3 Ways You Can Add Digital Accessibility to Your Classroom Today

Many of the digital learning tools adopted over the past several years are cementing themselves into everyday learning. While this has opened new avenues of engagement for many students, those with cognitive or physical disabilities have not received nearly enough attention when it comes to their digital access needs.

As it stands, some digital learning tools and communications are not effectively accessible by default. Fortunately, there are numerous ways that teachers like you can make their classroom’s digital content more inclusive for all learners.

Here are three ways you can begin making your digital learning content more accessible today:

Review Contrast

Contrast refers to the visible differentiation between any two graphic elements, including between text and a background. Contrast can be impacted by several factors, including text size, font choice, font color, and background color.

Without proper contrast, users with low vision or a vision impairment (such as color blindness) may struggle to fully engage with the on-screen content. To prevent this, content creators should strive for a suitably high level of contrast (4.5:1 or higher) across all digital text and graphics.

Here are a few keys to remember when working to maximize your content’s contrast:

  • Use a large font size – 18 point or larger text contributes to a higher contrast ratio. Text as small as 14 point may be used if it is bold.
  • Utilize an effective color combo – Because color deficiencies are diverse, no single color combo can be prescribed as “accessible” in all situations. Instead, content creators should focus on maximizing luminance between any two elements and providing user-controlled tools for adjusting foreground and background colors.
  • Use standardized fonts – Thin or decorative fonts can contribute to low contrast. Always use fonts with a proven track record of digital readability, including Tahoma, Calibri, Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, and Times New Roman.

There are several tools you can use to analyze contrast in your existing digital content, including this free color check tool and this standalone app.

You can also read more about contrast through the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) online accessibility guideline documentation.

Add Meaningful Link Text

As with alt text, link text provides users with additional information relating to a link’s purpose. This allows them to make an informed decision about following that link without the need for additional context. In particular, link text can make web pages more navigable for individuals with certain movement impairments, cognitive impairments, or visual impairments.

Effective link text can be implemented in several ways. The first is through adding a preceding text description that makes the link’s purpose fully clear. Consider the following example:

“Learn more about registering to vote at Illinois’ State Board of Election website.”

In this example, the text description preceding the link adequately describes what the user can expect to find if they follow the link.

There are also more ways to effectively implement link text, including through embedding clarifying information. Learn more about these methods, as well as other link text considerations, on the W3C’s online accessibility guideline documentation.

Utilize Accessibility Tools and Evaluation Methods

While implementing digital accessibility is an imperative, it can be challenging for a teacher alone to accomplish alongside their other responsibilities. As such, both individuals and institutions are encouraged to make use of proven accessibility evaluation tools whenever possible.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) maintains a database of over 100 accessibility evaluation tools, which can be used to assess everything from color contrast to ADA compliance. While the LTC does not endorse any of these tools, this collection is a great place to start if you want to better understand how digital accessibility both looks and operates.

For more information on digital accessibility auditing (including W3C’s evaluation methodology), visit their Assessment hub.

Taking the Next Step Toward Digital Accessibility

Everyone in education has a role to play when it comes to making digital learning content accessible. With the right knowledge and skills, you can ensure that your digital learning environment is inclusive and that all of your students, regardless of disability, have the opportunity to fully engage online.

The Learning Technology Center (LTC) is here to support you toward those goals through our free resources and knowledgeable statewide team. Contact us to learn more about how your local RETC can help your classroom bolster its digital accessibility. You can also discover three more ways to make your digital content more accessible on our Blog.

The LTC also strives to keep K-12 school districts up-to-date on the latest state and federal accessibility guidance – including Illinois’ new online learning tool accessibility mandate. Legal briefs and analysis of these standards can be found on our Accessibility hub.

Illinois’ New Digital Accessibility Law – What Education Leaders Need to Know about HB 26

Effective August 1, 2022, Public Act 102-0238 (also known as HB 26) requires 3rd party curriculum content to achieve Level AA accessibility conformity, as outlined in the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C WCAG).

In conjunction with existing ADA and Section 504 requirements, this new guidance will ensure that all students, staff members, and parents can fully utilize a school’s online media, regardless of physical or cognitive disability.

While solutions will vary from district to district, many will need to take steps over the course of this year to bring their school’s online media into full compliance. This may include assessing common problem areas and making plans to both remedy and maintain those non-compliant elements over the long term.

Before making upgrade plans, district leaders should strive to fully understand what’s being asked of them under the state’s new accessibility guidelines. These following questions should clear up confusion and help you pave a path towards compliance this year.

What is the W3C WCAG?

Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of standards designed to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. Specifically, these guidelines outline both how an accessible website should appear and function, starting with the basic navigation and continuing upward through perceivable website content (text, images, sounds, etc.).

The WCAG are structured around the following core principles, which inform their practical recommendations. According to the guidelines, all web content should be:

  • Perceivable – Web content should be accessible to a variety of senses, including vision, hearing, and touch.
  • Operable – All navigation elements should be robustly operable, including without the use of a mouse and without the need for specific timing.
  • Understandable – Web content and operations must be easily understood without the need for outside assistance or guidance.
  • Robust – Users must be able to access content with or without the use of assistive technology.

What are WCAG’s Level AA Criteria?

Compliance with the WCAG is based on “success criteria,” which are divided into three tiers – A, AA, AAA. Each tier includes successively more rigorous standards for creating and maintaining robustly accessible web content.

Under HB 26, Illinois K-12 schools are required to achieve Level AA conformance, which includes the following criteria:

  • Contrast ratio of at least 5:1
  • More than one option for locating a webpage
  • Audio descriptions for pre-recorded content
  • Live text in lieu of text on images
  • 200% zoom functionality without the loss of content or function.

This is not an exhaustive list of Level AA criteria. A full list of Level AA criteria (including requisite Level A criteria) can be found on the W3C’s website.

How Can I Make my Web Content More Accessible?

Starting as soon as today, there are several actionable steps school districts can take to bring their web content closer to WCAG Level AA conformance. For example, an assessment team can begin reviewing all of the district’s blogs, social media, digital documents, and other web media to look for these common problem areas:

  • Missing text descriptions – In order for an image to be perceivable by a screen reading device, it must include alternate text or an “alt tag.” These encoded captions describe an image’s appearance or functionality, ensuring that it can be interpreted by someone who is blind.
  • Lack of alternative navigation – Often, important web content can only be accessed via navigation with a mouse. This can create barriers to access for those using an alternative interface devices and users with disabilities affecting fine motor control.
  • Improper color combinations – Web content must use text/background color combinations that provide adequate contrast between differing elements. Otherwise, important content may be difficult or impossible to interpret for users with low vision or colorblindness.
  • Missing or incomplete video captions – All video content shared by a school should include complete, accurate captions. Otherwise, the audio component of that video content may become inaccessible to users who are deaf, hard of hearing, or utilize a text-to-speech device. 

Working Together to Making Learning Accessible to All

As Illinois schools work to make their digital classrooms more inclusive, the Learning Technology Center (LTC) is ready to support administrators and teachers alike.

Administrators and education leaders can learn more about HB 26 over on our new K-12 digital accessibility hub. There, you’ll find links to a variety of free resources – including a sample accessibility policy template and a WCAG 2.0 quick reference guide.

Teachers can also make an impact on their classroom’s digital accessibility right now. Our recent blog offers three actionable tips for making images, videos, and text easier for all students to engage with.

3 Tips for Making Digital Learning More Accessible

Whether it occurs in or out of the classroom, digital learning has opened new opportunities for students to engage with content and communicate with teachers. Just like traditional learning, though, digital content is not always accessible to all learners, and students with physical and cognitive disabilities may need alternate means of engagement to fully participate.

There are a few steps you can take today to make the content you provide to students online more perceivable, operable, and robustly understandable for all learners. The following steps are a great starting point and can be easily incorporated into your lesson planning process.

Bonus: The following tips can also help your classroom’s online learning practices conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. These guidelines provide a wide range of recommendations for making online content more accessible, making them a great resource for educators interested in supporting their new methods with expert-backed best practices.

Add Alt Text

While visual graphics are common in many kinds of educational material, they are not readily perceivable to students utilizing screen readers and speech input software.

To make digital images visible to these types of alternative engagement devices, teachers should utilize alt texts (also known as an “alt tag”). Alt text is a set of written information that is embedded in an image’s data and describes either its aesthetic or functional qualities.

A grey cat seated on a blanket

For example, the above photo appears on a webpage beside a set of text describing different cat fur colors. Because this photo only serves to visually supplement that information, a short description of the image’s content will suffice.

“A grey cat seated on a blanket”

ltcillinois.org home

By comparison, the above image serves a functional purpose on a website. When clicked on, it leads users back to the website’s homepage. As such, its alt text should effectively communicate this function, rather than its visual appearance.

“ltcillinois.org home”

For more information on how to implement alt text, check out the W3C’s Web Accessibility Tutorial on alt text usage.

Utilize Closed Captioning and Transcripts

Closed captions are another proven method for making audio-based video content accessible to viewers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. These synchronized subtitles 

can be added to pre-recorded videos using the video editing program of your choice, such as Adobe Premiere Pro, or added on streaming platforms, such as YouTube

YouTube’s speech recognition software even allows for auto-captioning, which teachers can edit as needed to create quick, effective captions (Note: auto-captions by themselves do not provide adequate accessibility unless that have been properly checked for accuracy).

While implementing closed captions may take some practice, you will find that they can be seamlessly integrated into your video post-production process. This WC3 checklist can help you understand both the skills and tools you’ll need to make a habit out of closed captioning.

Follow Text Best Practices

Text is one of the most common problem areas when it comes to online accessibility. Since text often communicates essential information, you should always check your text formatting to ensure it is accessible to as many users as possible.

Here are just a few recommendations for keeping your text legible in a variety of digital formats:

  • Fonts – always use a font that provides full readability in a variety of sizes and contexts. Tahoma, Calibri, Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, and Times New Roman are preferred, while stylized fonts should be avoided.
  • Color – always choose a font color that maximizes visibility and contrast. In almost all cases, black text on a white background is best.
  • Bold and Italics – Avoid using bolding and italics to emphasize a particular word or words. Most screen readers do not announce these text styles. Semantic markups should be used in their place.
  • Justification – In most circumstances, text should be left-justified by default. Full justification should be avoided and center justification should be used sparingly on no more than one line of text at a time.

Working Together to Make Learning Accessible

Making online learning accessible doesn’t need to be an intimidating challenge. With the right planning and knowledge, you can create an inclusive online learning environment that provides learners with multiple means of engaging with curricular content.

The Learning Technology Center (LTC) is committed to helping Illinois K-12 educators create robustly accessible content for both their physical and digital classrooms. Learn more about our latest resources – including tutorials, trainings, and auditing tools – over on our Accessibility hub.

The LTC also strives to keep K-12 school districts up-to-date on the latest state and federal accessibility guidance – including Illinois’ new online learning tool accessibility mandate. Legal briefs for these standards and requirements can also be found on our Accessibility hub.

Ensuring equity and access for all students with WCAG-compliant Newsela

On September 2, 2021, Illinois signed a first-of-its-kind bill (HB 26 or “the WCAG bill”) requiring all online education tools used in Illinois classrooms to comply with World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This new legislation is critical step toward increasing equity and accessibility for all students, staff, and parents – especially for those who are often left behind due to physical or cognitive disabilities.

With the need to upgrade school websites and other digital communications on the horizon, districts need to start making plans for how they’ll achieve compliance with Illinois’ new legislative guidance. This webinar will focus on best practices for reaching that goal and maintaining compliance in the future, including through a handy checklist that can be used to assess a variety of digital learning tools. Over the course of this 1-hour session, we’ll also take a peak at a few resources from Newsela that can foster student literacy and help districts establish versatile accessibility and equity standards in the near term.

Illinois educators who attend live can earn 1.0 PD credit.

Supporting Equity and Access with Technology

As technology plays a more essential role in today’s learning process, equity and access must remain front of mind. Otherwise, we as educators run the risk of expanding the digital divide and putting at-risk students in an even more precarious situation in the years to come. The good news is – we can take steps to increase equity and access in our classrooms and in our districts, starting today.

This 1-hour panel will help lay the foundations for more equitable edtech policies and procedures, starting at an individual level. During the course of this panel, LTC staff members will collaborate with participants as we strive to answer the essential question, “How can I ensure that every student’s access to learning is equitably supported with technology?” Participants will also have the chance to learn a few practical strategies for fostering equitable access in their own classroom, including for both in-person and remote learners.

Illinois educators who attend live can earn 1.0 PD Credit.