The ancient Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu is credited with saying “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I think of those words often when I reflect on the needs of students with disabilities and the best ways to serve them. The work may feel overwhelming at times, but I also know that even the smallest action can be the beginning of lasting and meaningful change.
Nearly nine years ago, I started working at NWEA in our partner support department, answering phone calls from all our wonderful teachers and administrators (like you!). I truly loved that role and working for an organization with a mission I believed in: Partnering to help all kids learn®.
Part of that job was getting to know all the features and products we offer. As an advocate for people with disabilities and an assistive technology user myself, I could see some opportunities for growth. My manager was very supportive and encouraged me to share that information with our product managers. That was the first step in my journey.
What accessibility looks like
Accessibility can look like a lot of different things. For example, it could be ramps to enter a building, braille signage, or auditory crosswalk signals. When we talk about making websites, applications, and other digital spaces accessible for people with disabilities, however, the examples are not always easy to see.
Audio descriptions for videos are a great example of hidden accessibility. This feature provides an audio track along with a video that describes what is being shown for people who are visually impaired. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you turned it on.
Accessibility matters, but inaccessibility is ubiquitous
Consider Jasmine, a third-grader with a visual impairment. She’s always liked reading but needs large-print books. They are so big she’s not able to carry them home easily, though, and sometimes the books she wants aren’t available. One day, during a trip to the library with her family, the new librarian shows her how she can check out e-books using a tablet. In the library app, she is able to make the text and pictures as big as she needs, and there are so many books to choose from. Her world suddenly feels much bigger, and she can’t wait to check out her next e-book.
Digital accessibility is essential and has only become more so since so many of our daily tasks, like shopping, banking, and even socializing, have moved online due to COVID-19. Yet that access is not a guarantee for people with disabilities. Over the last three years, WebAIM has completed an annual analysis—they call it an “accessibility evaluation”—of the home pages of one million of the most popular websites using their automated testing tool. They have found that 97% of the sites failed on one or more of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) criteria. In other words, nearly all websites have at least one issue with accessibility.
Take part in Global Accessibility Awareness Day
To bring focus to digital accessibility and the one billion people who have disabilities across the globe, web developer Joe Devon started Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). This year, Thursday, May 20, 2021, is the 10th annual celebration of GAAD.
If you want to participate in GAAD there are over a hundred different events you can take part in, or you can even create your own. Below are some other ideas for educators and students to explore digital accessibility together on May 20 and beyond.
- Read about Universal Design for Learning and see how you can incorporate the principles into your classroom. Is there an opportunity to rethink how you’ve structured your Google Classroom or the tools you ask students to use?
- Explore the accessibility settings on your computer or tablet. There are options to change colors, have text read aloud, recognize sounds, and much more. Simply familiarizing yourself with what’s on your device can give you a better understanding of the needs of students with disabilities.
- Watch a show with audio description. For example, The Magic School Bus has audio description that can be turned on in the audio and captions settings of many media players.
- For geometry students, watch “Accessibility features in the Desmos graphing calculator” and then try some of the options out with the online calculator.
Our commitment to accessibility
One of the first accessibility projects I worked on at NWEA was making the MAP® Growth™ 2–12 assessments accessible for keyboard navigation, magnification, and screen reader users. After that, we added embedded universal tools for all students, like zoom, highlighter, answer eliminator, notepad, and line reader. Then text-to-speech was added in both English and Spanish assessments.
At NWEA, we believe that accessibility is a journey, not a destination. We recognize that accessibility is a continual process that we need to consider in everything we do. We use universal design principles and the WCAG to provide us with the right directions, and we listen to our users to confirm whether we’re on the right track or not.
Nine years ago, I could never have imagined where that first step I took would lead. I have moved from the support department to the development team at NWEA and currently lead a group of cross-departmental staff who all have a passion for accessibility. We consult with others in the organization to provide training, recommendations, and guidance on accessibility. On a long journey, there is nothing better than having others join you.