July 26, 2020 was the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States. Many people think of the ADA as primarily relating to physical space, like buildings, sidewalks and workspaces. A companion regulation, Section 508 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (1973) Refresh (Revised Section 508 2018), published in January 2017 and amended in 2018, addresses digital accessibility and telecommunications.
So what challenges do these changes present to the digital nature of education, credentials, certification and exam delivery? And, more importantly, what does it mean for your organization’s exam(s)?
What Is Digital Accessibility?
Digital accessibility is when disabled people can use all websites and access all digital documents. “When websites and web tools are properly designed and coded, disabled people can use them. However, currently many sites and tools are developed with accessibility barriers that make them difficult or impossible for some people to use.” (From the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative)
For many, the word “accessible” means anyone can access the content online. The W3C Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (WCAG) were established in 2000 as a benchmark of technical digital accessibility. WCAG 2.0 AA is the adopted and expected level of accessibility established in the ADA and the Vocational Rehabilitation Act Sections 508 and 504. WCAG standards are also the basis of accessibility in the EU’s European Mandate, Accessible Ontario Act, UK Equality Act and many other regional, national and domain specific laws and regulations around the world.
Disability, Equity and Inclusion, and Accessibility
Steps to take to begin assessing and integrating accessibility into your digital world are provided at the end of this article. How are you addressing disabled people in your digital engagement? Does your organization have a disability, equity and inclusion (DEI) statement, policy or commitment? Do your customers? Equity means providing equal access. This applies to the digital world as well. This is the challenge for the 21st century, our 31st year of the ADA, and 21st year of WCAG.
Blueberry Muffins and Elevators
What do blueberry muffins and elevators have to do with certification and credentialing? Brian Parson, user experience researcher at Sony, created the following graphic to illustrate a common analogy in the accessibility community.
Blueberry muffins become blueberry muffins when you include the blueberries in the muffin batter before baking. If you attempt to add the blueberries into the muffins after baking, it makes quite a mess ― and they are just not blueberry muffins. An example of alternative-text is included with the graphic.
We all know that elevators are of great benefit in multistory buildings. But if someone were to tell you that you should add an elevator into a building after it was completed, you would likely laugh and ask if they were serious. Without being an architect, you know that the expense and disruption would be enormous.
Including accessibility as you build programs is essential for inclusion and equity. When digital programs, sites, and platforms perform redesigns or user experience (UX) updates, the inclusion of accessibility in the process is a great way to incorporate accessibility.
Education, Credentialing, Certification and Licensure and Accessibility: Where Are We Now?
Many websites, tools, products, learning management systems (LMS) and exam delivery platforms do not meet WCAG guidelines. When a digital platform does not meet WCAG standards, reasonable accommodations are to be provided (in the U.S.). In Europe, actual equitable experiences are required. But what does this mean to the person pursuing professional development, credentials, certification, licensure or continuing education?
When systems are not built and developed to be accessible (the actual code in the digital realm), these pieces of technology cannot provide equal access to disabled people. A disabled person that uses assistive technology may not be able to engage with the content on their own. Examples of assistive technology include:
- Keyboard navigation (instead of a mouse)
- Text-to-speech technology (Siri reading your email or Adobe reading your PDF to you)
- Screen readers (JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver or TalkBack)
- Alternative and augmented communications (using a computer to speak instead of vocal chords/voice)
What if a disabled person cannot get to your website, read the information on your site or understand what information to submit to your website online? These are the barriers in digital accessibility that prevent equitable engagement. Sites with barriers are not inclusive. Everyone wants to be open and welcoming with their programs and content. Much like the skillset of active listening, active inclusion requires some knowledge, effort and planning for any digital document, product, application and website.
Very few platforms have an accessible content delivery format, but one such example that does is EdX. A person with a disability can search, find, sign up for and take a course, program or exam using their preferred assistive technology. It should be noted, however, that in order to register to get a score, grade or certificate, the verification and identity check process may require the assistance from a non-disabled person. While some platforms are making moves in the right direction, there is always more that can be done to make the experience, from start to finish, fully accessible.
Recently, two cases have made the news, both tied to the lack of accessible exam content.
The Medical Collee Admission Test (MCAT) has only ever been offered in person. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) defers to their illustrations, charts and graphs, requiring candidates to be physically present at test centers. With the closure of exam centers due to COVID-19, all MCAT Exam offerings for March, April and most of May 2020 were cancelled. While in-person exams have now resumed, lawmakers have recently questioned AAMC about the safety of their testing. If well-constructed graphics, charts and tables, designed with accessibility in mind, were available, they would allow for an online or remotely administered exam and allow medical school admissions to continue to reach all candidates, even during a pandemic.
In the second case, a California court has banned the University of California from using the SAT or ACT during the pandemic for the basis of financial aid and admissions, due to the lack of accessible exams for disabled students. Similar to the MCAT Exam, if the exams had been developed in an accessible manner and on a platform that was accessible, students and schools would not be facing this disruption in the college admissions process.
Accessibility is an ongoing process, not a checklist, and should be part of every organization’s policies and procedures. Now is a great time to start planning your path to accessibility. Talk with your vendors and platforms about their accessibility roadmap. What is their plan? How and when do they plan to become usable for disabled people?
International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) is creating a coalition of credentialing organizations, certification groups, higher education, advocacy groups, psychometric exam/test delivery industry partners and accessibility professionals this fall. The hope in bringing these audiences together is to establish agreed upon terms, standards, best practices and resources that can advance accessibility and inclusion in these shared professions and industry. If you are interested in learning more about the coalition, submit an interest form here.
To continue learning, a page of resources in support of accessibility and the topics for this article has been created. If you have questions about accessibility, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.