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Making Accessibility Accessible: Countering The “That’s Too Much Work” Narrative

By: Ann Gagné, PhD, Educational Developer (UDL)

Young student using smartphone while doing homework in park

So here we are in Fall 2021 semester, filled with many unknowns and an increased number of to-dos, coming from all directions: departmentally, institutionally, personally. While instructors were preparing for the fall, we have heard much discussion on social media and within higher education institutions about accessibility and its impact on student engagement; instructors and departments seem at odds about what a more accessible higher education future looks like. This conversation inevitably raises the question of how accessibility is a perceived impact on instructor workload.

Instructors are always trying to find things to drop from their increasing list of to-dos. Sadly, accessibility is too often mentioned as something that is “nice to have” instead of something we “absolutely must have.” Instead of recognizing accessibility considerations for documents and audio/ video resources as essential aspects of their job, some instructors continue to perceive creating alt-texts on images and captions/transcripts on videos for example, as extra work that does not fit into their busy schedules.

This post is to reinforce that you cannot use “that’s too much work” argument about accessibility. Full stop. So what can those who work to support instructors through faculty development, curriculum design, educational technology, or departmental roles do when they receive push back about work load and accessibility? How can we make accessibility accessible?

Here are 4 practical framing strategies to consider

Make accessibility foundational and not an add-on

Creating accessible documents should be part of foundational training and support provided by the institution and not an add-on. This is a great way to show the value and need for accessibility in pedagogy and in our educational spaces. If instructors have to fix something later, that likely will feel like more work, whereas if accessibility is already part of the procedure to prepare and share a document, that work is already built into the initial process.

Give support and guidance in plain language

When we tell instructors that accessibility is easy, as a way to make them feel comfortable with creating accessible documents, we are doing them and the students who will use those documents and resources a disservice. Accessibility is not easy because learner variability is always a consideration, and there could always be someone in your course or department who needs documents in alternative formats. Instead, give support on how to make documents accessible in plain language. Often work seen as technical brings anxieties around getting it right. In my own work and practice, I have created a 1.5 page handout that goes step-by-step on how to create headers, where the alt-text option is found in Word, selecting PowerPoint designs, and creating tagged pdfs. The more we provide information in plain language, and in an easy-to-follow format, the greater the chances that instructors will be open to making access a part of their daily practice. Also, it is great modelling of practice!

Give instructors the opportunity to practice with a meaningful example

Instructors need to see what document accessibility means in practice. Showing examples on the screen is one thing, but having instructors work through creating accessible documents with a document that is meaningful to them, a syllabus for example, will allow them to see the steps in practice. A colleague at the Centre for Teaching and Learning did this in one of her workshops, and I was hooked. It is such a great way to engage folks, using a conventional document well-known to all faculty. Another example is having instructors edit the automatic captions created on platforms like Zoom or MS Stream for accuracy. Workshop time dedicated to these elements can be invaluable to creating accessible and useable resources.

Do not make legislation be the primary reason to do this

Finally, do not make “the law says” a primary reason why this needs to be considered. Yes, definitely the law (ADA for US, AODA for the province in Canada where I work) does say many things. However, the law should not be the only reason why instructors consider the accessibility of their documents; ethics and care should be the reason. Legislation and fear of lawsuits are often used by predatory tech companies offering quick accessibility fixes that don’t work (like overlays). If instructors approach accessible document creation with a more foundational and ethical frame, rather than fear, it will go a long way to support even more accessible pedagogical practices!

In this series, Ann Gagne offers practical advice for how to best support faculty in making their course materials and pedagogy accessible to learners.

Ann Gagné is an Educational Developer with a focus on Universal Design for Learning at the University of Toronto-Mississauga and a sessional instructor at George Brown College. She is passionate about inclusive and ethical pedagogical strategies and works with instructors to ensure pedagogical and curricular accessibility.

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