Impact of accessibility in Digital Environments

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Summary: The impact of non-accessible digital materials can vary from a frustrated user who can't distinguish colors on a graph to a student who is not able to grasp core concepts of a video because it is missing captions. Learn more about these impacts and how you can be part of positive change.


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Creating accessible websites and digital materials in your educational environment reduces barriers and ensures that all students encounter your materials can understand and interact with them.

Websites and digital materials that are not designed with accessibility in mind exclude a significant population of potential users from participating in an ever increasing internet dependent world. Unfortunately, information exclusion is a barrier people with disabilities all too often experience. 

How many people have disabilities? This number is difficult to estimate. Many people are hesitant to disclose disabilities or don’t consider their impairments to be disabilities. According to the World Report on Disability (2011), about 20% of the world’s population experience some form of disability. The report also notes that “people with disabilities have

  • poorer health outcomes,
  • lower education achievements,
  • less economic participation and
  • higher rates of poverty

than people without disabilities” and that these outcomes are often linked to barriers linked to accessing services. The United States Census Bureau reports similar statistics with 19% of U.S. citizens reporting having a disability.

Benefits for people without disabilities

Making digital materials accessible not only assists people with disabilities, but other populations benefit, as well:

  • New language learners 
  • Older people whose eyes or ears are failing
  • People with low literacy
  • People using older technologies to access the Internet

Designing your digital materials with universal design principles in mind ensures a more seamless user experience for a much wider population.

Mobile users

Designing for accessibility also means designing learning materials that can be accessible on mobile devices.

The Pew Research Center reported that 15% of young people (18-29) are heavily dependent on smartphones for online access and 10% of Americans do not have any other form of high speed internet access.

Many learners, including learners with disabilities, rely heavily, and in some cases, exclusively on tablets and mobile devices for learning materials. Providing accessible materials to all learners in many cases means providing learning materials that can be accessible on multiple devices.

Basic human right

Creating accessible digital materials--ranging from an accessible word doc or syllabus to an organizational website to choosing an enterprise level software tool rolled out to an entire university--is a basic human right recognized in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The UN specifically calls upon countries to “promote access to information by providing information intended for the general public in accessible formats and technologies” and “encouraging the media and Internet providers to make on-line information available in accessible formats (Article 21).” All students in your classroom deserve the right to be able to access learning materials in a fair and equitable way. 

Legal consequences

In post secondary educational environments, the implications for not providing accessible materials for learners can carry significant legal consequences. Under federal law, students with disabilities are guaranteed equally effective learning opportunities as students without disabilities.  

Two laws specifically impact web accessibility in education:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This was the first civil rights act to protect individuals with disabilities and that “solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.”
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 1990. Section 504 of this law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities receiving financial assistance from the federal government by:
    • Employers (Title I)
    • State and Local Governments (Title II)
    • Places of Public Accommodation (Title III)

While the Internet was new when it was created, this law has since been interpreted to include web content. In addition, Title II, which includes public education institutions, clearly states that communications with persons with disabilities must be “as effective as communications with others.” Thus, learners enrolled in courses with online learning components must be provided with educational materials that are as effective as those offered to peers if digital versions cannot be made accessible.

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