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August 25, 2022

The Importance of Digital Accessibility in Education

Inclusion Equals Equity

Access. This is something we all want. Like access to the latest tv series, the hippest club in town, or a seat at that one must-see sporting event. Gaining access to these types of things requires some personal time and money, but it is doable and takes little effort. When access becomes a roadblock to a disabled child’s ability to learn in school, accessibility takes on a heavier tone.

For many, considering the educational needs of a school-age child comes down to pencil, paper, a sack lunch, and a laptop or tablet in their backpack. But that is not the case for the 7 million students with disabilities in the U.S. who are heading back to school this fall. Providing them with every opportunity to learn is not just required, it’s the right thing to do. And Bitwise Industries is interested in showing you how.

Take One Step Back

Making digital content accessible to young learners with disabilities is one of the major technology issues of our time. Understanding what accessibility is and why it is important is critical in understanding the significance of these efforts to provide greater accessibility opportunities to those students. With the growth of online learning spurred on by the pandemic, the increased need for access to digital materials in K-12 classrooms magnified a myriad of accessibility issues. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice enforcement of accessibility issues has made it clear that academic institutions should make every effort to ensure that all students have full access to learning. So where do we start? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that was passed in 1990–amended to protect even more categories in 2008–and prohibits all forms of discrimination based on individuals with disabilities. According to the ADA’s website

The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life–to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services.

The ADA’s definition of disability states that a disabled person is someone who has a mental or physical impairment that prevents participation in major life activities (review the full list here). Education is considered one of the most crucial major life activities an individual can experience for their personal fulfillment and growth. Not being able to accomplish this because of a digital roadblock is devastating. That’s why there are so many efforts to improve their accessibility and provide educational equity to all. 

Part of those efforts include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which is a law that guarantees students with disabilities the right to free public education and appropriate special education services. IDEA provides free appropriate public education to eligible students–ages 3 to 21–with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children (as of school year 2018-19) eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. Regardless of an individual’s life situation, the opportunity to learn should not be diminished or discouraged because of a disability. Access is available. 

The ‘C’ Word: Compliance

When it comes to accessibility compliance, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 AA is the most-used standard worldwide. There are three levels of WCAG compliance; A, AA, and AAA. Each level includes guidelines used to measure how accessible a website is for all users, and provides developers with the resources needed to create websites that maintain a minimal, acceptable, or optimal level of accessibility compliance.

According to the WCAG abstract of their complete guidelines:

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 covers a wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible. Following these guidelines will make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including accommodations for blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these, and some accommodation for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations; but will not address every user need for people with these disabilities. These guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Following these guidelines will also often make Web content more usable to users in general. [See Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview for an introduction and links to WCAG technical and educational material.]

Turning Frustration into Hope

Meeting the compliance goals that provide an inclusive experience for students is a goal we should all strive to meet and exceed. Today’s modern digital campus should be accessible to all students. It will require strong management systems within education technology that helps students with disabilities succeed. In the end, this access will benefit students–disabled and abled–for generations to come. How? Providing digital access at an early stage of their development will allow and equip each individual to find more use of accessible resources in the marketplace. Increased usability means more users are able to have positive experiences throughout sites and apps throughout their lifetime. It’s more than a one-time learning experience. The current community of disabled adults has $175 billion in purchasing power. Improving their lives through digital equity provides them with access to the same things they can enjoy along with everyone else.

Providing access is more than future profit. It’s an opportunity to solidify your brand within your potential market and show them all how you embrace this diversity to become a driver toward digital innovation that includes everyone your organization serves. Is there any way to inspire brand loyalty better than being the first in line to hold the door open to all who desire to be a part of everything you have to offer?

Start the Conversation

The importance of providing access and equity to all people should be the goal of all organizations; not just educational institutions. And it starts with a simple conversation to ask what your current accessibility policies are right now throughout each of your digital platforms. From your website to apps, PDFs to social media campaigns, how well are you doing? If you’re not sure, or you already know you’re lagging, it’s okay. Acknowledging the shortcoming is the first step to providing a better experience to ALL of your customers, clients, and constituents. Now it’s time to do something to create a more inclusive experience for everyone who uses your brand.

If you are looking for a catalyst to get you started, review these easy checklists: The ADA Toolkit and the WCAG Compliance Checklist. They will provide insight into the steps to consider and the opportunities you have to create a more inviting digital footprint. If you’re ready to dive in a bit deeper, reach out to Bitwise Industries. We will have a few ideas to help move you toward accessibility, compliance, and inclusion.

Let Us Help

Bitwise Industries specializes in custom software development, Salesforce implementation and administration, and Contact Center-as-a-Service. Our technology professionals have deep experience applying cutting-edge technology solutions to help entities of all sizes navigate the technology landscape to find solutions to optimize their operations.

This post was written by Jeff Rickels, Technical Writer for Bitwise Industries. When he’s not writing, he’s wondering how many Lowe’s could Rob Lowe rob if Rob Lowe could rob Lowe’s. (I saw that on a t-shirt and it made me laugh.)

If you’re interested in uncovering the tech possibilities available to your organization or want to find more ways to increase your ROI with technology, click this link to schedule some time with one of our experts.