The Basics of Accessible Digital Design

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Universal design for learning is the goal of many educational institutions and using accessible digital design is one more step towards making that a reality.

Design accessibility means that whatever you are designing is usable by everyone regardless of their abilities. According to Dr. Sarah Hoyte, a learning designer with Victoria University of Wellington and speaker at the recent Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference ANZ 2018 in Brisbane, 18.3% of Australians are differently abled.

Accessible design starts with the software you use.  Get that right at the outset, and you have the best foundations for design accessibility for all types of learners worldwide.

While there are tools like Blackboard Ally that can help create more accessible content, there are also a number of small things that you can do to ensure people perceive, understand, navigate and interact with course material.

According to Dr. Sarah Hoyte, there are four ways content can be made more accessible:

1. Perceptible – People are able to access information

Make it easier for learners to see and hear content.  In the example of a deaf student reading subtitles on a video, keep the descriptions of sounds in the video included such as ‘dogs barking in the distance’ so the learner has an equivalent experience to someone who is able-hearing.

Or, for visually impaired students who use audio support, ensure you minimize background noise, keeping focus audio clear.  Also, be wary of colour contrast to emphasise content, as you never know who may be colour-blind.  Use other forms such as bold or underlining text.

2. Operable – People can make sense of your content

Make your course as easy to navigate as possible.  By using logical, descriptive and consistent names or titles you make your content more accessible.  Use semantic formatting such as proper headings, which gives students with screen readers the ability to jump to them.

Place key information at a high level where it’s easy to access and DON’T use blinking or flashing text which could trigger epileptic seizures or other sensitivities.

3. Understandable – People are able to navigate your content

Make your content as understandable as possible.  Following similar principles of good teaching, use clear instructions and break the text into smaller chunks.  Write simply and clearly and don’t write in all caps.

4. Robust – People can use different tools to access your content

Make your design consistent with semantic formatting. Semantic formatting imparts meaning, not just visual distinction, so use proper terminology for hyperlinks and meaningful text to tell the student what and where they are going.

Not only does making your content more accessible benefit people with a permanent disability, it’s the temporarily disabled, the elderly as well as people in places of limitations such as a slow internet, who also reap the rewards.

Whilst not a definitive list, the following are Dr. Hoyte’s 10 easy accessibility improvements to kick-start your next digital design:

  1. Use easily readable font sizes and styles
  2. Use PDFs for documents that don’t need to be edited
  3. Put key information where it’s easily accessible
  4. Use logical, consistent layout with descriptive names
  5. Give clear, succinct instructions that say what to do and why
  6. Avoid using all caps for more than one or two words at a time
  7. Use meaningful words for your hyperlinks
  8. Use only a few colours, which have high enough contrast between them
  9. Don’t use colour as the only way of visually distinguishing something
  10. Put meaningful descriptions on all images and graphs

Captions aren’t included in this list, purely because while they’re incredibly important for improving accessibility, they’re by no means easy to implement.  This should not be a deterrent however and never underestimate the power of making small changes.  Making little design tweaks can make a big impact on user perceptibility and that’s good for everybody, not just your screen readers.