Would you be ready?

Imagine that while preparing those last few materials for the start of the semester you receive a call from Disability Support Services indicating that you will have a student with total blindness in your A&P class. The semester begins in two days.

Would you be ready?

To be accessible for students with disabilities, here are some things you can address:

  • PowerPoint slides need to have high contrast between the background and font colors. The reading order of each slide must be verified, and font sizes should be at least 24 point. Additionally, all visuals must have Alternative Text (aka Alt Text or Alt Tags). Alternative Text is a description that enables an individual with a visual impairment to learn what a sighted person would learn from the image. However, they should not be so detailed as to further increase the amount of time the student would need to acquire the information. Alt Tags for STEM images may require two parts.
  • Word documents must be written in a sans-serif font and be organized with headers. Tables require a repeating header and an Alt Tag. Further, because screen readers pronounce non-printing characters, the document shouldn’t have unnecessary spaces or tabs. If you don’t know what it sounds like to hear text verbalized by a screen reader, listen to Accessible vs. Inaccessible.
  • The physical laboratory space must accommodate students with disabilities, and there must be accessible versions of the lab materials and equipment. Institutions should have policies regarding guide dogs and students requiring wheelchairs and scooters in the science laboratory. A discussion on preparing for students with disabilities in the science lab would require a separate blog post. In the meantime, my website has a link to a study I conducted in 2016 evaluating accommodations provided for students with visual impairments in college biology laboratories. It contains information on accommodations for science labs, and those which study participants found helpful and not so helpful.
  • Textbooks are another consideration. Publishers are working toward full accessibility, but there’s a lot of work yet to be done. Check with the publisher about your textbook’s accessibility. Ask a lot of questions. Some publishers honestly believe they have accessible versions of their texts, when in fact they do not.

Several resources exist to help create accessible course materials. I maintain a website, Accessible Science, that has numerous resources on accessibility and other information you may find useful. Newer versions of Microsoft® Office have built-in accessibility checkers, PC Accessibility Checker and Mac Accessibility Checker, that scan for accessibility issues and indicate how to fix any problems they identify. PowerPoint Accessibility and Screen Reader Accessibility in Word demonstrate how to create accessible PowerPoint slides and documents.

New courses should be developed according to the tenets of Universal Instructional Design (UID), which recommends that accessibility be integrated into courses as they are developed. Adhering to the principles of UID helps students even if you never have a student with a disability in your class. Foreign language students benefit from subtitles on videos, for example, and larger font sizes on PowerPoint slides benefit students seated farther from the screen.

For existing courses, it takes an incredible amount of time to retrofit a laboratory science class so that it is fully accessible. Since increasing numbers of students with disabilities are attending college, my suggestion is to start preparing now so you don’t panic when you get that call. Feel free to email me if I can help.

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Dr. Barbara R. Heard is an associate professor of biology at a community college in NJ. She is interested in supporting students with disabilities in science, especially students with visual disabilities.

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