Digital accessibility in the university space

Posted on September 03, 2021

Dr Alecia Samuels traces her days at South Peninsula High in Cape Town as the beginning of her life of service. “The school inculcated in us the importance of living your life in service to your community,” she says. “Our school motto, non ministrari sed ministrare (“not to be served but to serve”), epitomised this. So I always knew that my career had to honour that.

“Speech therapy and audiology and specialising in early childhood intervention offered me the opportunity to do just that, firstly as a clinician for nine years and 15 years later as an academic in a field that is committed to addressing the needs of vulnerable children.”

Dr Samuels adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into even sharper focus the gap between those who have and those who don’t, and that their access to services such as healthcare has only got bigger. “The pandemic has shown just how vulnerable children and families are in our unequal society, and most certainly made one realise the importance of doing academic work that should make a difference in their lives.”

One aspect of Dr Samuel’s work includes championing the use of digital accessibility and the new Blackboard Ally software to help make digital learning more accessible for students with disabilities. This is an area that she is particularly passionate about.

“Most of us tend to think that the issues facing students with disabilities is mainly that of physical spaces, like accessible parking, buildings or ramps,” she says. “Rarely do we think of whether they have an equal ability to access digital spaces and online content, which lecturers are having to make use of now more than ever. Students with visual impairments, for example, will have difficulty with graphics or video-based content. Students with hearing impairments will have difficulty with audio, video and multimedia material, and require real-time text captioning to facilitate learning.”

Curriculum transformation for students with disabilities is central to creating these inclusive spaces, Dr Samuels adds.

“As a university community, we have to do more and think broader about how we make the university a more welcoming environment that honours our commitment to equity and diversity. Blackboard Ally is a new accessibility checker that will be incorporated into our Learning Management System, ClickUP, which allows lecturers to see how accessible their digital content is for students with disabilities. It will also allow students to download alternative accessible formats so that they can engage with the content better. However, lecturers still need to see that their content is more accessible from the very start and in conjunction with the roll-out of Blackboard Ally.

“I have also developed an online self-study Digital Accessibility course that will give lecturers the knowledge and skills on how to make their content more accessible. A similar course has been developed for students as well, especially for those going into the world of work.”

Dr Samuels adds that outside of creating inclusive spaces in school and work, people with disabilities, in particular women with disabilities, remain one of the most marginalised groups in society.

“Often, they are judged in terms of their appearance and their competencies, and society typically has low expectations of them. Also, we tend to see this dichotomous narrative of women with disabilities as being objects of pity or superheroes who have ‘overcome their challenges’. However, many of the women with disabilities who I have engaged with just want to be treated like anyone else and be given the same opportunities as people without disabilities, and to not always have to ask for special permission to occupy these spaces.

“Deaf actress Marlee Matlin said that ‘no one should have to ask for access – it should just be there’. My work on digital accessibility is an attempt to address this issue of access in the university space. When we make content accessible using the principles of universal design for learning, people with disabilities will not need to ask for special permission; they are included from the very beginning.”

- Author Masego Panyane

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