century Holland; the screen shows the image of a painting by Vermeer. The standard audio track may offer information relating to the painting, but doesn’t provide a student who cannot see the screen any information about exactly what is on the screen.
In this case, the audio track might say, “An aged oil painting of a young woman with a blue and light yellow scarf over her hair contrasts against a dark background. The woman’s head is tilted slightly as she looks directly at the viewer over her left shoulder. The young woman wears a pearl earring that nearly touches her white collar under a yellow garment. Heavy folds of the garment suggest coarse fabric unusual for the time period.”
Now, the user who cannot see the painting has an idea or point of reference for additional content in the video.
The American Council of the Blind and has numerous audio description examples on their Audio Description Project page, which helps “promote and advocate for the use of high-quality Audio Description in television, movies, performing arts, museums, educational materials and other venues where the presentation of visual media is critical to the understanding and appreciation of the content.”
Using Audio Descriptions in Your Video Content
Audio description tracks enable the user to toggle between two audio streams, including the standard audio and the additional audio description.
There are several different ways to make use of audio descriptions in video content.
- Video creators can opt to include audio descriptions in their main soundtrack. While this can be challenging, it saves any need for an additional track. For instance, an instructor might say, “the screen shows a PowerPoint slide detailing…”.
- Audio description tracks can simply be uploaded as a secondary track. This track can include only the essential audio to fill in information the student requires.
- An audio description track that includes the full lecture content can also be produced and made available as an alternate track.
Adding Audio Descriptions to Videos with the YuJa Video Platform
YuJa’s Video Platform fully complies with accessibility requirements related to audio descriptions. YuJa’s HTML5 Media Player provides built-in capabilities to add separate, user-enabled Audio Description tags to a video.
YuJa continues to improve accessibility features in the HTML5 Media Player to enhance the learning experience for all students.