Last fall a faculty member sent me a PDF document to read. Perhaps you have seen documents like this. It was an "image only" scan of a copy of a copy of a copy of an article that had been written on by a note-taking reader at some point long ago. I opened it up in Acrobat Reader. Looked under the "Document" menu. Went to "Accessibility Quick Check." Noticed that this "Document contains only images." Cursed. Opened WYNN, tried scanning the document in through the Freedom Import Printer - the best tool I know of for forcing this kind of conversion, and got back a text file which looked like this:
fñJr?Íd *fP?rtmentali2f tí°« of knowledge components. Components of knowledge that are m fact interdependent are treated as being separable from each other. Learners develop mistaken SS m the
m^tTi Í rmP°neu * RdatedIy’Where kn0Wiedge «mP«««s do Lction md^endentt it un¡£2 h% C3Se that COnVCying relatIOI5shiPs ^«n then- conceptual structures woufd ad undemanding; these connections are not drawn, When components are interrelated, there » a £Se*y to
it°ne imkageriSCheme’there^ ^^representing the richness of interconnection m the iSnTaS narrow, doctrinaire viewpoints (see the problem of single representations).
¿¿SiUbSS^1011 °/^0Wí?ge- T*ÍSP”*»**** encoded u”d« a scheme dete external authority («*, a textbook) or a scheme which facilitates delivery and use. Knowledge is ’’ the learner The preemptive encoding is passively received by the learner, and^fuTbtnefitf
In one of my "angry moods," I sent the document back to the faculty member and said, "here's what the file you sent looks like to me, can we do something about this?"
Thankfully, this prof was one of the good guys. He was stunned (and I think a bit embarrassed). He asked me lots of questions. I think 30 emails went back and forth. I'm pretty sure that all of his class materials are accessible these days.
But that is not always the reaction.
Listen - given a reasonably accessible document text becomes accessible freely for most students who need different formats, and quickly available for the others. Give me a basic document in Microsoft Word and - at zero cost - I can have it read to you by Natural Reader (free) or you can paste it into a Google Doc (free) and read it with Click-Speak (free) or FireVox (free), or I can simply add WordTalk (free) into Word and you can read it right there. Or you can convert it into a Microsoft Reader (free) E-book and give it to the student in a form that combines text-to-speech with each-word-as-it-is-read-highlighting, with notetaking (or test answer), and bookmarking capabilities. I can use NaturalReader to make it an mp3 or I can go to SpokenText and do the same. And if I need at 'not-free' level of support, I can easily grab it and paste it into WYNN, or use it with Read-and-Write, or convert it to Braille.
If I have an accessible Acrobat Document I can simply ask the (free) Read-Aloud feature in Adobe Reader 8.x to read it out loud. And with the actual Acrobat Pro software I can take it apart into text, or, as I've suggested above, I can scan it "internally" using the import printers in full literacy-support packages or using an OCR program such as OmniPage (a fine version of which comes free with most Canon Scanners, including the very inexpensive "backpackable" LiDE scanners which simply run off the USB power from your laptop).
But those are not the ways people in education seem to want to deliver materials.
A couple of weeks ago I picked on US textbook publisher W.W. Norton for going out of their way to make even their digital textbooks worthless to those who struggle with print. Norton seems to have worked overtime to block accessibility - and let us be clear, that is what they did. They began with a perfectly acceptable text-file, and probably spent a year guaranteeing that many students could not use it.
Not everyone goes at it with the same intent, but by this point in 2008, I no longer care about supposed intent. By this point everyone in education should know that materials need to be accessible - if they don't, they have chosen to remain ignorant. And by this point every educational organization should both know how to create, and be committed to creating, fully accessible materials - if they don't they are - to quote Karen Janowski on the wider topic of Universal Design - guilty of educational malpractice.
So, everything should be accessible, as we said at the start. Is there a model for doing this?
The first step seems obvious. You begin with everything created or purchased starting today. Every teacher, professor, administrator, librarian, staff member, and supplier of academic materials to the district must know how to make every document they make accessible and must have a system to check that with when they are not sure. Text documents, books, PowerPoint Presentations (be sure to have PowerTalk on hand), PDFs, websites, they all have to either be created fully accessible or have fully accessible alternatives which arrive simultaneously. (Note: this includes "effective" informational alt. tags on every image in every document, PDF, and website - if you are not doing that, you have not even started, so a great place to start analysing your accessibility capacity is to start surveying your faculty and staff, asking, do you alt. tag. every image?) For website access - check out these posts from jamessocol.com
What about those books? First, every textbook purchased must come with a fully accessible digital version usable in a variety of alternate formats. If the publisher will not give you this, do not buy the book. Second, for all other books, ask for a digital format right when you buy it (most likely if you are buying quantities or ordering quantities for your university bookstore), but if there is not a digital version - make one before the first book is sold, or handed to a student, or stuck on a library shelf. Scan it with an OCR system, and store that file so students who need it can get it quickly and easily.
Those should be absolute rules from today on, but what about all the old stuff? (because your school, university, government has chosen to ignore this issue for the past decade)
At the California State University system (the world's largest university1), the Accessible Technology Initiative is now entering its third year. I'm not holding Cal State up as "the best people around." Don't get me wrong. CSU is thinking about these things ahead of most universities only because they were successfully sued repeatedly by their own students for violating Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 - which requires equal access to "information and communication" at any school or university in the United States which receives even one dollar (that's € 0.64 or £ 0.51 today) of federal funds (this includes federal or federally-guaranteed grants or loans to students).
Let me quote from their statements:
"Instructional Materials (IM) are considered to be forms of communication and must therefore be delivered in a manner that is equally effective for persons with disabilities. Communication is considered to be equally effective when it is:
- comparable in quality to those received by students without disabilities
- comparable in timeliness of delivery and availability
- provided in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the person receiving the material"
"Each campus is directed to adopt and submit an Instructional Materials Accessibility Plan (IMAP) no later than June 15, 2007. The plan should address, at a minimum, the specific actions to be taken by the campus for the following areas:
- Timely adoption of textbooks by faculty
- Ensuring textbook selection/ordering for courses with late-hired faculty
- Early identification of students with disabilities who require modified instructional materials
- Use of the campus learning management system both for delivering technology-enabled course content, and for posting syllabi and instructional materials in both traditional and hybrid courses
- Incorporation of accessible ... procurement requirements when purchasing instructional materials (e.g. transcripts for audio, captions for videos)
- Alignment of academic technology resources to assist faculty in the creation of technology-enabled courses
- Communication and training processes to educate students, staff, and faculty about the campus IMAP (Instructional Materials Accessibility Plan)
- Identification of specific roles and responsibilities for responsible parties
- Identification of an evaluation process (including milestones and timelines) to measure the effectiveness of the plan"
"Fall Term 2008: New courses and new course content, including instructional materials and instructional websites, will be designed and authored in a manner that incorporates accessibility. If incorporating accessibility is not possible or would constitute an undue burden, then a plan to provide an equally effective alternate form of access must be developed, documented, and communicated. Existing course content will be made accessible at the point of course redesign or when a student with a disability enrolls in the course.
"Fall Term 2012: Instructional materials and instructional websites for all course offerings will be accessible. Once again, undue burden plan requirements (as described above) apply."
No, you can't accomplish this overnight, but you can develop strategies. What if books were scanned with OCR systems as they were returned to the library. Can't do them all? Just do 10% of those returned each day, or 1%, or 0.001%, or just a single book everyday. It won't be quick, but combined with the new book policy, you'll be moving forward, not backward. (and remember, you don't have to do the million or so books already on Project Gutenberg, Gutenberg Australia, UVA, Fordham, etc., as long as you know where these are and how to quickly direct students to them). What if every department was responsible for converting any non-accessible PDFs to accessibility each semester before they could be used in coursework? Slowly, you'd be cutting through your massive backlog.
You can't really claim to be educating all of your students if academic (and school life) materials are not all accessible. So write your plan down, and get yourself started.
- Ira Socol
1 - and it helps, that the word "accessible" - with its many meanings, appears right up-front on the Cal State system's web home page - "The CSU is a leader in high-quality, accessible, student-focused higher education. With 23 campuses, almost 450,000 students, and 46,000 faculty and staff, we are the largest, the most diverse, and one of the most affordable university systems in the country."