Section 508 and the Accessibility Matters to UNG Workshop

by Erin Williams

The higher education landscape has changed dramatically with the evolution of the digital world. As we encounter flipped class rooms, fully online courses, and hybrid courses, we also discover new opportunities for learning and challenges to equal access. Section 508 states that “electronic and information technology (EIT) must be equally accessible to people with and without disabilities.” It should be noted that the Board of Regents has determined that USG institutions fall within the scope of Section 508. The Access to Course Content: Guidelines on Captioning Audiovisuals provided on the Student Disability Services website does an excellent job of breaking down Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 and explained how it includes and applies to captioning audiovisuals such as DVDs and YouTube clips. The barriers created by showing an audiovisual without captions to an individual with a hearing impairment are pretty apparent. Other barriers to content can often be difficult to identify as we don’t always know the limitations of our audience or the wide reach of what we create. With the knowledge that Section 508 applies UNG, what do these barriers look like? What does compliance look like beyond the captioning of audiovisuals? And perhaps more importantly, what does “equally accessible” look like?

Evaluating your EIT for Accessibility

First, let’s do a quick survey of your course content by using the following guiding questions: How is your content provided? Do you use D2L? Do you have Word documents? PDF’s? PowerPoints? Excel spreadsheets? Do your images, charts and graphs include alt tags? Do you know what an alt tag is? Do you use audiovisuals? When you created or selected this content did you take accessibility in to consideration? Documents not properly formatted for accessibility and without alt tags for pictures can make the content inaccessible for an individual using screen reader technology. Screen readers are used by students with visual impairments and/or learning disabilities. PowerPoints with poor color contrast create barriers for an individual who is color blind and/or has low vision. Columns and tables in a document that aren’t properly formatted become garbled and lose their meaning when being used by screen reading software. These are just a few examples of common barriers with EIT. Being able to identify the barriers to your content takes time, but is well worth it. Don’t you want all of the hard work you put in to creating or developing a document or audiovisuals to be accessible to the audience?

Why does it Matter?

Janet Sylvia, Web Accessibility Group Leader, gave a presentation titled Accessibility Matters at UNG which provided an excellent breakdown of the barriers in specific types of documents and how to create accessible documents. If you missed the workshop you can view Accessibility Matters at UNG recording online. Ms. Sylvia’s motto is: “If you can learn to create inaccessible documents, you can learn to create accessible documents.” It is just a matter of developing new habits, habits that will ultimately make your documents accessible, allow for a broader range of technologies, accommodate different learning styles, and assist speakers of English as a second language, according to Ms. Sylvia. It also provides instructors with easier to format content and removes potential barriers to the course. What happens if we don’t comply? Beyond the loss of providing equal access to content and learning, a student could file a civil rights complaint and/or a lawsuit.

Where to begin?

Semantic structure is absolutely critical for accessibility of electronic content. In Word, semantic structure is created by using the Styles Menu for headings, section titles, sub section titles and for using strong for bold and emphasis for italics (rather font type, size, bold, or italics). For more information about formatting an accessible Word document and for more of Ms. Sylvia’s accessibility tips, I recommend accessing the USG Accessibility Tutorial. Below are a few tips from the workshop:

Meaningful Hyperlinks

Rename hyperlinks to give them a meaningful connection, include the URL in parentheses for documents that will be printed. Right clickon the hyperlink, select Edit Hyperlink and type a description of the link in the Text to Display Box. (All Documents, including email).

Alternative Text

When including pictures, charts, graphs or tables, make sure you include alternative text for those who are visually impaired and rely on a screen reader. Right click on theimage, selectFormat Picture, choose Alt Textand type a description of the image in theDescriptionbox. (All Documents)

Accessibility Checker

All Microsoft Office Applications include an accessibility checker. Note that “tips” are actually required for Section 508 compliance (All Documents)

Feeling a bit overwhelmed?

While documents need to be accessible in order to be compliant with Section 508, a good place to start as you work towards creating accessible documents, is to include a statement on your syllabus: “The University of North Georgia follows the Section 508 Standards and WCAG 2.0 for web accessibility. If you experience difficulty accessing course content, please contact your instructor.” A prompt response is required. Lastly, if you aren’t already, using the Styles Menu when formatting your documents is critical. As Janet Sylvia stated at the end of the workshop, “Failure to use Styles in a Word document sends the message that you just don’t care about equal access to documents.” On a personal note: I am smitten with the Styles Menu and couldn’t imagine going back. The ease at which I can navigate, edit, and rearrange the document, create a table of contents, and update the table of contents page numbers has spared my hair going gray for another day.