The World Health Organization reports that, approximately, one billion people in the world have some form of disability. That, and because they recognize that everyone learns in a different way, is a key driver behind Blackboard Inc’s focus on designing products that conform to the highest levels of global accessibility standards. JoAnna Hunt, its Accessibility Manager, explains how they achieved it and what the impact is on the learning environment.

Disabled World defines accessibility as the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities. To apply this to education, face-to-face and online courses must be designed and built in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone from participating because of a physical or cognitive disability. “But it’s more than that; it’s about making sure that we can enable everyone to be successful, that we consider the needs of students with all abilities and what it means for them to learn successfully. Then creating environments to enable that”, JoAnna Hunt claimed in an interview with E-Learn Magazine.

She defines herself as a design thinker, a storyteller, and an avid rock climber. And she is focused on setting and driving forward the company’s vision around accessibility, with a goal of providing tools and services that meet the needs of users with all abilities. As one of the leading providers of educational technology, Blackboard Inc. has the responsibility to deliver the best for all users, including those with disabilities. And they have accomplished it. All Blackboard products are designed and developed using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0 at Level AA.

But, what does it mean for someone to have a disability?

Foto AFP Yuri Gripas - JoAnna HuntThere are four major classifications: a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a physical or motor impairment, and a cognitive impairment. Some disabilities like blindness or deafness are pretty obvious to any on-looker. But others, like autism, attention deficit disorders, color blindness, and dyslexia are what are refered to as invisible disabilities. “You may not know a person has these challenges, unless that person chooses to disclose that fact to you”, JoAnna explained.

Many people with disabilities rely on technology to help them interact with the world. But instructional designers, or teachers, do not need to design their courses with something special just for these students. “It’s about being aware of how students with disabilities learn; how they interact with technology; how they communicate. With a few small changes to the way teachers build content, they can ensure that a wider audience can successfully meet the objectives”.

Teachers can learn about accessibility in the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group, on Blackboard’s help site, and in the Blackboard Accessibility Community. The first is a group of accessibility-minded individuals who have organized themselves to discuss topics related to the accessibility of Moodle products. They work directly with the Moodle development teams (and Blackboard’s Moodlerooms team) to prioritize the most important issues to resolve.

Additionally, JoAnna gave us a few tips about how the content should be developed to make it accessible:

  1. For documents (Word, PPT, PDF), you need to start by ensuring they are well structured; that you’re using headings, and lists, and tables appropriately to provide organization to your content.
  2. For video, you want to ensure it is captioned.
  3. Simple images need to have alternative text or on screen image captions.
  4. Complex images, like infographics, need comprehensive on screen narratives to help people understand the information being presented.

She knows a great deal about these topics because of her personal experience. While she was researching accessibility and disabilities in education, her nephew was diagnosed with severe ADHD. “I also met a deaf lawyer who would become one of my closest friends. As I started to observe first hand some of the struggles both of them went through, it made me even more motivated to make a difference for people with disabilities. It still does”, JoAnna told us.

It’s about being aware of how students with disabilities learn; how they interact with technology; how they communicate.

According to figures presented by the company, about 16% of students in the United States have a disability. Industry experts suggest that between 60-80% of students with disabilities in Higher Education are choosing not to disclose that they have a disability.

Blackboard Inc. fundamentally believes that accessibility is an imperative and not an afterthought; for that reason its short term roadmap for accessibility in Moodlerooms is all about shoring up as many remaining gaps as they can, and working to get as many known issues around accessibility resolved in the core Moodle platform. “But, we are also researching ways to provide more tools that can help faculty and institutions understand more about the current state of the accessibility of their course content. This research is in the early stages right now, but it’s definitely an area of great need in education”, she concluded.

*JoAnna Hunt – Accessibility Manager at Blackboard

*Photos by: AFP Yuri Gripas

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