Are you overwhelmed with the tsunami of free tools unleashed on educators this past week? If so, you are not alone. I consider myself a techie, and I too feel overwhelmed. I’m glad to see some of my favorite tools provide free access for educators during this difficult time, but not everything that is free is also good, especially when it comes to accessibility.

At a time of crisis, I can’t expect you to add “accessibility professional” to the many hats you are already wearing. The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert to perform some basic vetting of tools to make sure only the better ones reach our learners. Also, we want to create some good habits that will not only address this immediate crisis but result in better learning opportunities for everyone going forward.

I encourage you to start with the tools that are familiar to most people in your setting. Typically, that will be a selection of products from the “big three” in consumer technology (Apple, Google and Microsoft) and popular learning management platforms such as Google Classroom, Canvas or Blackboard. These vendors, by virtue of their market reach and need to sell products to the federal government, have teams dedicated to making sure their products meet accessibility requirements. To assist with your decision making, I have compiled a list of the accessibility support pages for the major ed tech vendors.

For other products, there are three simple tests you can perform to decide if a tool or online service meets the lowest bar for accessibility:

  • Can the text be selected? If the content can’t be selected, then there is a good chance it will not be available to the text to speech technology many students with learning disabilities (or visual impairments) use to help them perceive and process the information. This is often the case with PDF documents that have been scanned incorrectly, with each page consisting of a single image rather than actual text.
  • Can the interface and content be navigated with just the keyboard? Not all learners will be using a mouse or touch screen to interact with their devices. Some learners may only be able to use the keyboard to navigate due to motor or vision challenges, or they may be using assistive technology that mimics the keyboard (such as switch access technology). The No Mouse Challenge is a simple way to determine if a website or online tool has been designed to work well with the keyboard, and it does not take a lot of time or knowledge of accessibility to perform. Press the Tab key a few times and as you do, ask yourself – do I know where I am? You should be able to track the keyboard focus through some kind of highlighting (usually a thick border around the item that has keyboard focus).
  • Is it captioned? Are the captions of good quality? If there is any video content, you should play through it to see if there are closed captions. Just remember, that not all captions are created equal. The automatic captions created by services like YouTube don’t count. While they continue to improve, at this point they are not accurate enough to provide equivalent access to someone who relies on captions for understanding. I recommend playing the first minute of the video, then picking a random point somewhere in the middle. The captions should include appropriate punctuation, and identify changes in speakers if multiple people are shown.

If a tool or service passes these three simple tests, it doesn’t mean that it is accessible, it just means that it clears the first hurdle of accessibility. At that point, you should be left with a smaller group of tools that you can examine in more detail using a rubric or a set of questions like the ones found in Is It Accessible? Question to Ask, from the AEM Center. 

Kudos to all of you who are fighting for kids and their right to access their education throughout this roller coaster of a time. 

I hope you get to recharge a little this weekend – we’ll be right back out there next week doing what we do best. See you on the front lines! 

(Note: This post solely reflects my own opinion as an accessibility professional and user of assistive technology – it does not reflect the opinions of my employer.)

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