How to improve accessibility and digital inclusion

A virtual panel discussion hosted by Penn addressed how organizations can improve accessibility and digital inclusion for people with physical disabilities.

Hands typing on a keyboard.

There are more than one billion people around the world with disabilities and impairments, and awareness of these issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion is on the rise in the workplace, according to the U.S. Department of Education Accessibility.

Recently, Penn Professional Staff Assembly (PPSA) hosted accessibility experts from Penn and Harvard for a virtual panel discussion where they discussed removing digital barriers for people with learning disabilities and the blind and low-vision community and how organizations can improve accessibility and digital inclusion for people with physical disabilities.

The event featured Kara Gaulrapp, senior web accessibility analyst at Penn; Nicolas Meyering, business administrator; and Kyle Shachmut, assistant director, digital accessibility services at Harvard. The conversation was moderated by Tonya Bennett, director of educational technology at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Bennett recapped the panel discussion and talked about accessibility awareness with Penn Today.

What is accessibility and digital inclusion?

It means that websites and web tools are appropriately designed to ensure that people with disabilities can use them to complete tasks in the same amount of time and effort as others who do not have a disability. The critical component of accessibility is being intentional about providing an inclusive and more equitable experience. One goal of accessibility is removing barriers for all members of the community and beyond.

In the panel, Kyle pointed out that an accessibility spectrum exists. There is no single definition of accessibility that applies to all user needs and preferences when utilizing digital products.

Penn’s Digital Accessibility Policy states that the University websites and web applications that are created or undergo significant revisions or redesign after April 1, 2022, are expected to meet The Worldwide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1, according to Penn’s Accessibility website.

Why is it important to have these conversations in the workplace?

Accessibility is a component of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, so it is important to have these conversations because web accessibility is a shared, continuous professional responsibility for members of the Penn community. We are all involved in developing, creating, publishing, or sharing digital resources. It’s our collective responsibility to bring awareness and take action, to increase inclusion and decrease exclusion.

As Kara pointed out in the discussion, accessibility doesn’t just stop at websites and tools; it extends to include our emails, registration forms, and all other methods of digital communications. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in every four adults in the United States has a disability. Members of the panel further drove that point home during the discussion, mentioning we run the risk of excluding roughly 20 percent of the adult population from participating in and consuming digital content if we don’t work to make digital spaces accessible.

What did the panel reveal about barriers for people with physical disabilities?

The panel revealed a range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities, which should be taken into account when implementing accessibility measures.

The panelists also pointed out that physical disabilities can be temporary, permanent, or situational. An example is if someone suffers from a car accident or sports injury, this may temporarily impact their mobility to use a mouse, hindering their ability to navigate digital spaces. Even aging can play a factor in our ability to interact with websites and web tools. Many of our web tools, computers, and mobile devices have built-in accessibility features that allow those with mobility issues to navigate the digital world without using a mouse.

What were the obstacles in digital spaces that were addressed during the panel discussion?

The panel discussed issues for people using assistive technology such as screen readers. People using screen readers can encounter obstacles in understanding the image content on the page that does not have alt text. When images do not contain ALT text, a person who is blind will not be able to see the image, and the screen reader will tell them it is there with no further context or explanation. The ALT text attribute of an on-page picture will be read aloud to people who use screen readers; this helps them understand the value and context of images on the page. Another obstacle mentioned during this panel was how using flashing objects, transitions, and other effects might harm our community members who suffer from epilepsy. These effects should be used sparingly and should contain a content warning or be avoided. These are examples of technological obstacles that impede users’ ability to engage with the content and have a similar experience as someone who does not have a disability.

Why does representation matter?

Representation matters because we all have a role to play in creating a more inclusive community and working towards normalizing conversations that address systemic issues that further marginalize people. Representation in digital accessibility can offer affirmation and support to the underrepresented members of our communities and provide an equitable experience for all. It fosters an inclusive culture and creates a sense of belonging.

What were some ways to improve digital inclusion and accessibility?

Awareness is essential and will help members of the Penn community work closely with and utilize the accessibility guidance and resources that Penn offers. Ask a question, schedule a consultation, or get help from Penn’s Web Accessibility Team.

We received sound advice from the panel; during the panel discussion, one tip was to be mindful the next time you create content, email, registration forms, etc., and think about accessibility first. Consider organizing your content differently and in different formats, using captions, text-based transcripts, descriptive labels in form fields, and especially images. Provide multiple ways users can consume your content. An example from the panel was if you are presenting something visual, be sure to use ALT text, and you can also audibly describe images, charts, and tables.

Anything to add?

To help foster digital inclusivity here at Penn, there are four things you can do to get started:

  1. A quick and easy way to make an impact is to start by adding ALT text to images.
  2. Use descriptive links. Descriptive links provide users, especially those using assistive technology like screen readers, with the proper context of where clicking the link will take them and what the link means.
  3. Book a consultation with Penn’s Web Accessibility Team.
  4. Learn more about the accessibility features in the tools you may already be using Accessibility Tools for Common Platforms

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