Global Accessibility Awareness Day: The Need for an Ecosystems Approach to Accessibility in Education

On the occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I am excited about the many online and face to face events that will mark this important step toward ensuring a more accessible and inclusive environment for those of us who have special needs.  I will be presenting a session on the use of photography as a tool for disability advocacy as part of Inclusive Design 24, a free 24-Hour event sponsored by The Paciello Group and Adobe Systems. Photography has long been a passion of mine, and I welcome any opportunity to share how I use it as an educator and advocate to challenge perceptions of ability/disability. I will also be sharing resources and insights during a #GAADILN  twitter chat sponsored by the Inclusive Learning Network of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

I love Global Accessibility Awareness Day (or GAAD as I will refer to it from now on) but if there is one thing that I would change is the name of the event. To me it should be Global Accessibility Action Day. With many of these types of events the focus is on raising awareness of the needs of people of disabilities, as if we have not been asking for our rights for decades now (the ADA is more than two decades old, you know). GAAD gets it right by focusing on action. Organizations such as Shaw Trust Accessibility Services, Deque Systems and Accessibility Partners are offering a number of free services such as document audits, app accessibility consultations and website user testing. Many others are providing webinars and live presentations that aim at more than raising awareness by providing practical information on how to make documents, website and apps more accessible. A review of the full list of events available on the GAAD website makes it clear that this event is about more than just awareness, it is about taking the next step for accessibility.

In my own field of education, I see much progress being made but I also see a need for a more ecosystems approach to inclusion and accessibility. When I think of ecology I think about systems that have a number of parts working together as one, with the sum of these parts being greater than they are on their own.  When it comes to students with disabilities, a number of technologies are now available as built-in options on the mobile devices many of them own. While I am a witness to the impact these technologies can have on the lives of students with disabilities (having been one who used these technologies myself) I believe their impact is limited by their use in isolation rather than as part of a more comprehensive system.

What I would like to see is a change in thinking to focus on a systems approach that addresses what I see as the three As of accessibility:

  • Accessibility Features: companies such as Apple  now include a comprehensive toolkit for accessibility that is built into the core of the operating system.  This means that when I take my new Mac, iPhone or Apple Watch out of the box it will be ready for me to use without the need to purchase or install additional software. Not only that but as my vision gets worse I know that I will be able to take my device out of the box and set it up independently, without having to wait for someone with better eyesight to help me.  These built-in accessibility features have been life-changing for me. Without them I’m not sure I would have been able to pursue higher education and complete my master’s and doctoral studies. I also would not be able to do my photography that brings so much joy and beauty into my life. Unfortunately, not all educators know about even the most basic of these features that are built into the technology their districts have spent so much money to purchase. I am often surprised when I do presentations around the country (and sometimes in other parts of the world) by how little awareness there is among educators of the potential they hold literally  in their hands to change a student’s life. We need to do better in this area of professional development to allow these tools to have an even greater impact on education for all students, not just students with disabilities but any student who struggles with the curriculum and needs additional support.
  • Accessibile Apps:  the built-in accessibility features provide a great baseline for addressing the needs of people with disabilities, but they can’t do it all. There is just too much diversity and variability for that to be the case: not just in the traits and needs of users, but in the settings and tasks where technology is used. For this reason, it is often necessary to extend the capabilities of the built-in accessibility features by installing apps that provide greater customization options. A great example is the Voice Dream Reader app. While iOS has a robust text to speech feature with word highlighting that now supports a high quality Alex voice, Voice Dream Reader allows for even greater customization. The user can adjust the color of both the word and sentence highlighting, something which cannot be done with the built-in Speak Selection feature of iOS.  For those who are blind and use the VoiceOver screen reader, the developer has done an excellent job of labeling all of the app’s controls.   A companion Voice Dream Writer app even provides a special mode for VoiceOver users to make it easier for them to enter and edit text, showing an strong commitment to usability for all users on the part of this developer. Other examples of developers who are doing exemplary work when it comes to creating accessible apps include AssistiveWare ( developers of Proloquo2Go, Proloquo4Text and Pictello, all apps with excellent support for VoiceOver and Switch Control) and Red Jumper  (developers of the popular Book Creator app). The latter added an Accessibility option for images and other objects to help students and educators create accessible content with the app. Unfortunately, these developers are still the exception rather than the rule. With too many apps, swiping through with VoiceOver results in hearing “button” over and over with no indication of what the button actually does. Worse, many of the buttons for key actions sometimes can’t even be selected. Without attention to accessibility from app developers, the accessibility features can’t work to their full potential. No matter how good the voice built into VoiceOver is (and Alex is pretty good) it does me no good if I can’t select the buttons within an app and determine what they do.
  • Accessible Content: the same problems that exist with apps that are inacessible comes into play with much of the content that is available online for students. Too many videos lack captions (or include only automatic computer generated captions that contain too many errors to be useful), and too many ebooks include images that are not labeled with accessibility descriptions  for those who can’t see them. Without these accessibility descriptions, which can be easily added in authoring tools such as iBooks Author, a blind student taking a science class or an economics class will not be able to access the diagrams and other graphics that are so often used in these fields. Again, adding in features such as accessibility descriptions allows the built-in accessibility feature, in this case VoiceOver, to work to its full potential. There are many wonderful examples of books that include accessibility, as well as resources to help educators develop their own accessible books with easy to learn and use tools such as iBooks Author. These include Creating Accessible iBooks Textbooks with iBooks Author from the National Center for Accessible Media and Inclusive Design for iBooks Author by my friend and fellow Apple Distinguished Educator Greg Alchin. For a great example of an engaging and accessible book, one need not look any further than Reach for the Stars, a  multi-touch book from SAS that makes astronomy come alive not only for blind students but anyone who wants to learn about our universe using all of their senses.

As shown by the following diagram, when the three components are present (robust accessibility features, accessible apps, and accessible content) we get a synergy that results in an even greater impact than each tool or feature can have on its own: this is the sweet spot for accessibility in education.

Three overlapping circles labeled as Accessibility Features, Apps and Accessible Content, with the spot where they converged labeled as Sweet Spot.

To ensure accessibility in education we all must work together to realize the advantages of an accessibility ecosystem: companies such as Apple and others who are building accessibility into their products, app developers and content authors. As AssistiveWare’s David Niemeijer so nicely stated in his own GAAD post when we  take accessibility into account we really are designing for everyone because we all one day get old and require the ability to customize the text size and other features of our devices to account for our aging vision and hands.

Furthermore, to quote from a recent Apple commercial, “inclusion promotes innovation.” Thinking about accessibility from the start, in line with the principles of universal design, requires us to be even more creative as we seek to solve problems of access that may someday result in usability improvements for everyone.

A great example of that is the recently released Apple Watch.  Since it has a small screen that makes it difficult to enter text, much of the interaction with the Apple Watch takes place through the Siri personal assistant. The voice recognition technology that makes Siri possible actually had its origins in the disability community, but now it  can be used to account for the constraints of a smart watch and its small screen.

The Apple Watch is also a  great example of an ecosystems approach to accessibility and  its benefits. This device includes many of the same accessibility features that are available on the iPhone and the iPad, which are the same features I can use on my Mac. What this means is that if I get a new Apple Watch I will already know how to use these features, with a few modifications to account for the smaller screen. Similarly, a blind student who has been using his or her iPhone can easily transfer the use of many VoiceOver gestures to the trackpad built into Mac laptops or the Magic Trackpad used on iMacs.

Why is an ecosystems approach like this so important? Ultimately it is because I as a person with a disability need accessibility 24/7, 365 days a year, most likely for the rest of my life (unless a cure is found for my condition). My need for accessibility doesn’t stop when I get up from my desk at home and walk out the door. I need accessibility as I order a ride from a ride sharing service from my smart phone (which has Zoom and VoiceOver built in) , as I take and share the photos that bring so much joy to my life and capture the beauty I encounter in the places I am lucky to visit (through accessible apps such as Instagram) and as I continue to develop my skills and knowledge base by reading ebooks about my field I download from the iBookstore and read with iBooks (accessible content) . For someone like me, accessibility is needed across a number of settings and situations if I am to be independent and continue to make a valuable contribution to society. Only an ecosystems approach can provide the kind of comprehensive accessibility I and many others who have disabilities need to live a fulfilling life.

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