Accessible design is better design for all

There is a growing level of attention, particularly in academic settings, to issues of accessibility. I don't pretend to be an expert on Sections 504 and 508, but I do know that accessibility issues extend far beyond those covered by those sections of the United States law referred to as The Rehabilitation Act. I recently tweeted the following:

Number of your learners who would benefit from more accessible design > Number of your learners who have disabilities > Number of your learners who have reported having disabilities.

First, we all benefit from accessible design in direct and indirect ways. Often times something that is designed to accommodate certain users turns out to be simply better design. An example of this, albeit, not from learning, is the ​vegetable peeler. A larger grip was added to peelers originally to help those with arthritis and other conditions that made gripping the implement difficult, but over time it became apparent that it is a more comfortable and easier-to-use design for anyone.

But let's go back to the learning space now. I got to thinking about various forms of accessibility while I was reading  Michelle Pacansky-Brock's book, How to Humanize Your Online Class with VoiceThread​, which is a wonderful resource. She walks you through her experiences using VoiceThread (a cloud-based application that facilitates creating, sharing, and collaborating). And one of the first passages that struck me was her admission that she had "learned how inaccessible my text-based learning environments have been in the past." She was referring at that point to dyslexic students, but she could easily have been talking about a number of other types of learners, who do not fall under the provisions of the current accessibility mandates.

I have suggested in the past that we need to consider if our learning is accessible in the broadest scope. Is it "easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, or use"? as the definition of the word accessible proscribes. I would suggest that hour-long lectures are not accessible if the learner is taking evening classes because she is a single parent who also is a care-taker of an elderly parent who also works full-time and has to fit her studies in between all of these competing responsibilities. This learner would likely love to be able to sit for 60 consecutive minutes and do anything.

Or how about the learner who is studying a language other than their native tongue. Imagine having to not only process the content of the subject but continuously translate and then have to respond to all assignments in writing in English. There are so many additional cognitive hurdles in there. What if they could, for some assignments, communicate their knowledge through other means. Or what about ... the examples could go on and on.

But it goes both ways. What about how learners receive feedback? Another highlight for me from the book was the following research finding.
"This student perspective was also validated in the 2007 research of Ice, Curtis, Philips, & Wells which demonstrated that asynchronous audio feedback in an online class was more effective than text-based feedback for the following reasons: when online students could hear the nuance in their instructor’s voice they understood and could apply the feedback more effectively, felt more involved in a learning community, noted an increase in learning retention, and shared an increased sense that their instructor cared about them."
Finally, aside from the issues of accessibility, there is a very practical reason for reconsidering the read-reflect-respond-reply model that is so hard-wired into many courses. We really need to think about what happens to the learners out there in the real world. When was the last time you heard about someone going on a job interview and being asked to write an essay with citations in correct APA style? Never, maybe. Obviously there are situations where the technology still limits the forms of communication possible, but if you have options, consider the following:
"I observed an increasing number of employers using Skype to conduct first job round interviews in an effort to save money. The ability to present oneself on a webcam and speak clearly through web-based audio and video communications, synchronous and asynchronous, is becoming an increasingly important skill for success in the 21st century not only for interviewing but also for the ability to work effectively from home, which represents 13.4 million U.S. employees in 2012 according to the 2012 Census Bureau Report."
How are you preparing your learners for the next step in their learning or career path? Let me know.

(Photo by Krista McPhee on Unsplash)