“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?”: What every learning technologist should know about accessible documents #ALTC2012

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I gave this presentation at the ALT Conference 2012 in Manchester.

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Abstract

The title of this presentation is a composite of the many responses we receive when we deliver training on accessible documents to teachers as part of the Load2Learn project, an online collection of downloadable curriculum resources in accessible formats. Teachers are chagrined that none of their learning technology support or training staff ever made them aware of these accessibility tips. They also worry that their digitally native students don’t know them. Much to many teachers’ surprise, more accessible documents can even lead to reduced costs or more efficiently deployed resources.

This presentation will focus on five essential technologies that are easily within reach of anyone. They are 1. structured documents (and the keyboard shortcuts to make them a reality), 2. text modification (including PDFs), 3. narrated audio (and how to make it easy to navigate), 4. text to speech (much more useful than people think), and 5. synchronised text and audio (e-books’ potential fulfilled through DAISY and ePub3). Free or inexpensive tools exist to make all of these a reality in all educational contexts. This is particularly important in the school sector. The FE/HE  sector may be more familiar with some of these techniques but our experience indicates that even there, they are not in wide use. Availability of these tools will mean that even those students whose struggle with reading may not be severe enough to warrant individual support can benefit from the unexploited potential of computers to make the world of the written word more accessible to them.

The word “accessibility” is enough to raise a feeling of dread in any technologist, bringing to mind images of limiting design possibilities, creating alternative versions and other chores. And, indeed, there are extreme cases where accessibility is hard work. But most of the time inaccessible digital files are simply badly constructed files the shortcomings of which are covered up by inconsistent hacks. Their inaccessibility is caused not by failing to follow some special hard-to-learn “rules”, but by neglect of basic good practices. The issue is further compounded by out-dated assumptions about the needs of those who find it hard to access print.

But there is not that much to know. And what there is to know is of immense benefit for everyone’s everyday computing not just when supporting somebody with a print disability. Accessible computing is not a chore we have to learn to satisfy equality regulations or feelings of political correctness. Accessible computing is productive and clean computing.