By Elizabeth Barker, NWEA
Nothing signals that the end of the carefree summer days are drawing nigh like opening your child’s back to school supply list. In my case, we’ll need to stock up on the all the usual suspects — crayons, rulers, glue — to transition our son into 4th grade. But around the country some parents might notice some familiar items are missing, namely No. 2 pencils and paper. Welcome to the Digital Age, when more and more schools are transitioning away from old-school loose-leaf paper and pencil lead in favor of screen-time learning.
This digital curriculum switch comes with many benefits. Cool gadgets like iPads and Chromeboxes are loaded with accessibility features with the potential to maximize learning for all students, from those performing well above benchmarks to those with severest of needs.
Still, while accessibility might seem like it’s just an app away for young learners, these devices are only as accessible as the content they deliver to students.
The roots of digital accessibility date back to 1998, when Section 508 was passed to update Section 504 Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requiring federal agencies to make information that is provided electronically accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, today many schools and districts are unfamiliar with requirements of section 508 and therefore do not purchase curriculum or assessments that are accessible for students using assistive technology or for students needing to utilize the accessible features on their own devices.
So, whether your school or district is transitioning to fully digital or simply using COWS (computer on wheels), it’s a good time for educators to create their own back-to-school accessibility checklist. Put your vendor list to the test with these accessibility questions:
Question 1 – Are your products Section 508 or WCAG 2.0/2.1 compliant? Asking this question gives you important information, for one depending on the answer you will know whether or not the vendor understands accessibility. But don’t stop with a “yes” or “no” answer. They may not be fully compliant, but they may be working towards compliance and that’s a great sign. If your vendor says “yes,” ask them to explain in what ways they are compliant and what features. In addition, ask them to provide a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). A VPAT highlights all of the accessible areas and components of an online product or platform. If they say “no,” ask if they have plans to become 508 compliant and if so, when. This one question could help you decide between two vendors.
Question 2 – Do you have keyboard navigation?
Even though section 508 and WCAG covers keyboard navigation, the vendor representative may not be familiar with that terminology. Therefore, asking these next questions, 2-5 of the checklist, will become important. Keyboard navigation removes barriers and allows for flexibility. In addition, proper keyboard navigation has the potential to allow navigation with a switch, refreshable braille, screen readers, magnification devices and much more.
Question 3 – Does your product have alternative text for pictures?…. graphs, charts and diagrams? If not, ask how the vendor might provide alternatives. Describing images in words or with sound is vital for some students to access materials their sighted peers have access to. Typically, there is a tremendous amount of information, not to mention learning to gather information from images, charts and graphs is an important concept.
Question 4 – Are video’s closed-captioned or do they provide sign language? Media that includes video plays a large role in providing information to students. (A quick show of hands for those of us who remember old movie projectors in our classrooms?) Okay, perhaps I’m showing my age, but videos have and will continue to provide educational information to students. Ensuring all students have access to that information is important.
Question 5 – Have curriculum and assessment providers conducted usability studies? If so, with students? With adults? And did any of the students or adults use assistive technology? Usability studies are important, because the vendor could have the best intention and build something to 508 standards and still not have an accessible product. Usability studies help to make a product more intuitive, more user friendly and when done with accessibility in mind – accessible.
Now that your accessibility checklist is complete there’s only one thing left to do — enjoy those last few days of summer, and, perhaps, wish a fond farewell to those No. 2 pencils.
Elizabeth Barker brings years of personal and academic experience to her position at NWEA. She began her career in education as a middle school and elementary special education teacher, specifically in emotional behavior in Michigan. She continued her teaching career while she earned a master’s degree in special education from the University of Colorado, Denver. Shortly after, Elizabeth went onto pursue her doctoral degree from the University of Oregon with an emphasis on growth trajectory for students with learning disabilities in mathematics and reading comprehension. She has served as a lead in her school districts by teaching courses on how to collect and use data to inform instruction.