In 2020, our travel around the world was halted, but our digital knowledge took flight. Our use of and access to technology exploded during the pandemic. The entire population had to think differently about how to learn, work, and engage with others outside of a typical structure. As a result, we’re experiencing a drastic shift from being consumers of content to creators of content. Educators, for example, are increasingly designing their own digital content and encouraging students to create in advanced ways. However, just because something is digital doesn’t mean it’s accessible.
Technological advances have also been a catalyst for the creation and development of Assistive Technology – products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for individuals with disabilities. Over the years, we have learned that the technology we have designed for individuals with disabilities is actually a benefit to people universally.
For example, how many of us utilize speech-to-text technology to send text messages, e-mail, or type a document? Accessibility features, like speech-to-text, were born out of a need to accommodate a disability and now benefit everyone by improving the user experience. Recognizing exclusion allows us to think differently about presenting media and information in clearer ways that make it more accessible and inclusive.
We can view digital accessibility through the lens of Universal Design for Learning, which often shows us that what we used to see as essential for a small subset of learners may actually benefit all learners. Including and learning from people with a range of perspectives empowers us to promote access and minimize barriers for the wide variety of learners in our classrooms. We must step away from preconceived notions of a “typical” student, and instead, look at people as unique, diverse individuals who have differing abilities at different times in their lives, based on their particular environment.
We are using technology in every aspect of our daily lives, including in education. There is much to learn about digital accessibility and it is okay that we are all still learning and growing in our understanding. But now is the time to leverage content creation, knowledge, and resources to meet all students’ needs. We invite you to grow your own awareness of digital accessibility and make small shifts in your practice that not only allow for greater access but encourage learner variability and promote inclusivity. We encourage you to advance student agency by teaching students about accessibility features and empowering them to personalize their learning experiences. As educators, if we model digital accessibility in our practice, we also equip our students with the knowledge and tools to become inclusive designers and create content that is more accessible to all.
This post is the first in an ongoing learning series in which we will share tips for educators on Designing Accessible Digital Content. Stay tuned as we highlight features that improve our ability to search, retrieve, and engage with digital content.