03 May 2008

Accessible Materials

"...another part of our strategy is to push for an accessibility policy from the university. That we would commit to ensuring that all 'internal' material (handouts, course material, reports, student publications etc etc) would be available in accessible format simultaneously. As one of my colleagues in Trinity College Dublin said recently, why can't this stuff, which is already on someone's hard drive, be made available?" - Enda Guinan, NUI Maynooth.

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"
then they created a set of parameters:

"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"
and then they created a timeline, including very specific targets:

"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."

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Paul Hamilton said...

I'm a little off topic, but you've prompted me to think again about blog accessibility. My own blog has some significant accessibility issues. It may take a while to address these issues, but I want to at least start moving in the right direction. I hope not, but it may even mean changing the hosting platform.

Do you use blogspot because it is more accessible than other blogging platforms? Do you know of any WordPress themes that are worth a serious look? If so, perhaps we could encourage James Farmer to consider making accessible themes available at edublogs.org.

irasocol said...


This is a problem here as well. Accessible to some extent because you can use Click-Speak and it will work, but accessible in real ways? No. I started this here because - in part - I wanted the simplest platform to prove the value of blogging, of community cognition, in the easiest to begin place, but blogger templates, like wordpress themes, are not accessible.

So, yes, let's see if we can put the pressure on. Many of us may know people at Google, or who work in WordPress - why can't we have a variety of easy - and easy to retrofit - themes, templates, etc, which fully meet accessibility requirements?

- Ira Socol

Maria H. Andersen said...

I've got Odiogo on my blog, and that provides spoken RSS for the blog to anyone who wishes to subscribe (and it works with Blogger).

Here's a big issue for those of us who are creating classroom material.

I teach math, and this means that my material does not contain JUST text. It contains graphs, equations, and drawings. In order to create a universally readable format by all computers, I produce the files as PDF so that they will print correctly and read correctly regardless of font.

I think that is the primary reason that many of us use PDF. I would LOVE to use google docs. But google docs does not support equations. I have been told by my college NOT to use Word files, because not all students have Word on their computers. Plus, there's still the equation issue.

Then there's the copyright issue. By distributing text files to all students, you have pretty much ensured that your work will be hacked apart and used (both appropriately and inappropriately) without regard to copyright.

I think there is just more to it than an accessibility issue. Many instructors have been told to pull down their videos for classes unless they have captioned them. Captioning a 10 minute video might take something like 2 hours. First you have to write a script from the video, then add the script to the video as a caption, then synch the two. Or you can pay another service to do it for you. But most colleges expect this burden (both cost and time) to be borne by the instructor.

I'm afraid that insistence to make 100% of materials accessible will result (more likely) in NO materials being posted for any students.

However, if you've got a way to do it, and it doesn't threaten that my materials will just be copied and pasted into other's materials... I'm all ears (or eyes, or fingers).


irasocol said...


Acrobat is a great accessibility format when it is used correctly, which is surprisingly easy considering the amount of inaccessible PDFs I run into in higher education. If you'd like a MORE accessible document for maths/sciences I'd suggest WYNN, which really reads graphics, etc, remarkably well all the time but allows other student studying supports. As an instructor you can also lock the WYNN documents.

Will students hack stuff? Perhaps. Anyone with a basic scanner and OmniPage Lite can hack printed text as well. But good PDFs and WYNN docs are both better protected than most and as or more accessible than other formats.

As for captioning. Yes, it is a huge problem. Better stuff is coming, but this is why building awareness is so vital. It is ALWAYS easier to make things accessible at the start than it is to make them accessible later.

- Ira Socol