Thursday, July 23, 2009

What happens when innovation outpaces accessibility?

I was presenting to a group of higher education faculty the other day on Universal Design for Learning and how they could move forward on creating creating course that were more aligned with the principles of UDL.  The morning was presented largely by a colleague of mine and she worked to establish the foundation of UDL in higher education settings specifically focusing on Multiple Means of Expression, Engagement, and Representation.  The afternoon was my part and focused on using technology-based tools to help integrate these principles within courses and discussions ensued as to how each of these tools could achieve multiple means of expression, engagement and representation.  As part of the discussion, we also talked about accessibility.  We talked about accessibility for two reasons.  First, part of being 'universal' is ensuring that everyone can access and interact with the content being provided.  Second, Illinois passed the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act whcih requires Illinois agencies and Universities to ensure their various information technologies are accessible to people with disabilities.  This law extends ADA and Section 508 compliance within the state of Illinois.  The point of discussion that ensued thereafter is what really got me thinking.  A number of the tools that I presented are accessible and/or increase the accessibility of content only in part or only for specific populations.  For example, I spoke about using the tool VozMe, which is a little widget that can be put on a page and, when a person highlights the text of a web page and clicks on the button, there is a speech equivalent version generated.  However, when we tried to work this through a popular screen reader, the tool was not accessible.  I know this sounds redundant (using a screen reader tool to access a tool/service that provides text to speech) but similar cases could be made for embedding audio, video, VoiceThreads and many other tools/services as well.  If only partial accessibility is provided by the use of these tools, can they be considered to be 'universal'?  I would suggest that they are not.

I would propose, at this point and time, that UDL is a philosophical construct...a vision of 'what could be', if you will.  There are a number of things that are preventing UDL from being truly realized currently.  Copyright law prevents standard print from being truly accessible to all.  To access print in an accessible form, individuals often need to be 'certified' as being eligible to access the print in a form that meets their individual needs.  The explosion of user generated web content has left a plethora of online resources with limited or no accessibility.  There are a number of concerns with the degree to whcih Web 2.0 technologies are meeting the standards of accessiblity.  Even emerging technologies such as the Kindle DX are not exempt.  Truth be told, accessibility is still an afterthought of innovation.  Until accessibility is proactively integrated into tool development,  UDL can not  be fully achieved.

Until this time, however, we are left to approximate UDL by using a number of different tools to move towards multiple means of expression, engagement and representation, some with more accessibility than others.  The questions that I am left with, however, from both an ethical and legal perspective, are:
  1. Do we use a variety of tools, some fully accessible and some partially accessible, to approximate UDL or do we only use those tools that are currently accessible to all? 
  2. If we only use those tools that are fully accessible, knowing that in doing so we are placing limits on the use of other innovative tools, do we limit the degree to which UDL can be provided?  Is this an acceptible practice?
What do you think?


Joy Zabala said...

Hi, Brian.

What an insightful post! I am sure some good "pondering" will be the result of your sharing.

I will start out with a couple of "off the top of my head" thoughts.

First, although there is a significant connection between the principles of UDL and accessible technologies and other materials, it seems to me that the PEDAGOGY of UDL is what guides us along the journey to high quality education in which ALL students - universally - can participate and achieve. It is my belief and experience that being on that "pedagogical journey" has opened our eyes and raised awareness more generally to the issue of curricular inaccessibility, not only in the materials and technology, but also in the goals that are set, the instructional strategies that are used, and the ways in which we assess learning and achievement. Indeed, because we are on the UDL path - one that, in my view, really IS a continuing journey toward excellence, not a "destination" to be easily or quickly reached - we are able to see barriers across the curriculum and think about how to use multipe means of representation, engagement, and response to lower them. Certainly, as you point out so eloquently, there are frustrating barriers related to materials and technology, but more widespread RECOGNITION of those barriers really helps us look toward ways to address and lower them... it will not be a "quick fix"... but then, few meaningful changes are are... and at least we understand a bit more about that to push for! :)

Second, as I ponder the "long march" we have been on together in AT for all these years, I think that one of the big things we have learned - and, again, that you point out so well - is that, when accessbility is the issue (and probably also when anything else is the issue), "universal" does not mean a SINGLE solution, but rather a robust set of multiple solutions that - TOGETHER - can be used to provide "universal" participation and engagement in the educational processes. I guess that, for me, this idea fits nicely with the "multiples" in UDL.

All that said, I think that my sense is that we, on the ground, need to be sure that we, collectly, do all we can to "encourage and invite" (perhaps a nice way of saying "demand" :)developers of curricular materials and technology to design accessibility for the broadest feasible range of individuals into their products FROM THE BEGINNING! At present, one of my biggest disappointments comes when I hear people who are developing products say, "we have decided that we cannot address accessability as we go digital". To me, that is outrageous, but unless we are ALL outraged and make out collective voices heard - most likely in our roles as influencers of consumers - not much is likely to change. What I hope we will see very soon is that "univeral design" of materials and technology will just be a "cost of doing business" for developers and publishers who want a larger share of the educational market.

For this to happen, it seems to me that we need to be sure - as hyou and your collegue are doing - that people understand the pedagogy of UDL so that they can recognize and work to lower the barriers that keep us from fully realizing the vision that UDL helps us work toward.

Thanks, Brian, so much, for such a wonderful and insightful sharing of the work that you are doing. I am, as always, proud to be your colleague and fellow traveler down the exciting and bumpy path to excellence.


Brian Wojcik said...


I agree with much of what you have said and believe that we are indeed on the path to realize universal design in a proactive vs reactive sense.

It strikes me though, as I encourage others to ensure that the 'multiples' are provided in their courses - many of which are accomplished through employing recent innovations (e.g., VoiceThread, VoxMe, etc.) - I am, in essence, encouraging them to make portions of their course inaccessible to some of the students. In Illinois, under current state law, this would be considered illegal. So, at this point and time, do we not use these innovations due to their lack of accessibility? I am a firm believer in the 'multiples' and have seen through providing them that courses become robust and offer many opportunities for students to engage in the learning process. I fear that, should we be left to only using those innovations that are currently accessible, we will not reach the collective voice needed to push for greater accessibility in current and future innovations simply because there are not enough people 'allowed' to use it in their courses.

Joy Zabala said...

Yes. I agree with you. I think we have to be very clear about how each tool provides SOME level of accessibility to SOME - not just "this is accessible"... AND, at the same time, we need consistently and clearly communicate the LIMITATIONS of the tool. We MUST identify the remaining barriers and, further, identify the barriers that are actually CREATED through the use of the tool. Only then can we enlarge the understanding that an "accessible tool" is not, CURRENTLY, universal.

Thanks, Brian, for the great discussion.


Karen Janowski said...

Brian, great conversation and it's wonderful to see the back and forth between you and Joy.

Does the act then require that educational institutions immediately stop using textbooks, writing instruments and whiteboards because they are not accessible to all? Or does it only apply to new technologies?

Brian Wojcik said...


Interesting and intriguing question...

However, no it does not. The act covers 'information technology' and usurped in that is digital text and how that text is presented. If one were to use an inaccessible tool (e.g., Voicethread) as part of the course activities, it would be interpreted as a violation of the law because the information presented by the tool is inaccessible. So, do we throw out VoiceThread as a viable tool?

Karen Janowski said...

So textbooks, as ubiquitous as they are, and as inaccessible as they are, are exempt. Interesting, as they are a form of "information technology." And they create huge barriers for some individuals.

Wonder if it's because textbook publishers are big business and VT and other new media tools are not. Many of the new media tools have in fact reached out to the education community and offer their tools at no cost. We know our students now have access to a range of tools that help to compensate for their disabilities. But does one tool exist that offers accessible to everyone? Or do we need to continue to offer a variety of options that help students create their own toolbelts?

Muddy waters.

Karen Janowski said...

should be "offers accessibility to everyone."

Brian Wojcik said...

Quoting from the ITIAA website:

"What Technologies Are Covered?

Similar to the Federal "Section 508" standards, the IITAA defines "information technology" to include:

* software applications and operating systems
* web- and intranet-based information and applications
* telecommunications products
* video and multimedia products
* kiosks, information transaction machines, copiers, printers and other self contained, closed products
* desktop and portable computers"

As one can see, books are not covered. A most intriguing omission! Hmmm....wonder if this has something to do with copyright (I say this tongue in cheek)?

I agree that we don't have one tool that is accessible to least not yet. However, I agree with Joy in that we need to be pushing for accessibility. VT is a popular tool but who is voicing accessibility concerns of VT and other tools like it?

There has been a lot of discussion in the accessibility world of whether or not an 'alternate version' is sufficient with regard to providing accessible content. The consensus is that it is not. True accessibility is inherent not reactive or supplemental. In that vein, with regard to UDL, one could say that the 'multiples' are a good thing as long as the 'multiples' are accessible to all. If we are too follow the law, then we are not to use tools to support the 'multiples' that are not accessible to all, thereby limiting the use of some innovative tools that may address other learning needs.

Great points and great conversation!

Karen Janowski said...

You say "true accessibility is inherent" and "There has been a lot of discussion in the accessibility world of whether or not an 'alternate version' is sufficient with regard to providing accessible content."

We agree that such a technology does not currently exist. So where does that leave us? As Joy states, we need to have a range of solutions and I too worry that in following the intent of the law, we limit the possibilities for all, the antithesis of the law's purpose.

There are unintended consequences behind good intentions.

John Gale said...

I've been seeing more and more emphasis on "adaptability" in the web standards. This simplifies the accessibility problem for educational content developers, and I think it's an important step on the road to UDL. An "adaptable" web page would include standard 'hooks' to its various types of content. Then, each 'consumer' would use their own custom toolkit - maybe even a full custom browser - to access as much as they can. The content developer would still be responsible for including alternative expression for certain elements, like verbal descriptions for video clips.
So, I'm hopeful, because the web standards developers seem to be putting the right amount (a lot) of effort into this adaptability/accessibility goal.

Brian Wojcik said...

Karen....well stated!

John - I too have seen this emphasis and thank you for bringing it up. It would be great if, as these tools are being created, these 'hooks' were actually included on the front end. I have seen this much more in relation to web applications that are database driven but what have you seen for flash based applications and widgets?

John Gale said...

Funny you should mention Flash accessibility - the Virtual High School guy in my district loves Flash and has a zillion Flash gizmos plastered all over Blackboard. Luckily, Adobe just posted this: ;not so luckily, I'm probably going to have to go in and accessibilize any gizmos I can't get rid of.

John Gale said...

Oh, oh, oh I forgot to mention! Did you see this: - the part about microformats embedded in the BBC web pages? (Also the part about EasyYouTube is cool.) It kind of proves your thesis, but also it is a positive development in the sense that, out of conflict, "a million flowers bloom." (as they say)