July 2, 2022

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What is Digital Accessibility? (And Why It’s Crucial at Schools)

What is digital accessibility – this simple question is fundamental in the technologically advanced era we’re in. Digital accessibility is important in all aspects of life and it’s especially valid in education. Schools shape how we see the world and pave the way for growth. Allowing everyone access to the same online content, virtual experiences, and digital devices is the only way we can move forward in this ever-connected global village.

Read on to learn about what digital accessibility is and why it’s essential for all academic institutions, or explore ViewSonic’s collection of Education solutions for the modern classroom. 

What is digital accessibility, and why is it so crucial in schools and other academic environments? At a basic level, it refers to the provision of equal access to digital products and services, regardless of whether students have disabilities or other impairments. Before exploring this topic in full, though, let’s briefly outline what accessibility means on a more general level and why it’s so important in all aspects of life.  

Accessibility is the concept of making something as available as possible for as many people as possible. Therefore, the notion of accessibility is strongly linked to disabilities and impairments. Many countries have been developing and improving their laws and urban planning regulations to provide more accessible living environments. Within the United States, the concept of accessibility is written into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) serving as equal opportunities legislation. It’s this text that mandates the provision of ramps for wheelchair users, for example. 

Digital accessibility expands upon this premise and aims to eradicate the obstacles that prevent people from accessing digital products or services. In this article, we’ll explore what digital accessibility is, why it especially matters in schools, and how it connects to other concepts within education. 

What is Digital Accessibility? 

Until recently, the digital world was not closely following the same accessibility requirements as the physical world. This is luckily changing, and more people are conscious and willing to create lasting improvements for their communities. 

Digital accessibility is about ensuring that all users can perceive, use, and operate web content, software, mobile apps, and other forms of digital media. As the Global Accessibility Awareness Day Foundation explains: 

“Every user deserves a first-rate digital experience on the web. Someone with a disability must be able to experience web-based services, content and other digital products with the same successful outcome as those without disabilities.”   

Digital Accessibility objective

Examples of Digital Accessibility 

Let’s explore some specific examples of digital accessibility in action. This will shed light on what you can do in your school – or any environment, for that matter – to enhance the learning experience, and contribute to a more inclusive environment for everyone. 

When thinking about digital accessibility, sight impairment is probably the first thing that pops into your head. And indeed, vision-related issues have been amongst the first ones to be addressed. For example, screen reading software can be utilized to read the content of a website out loud, greatly simplifying browsing for those with visual impairments. Similarly, many web app designers now make color blindness a key consideration when it comes to color management, while high-quality computer monitors include built-in tools to assist color blind individuals. 

Yet, there are many other examples of digital accessibility features. Video content will now often display subtitles or closed captions in order to assist those with hearing impairments. Furthermore, modern software solutions will often include shortcut keys, keyboard navigation options, and even voice control. These can all assist users who may have physical impairments that make it difficult to operate a mouse, laptop touchpad, or touchscreen. 

Accessibility Guidelines and POUR principles 

One of the indicators that digital accessibility awareness has gained in power is the presence of global guidelines. These greatly contribute to standardize the various recommendations to make digital media more inclusive and able to reach a wider audience. Digital accessibility is not only good for consumers of digital media but also for the creators of content, products, and services. 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, include success criteria, like the four ‘POUR’ principles, which outline that digital content should be: 

  • Perceivable: the content and interface should not be ‘invisible’ to people with sensory impairments. 
  • Operable: the content should not require actions that cannot be performed by users with impairments. 
  • Understandable: the content should be able to be understood by all users.
  • Robust: the content should be able to be reliably interpreted by user agents such as assistive technology. 

Within schools and other academic settings, this means that all digital content should follow all four of these principles. This is especially important with any digital media that is directly accessible by students, such as online learning materials, as well as any digital media that is used by teachers during lessons. 

Digital Accessibility - POUR Principles for digital content

Why is Digital Accessibility Important in Schools? 

Digital accessibility is crucial in schools because it’s the means by which students with disabilities and impairments are provided with equal access to education technology (EdTech) and learning materials. At the same time, a focus on digital accessibility can empower these students to enjoy the same learning experiences as their peers. 

It’s worth stressing that digital accessibility can be achieved through the optimization of digital media, software, and mobile apps, but also through hardware solutions. For instance, computer monitors may include a color-blind mode, which helps visually impaired users differentiate between colors. Additionally, listening to audio descriptions on the headphones amplifies the learning experience without distracting other students. 

Digital accessibility is concerned with fairness and inclusive education. Nevertheless, the sections below will explore some of the specific benefits associated with digital accessibility success. 

Student Engagement 

What is digital accessibility to student engagement? That’s one of the most important aspects of inclusive learning. It’s the way to make kids feel part of the class and be willing to participate. If students with impairments or disabilities are unable to perceive, operate, understand, or otherwise utilize digital media, they are less likely to become emotionally invested in lessons, and their motivation levels are also likely to decrease. 

Student engagement can be summarized as the extent to which students are interested and emotionally invested in what they are being taught. True student engagement occurs when students attend classes, take an active interest, participate in the lesson, and become interested in their own learning outcomes. However, it can be further broken down into behavioral engagement, emotional engagement, and cognitive engagement. This significant distinction shows that students can be engaged in some ways but disengaged in others. 

Digital accessibility assists with student engagement because it means students can engage on many different levels with digital media used within lessons. They can access online learning materials and utilize all the relevant software. Additionally, there is a social component to student engagement, which is hindered when certain students feel excluded or ‘othered’. 

Collaborative Learning 

Collaboration within schools and other academic settings is a fundamental part of the modern learning experience, and it offers many benefits. Collaborative sessions can help to engage students and keep lessons varied and interesting, but they also teach valuable life skills, such as teamwork, critical thinking, and communication skills. 

Over time, however, collaboration within education has relied upon digital media more and more, and this has created a divide between those with disabilities or even temporary impairments and those without impairments. 

When digital accessibility is given an appropriate level of focus, collaborative learning becomes more inclusive. Within classrooms, students have equal access to the learning materials, and students with disabilities can more freely collaborate with any of their peers, regardless of their own impairments or capabilities.  

Digital Accessibility - definition

Equal Access to Resources 

Another reason why digital accessibility matters in education is because it helps with the goal of providing equal access to resources. This can be especially significant in situations where students are asked to utilize online resources to obtain information or carry out activities outside of the classroom. 

For content creators, there are techniques that can help to ensure that everybody has the same level of access to resources. For instance, content could be uploaded in multiple formats, including text, audio, and video, which can help to cater to people with different disabilities or impairments. Visual content can be specifically designed keeping in mind color blindness, for example, while written content can be designed with an awareness of issues like dyslexia. 

As an article for Codecademy explains, design with digital accessibility in mind is an example of universal design and, as the name suggests, universal design can benefit everyone. One example given is the fact that alt tags used to explain the content of images can assist the visually impaired because the alt tags can be read aloud by screen reading software. However, this also benefits other users too, like when an image fails to load for example. 

Use of Education Technology 

Education technology, or EdTech, helps teachers and students alike, and there are many types of EdTech that are relevant to the topic of digital accessibility. Some of the main examples include desktop computers, laptop computers, interactive whiteboards, projectors, tablets, smartphones, and similar devices. 

The use of education technology can help students to complete work activities more efficiently, to better understand what they are learning, and communicate and collaborate with others. Furthermore, EdTech can help educators to accommodate different learning styles and can break down physical or geographical barriers. 

Digital accessibility is crucial for ensuring that all students have access to the same technologies as one another. Of course, this, in turn, is important for making sure that students with impairments or more complex needs are not unfairly disadvantaged. Without a clear focus on achieving digital accessibility, able-bodied students could potentially have access to additional tools, which students with disabilities would not be able to use effectively. 

The Value of Digital Literacy for All Students 

One of the most significant concepts related to digital accessibility is the idea of digital literacy. This can be described or defined as the ability of ICT-related technology to find, share, create, and communicate information. Essentially, it can be thought of as the development of the skills that are required to thrive in an increasingly digital world. 

The development of these skills and the achievement of digital literacy is necessary for students throughout their time in school and higher education. Moreover, digital literacy is also in high demand within the workforce, and students who do not acquire the necessary skills may find that their future employment opportunities are limited. 

Digital literacy can be acquired through a combination of time in school and time using digital technology outside of school. However, different households will have different levels of exposure to technology based on a variety of factors, including household income. Therefore, there is a strong argument to suggest that schools should serve as an equalizer in this regard, but for that to be possible, digital accessibility needs to be guaranteed for everybody. 

Final Thoughts 

Understanding what is digital accessibility is extremely important for everyone and especially for educators. We should be able to answer this question easily and continue to ask it, as the new technologies and devices emerge and evolve every day. Digital accessibility strategies aim to ensure that all students have access to digital media, software, apps, and technologies, and can perceive, understand and operate it effectively, regardless of any impairments or disabilities they might have. 

Through a focus on digital accessibility, schools can provide students with the skills necessary to develop digital literacy as we develop new digital tools. Additionally, digital accessibility can help to level the playing field and assist students who have disabilities or impairments with everything from engagement with learning materials to collaboration with others. 

If you found this read insightful, you might also want to learn about equality vs equity in Accessible Education or explore inclusive learning solutions by ViewSonic.