Technology Integration

Mistakes I Used to Make in Digital Accessibility—and How to Fix Them

A former teacher shares how she unknowingly created digital content that was hard for students with disabilities to understand, and what to do instead.

September 15, 2023
skynesher / iStock

Back when I was in graduate school, I remember hearing a simple yet striking idea, which I recently learned is attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. secretary of defense. He said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

When it came to creating accessible digital content, I was definitely in the last category. I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Although I was a teacher and college professor for 16 years, I had never had any formal training about digital accessibility. Sure, I had learned about accommodations, modifications, and certain assistive technologies, but I was never taught to look critically at my own instructional materials—the slides, handouts, and other digital resources I created on a daily basis—in order to ensure that the content I was creating was proactively designed with accessibility in mind.

And so, I did what you do when you don’t know that you don’t know.

Digital Accessibility Mistakes

Here are some of the things I was getting wrong (with links to better practices):

1. I would color-code important information on my handouts and slides without ensuring that the information was also conveyed in a different way that would be accessible to color-blind learners.

2. I would sometimes use emojis as bullet points or sprinkle them within the body of the text without realizing that this garbled the message for those using screen readers.

3. I would underline text for emphasis (instead of reserving underlining for links only, which makes it clearer what is a link and what is not).

4. I would share pictures on social media and add pictures to my slides without ensuring that I included alternative text (alt text), which helps those who are blind or have low vision understand what is depicted in the images.

5. I would often use images as the background for my slides without sufficient consideration for appropriate color contrast, thus impacting the legibility of the information.

6. When creating handouts, I would format the titles and headings myself by changing the size or making the text bold (instead of using the built-in heading styles, which clarify the structure of the document and make it easier for learners using screen readers to navigate it).

7. When sharing links with others, I would copy and paste the entire link or write “Click here” (instead of using descriptive links, which make it clear where the link is going and are more accessible to learners using screen readers).

8. I did not ensure that the videos I showed in class, the ones I created myself, or the ones I shared on social media had accurate captions, thus creating barriers for deaf and hard-of-hearing learners and others who benefit from captioning.

9. When using hashtags on social media, I would type everything in lowercase instead of using Pascal or Camel case, which makes it easier to decipher the words in hashtags.

Can you relate to any of these common practices? If so, I want you to know that there’s no shame in not knowing any better. In fact, it wasn’t until I became more connected to my professional learning network on social media that my education in all things digital accessibility began.

My earliest encounter with the topic of digital accessibility occurred through educational developers like Ann Gagné who frequently posted about the importance of including alt text on images.

Prior to reading her posts, I didn’t know what alt text was or why it was necessary. However, the more I listened, the more I learned about how alt text increases accessibility for people who use screen readers and how without it, users can miss out on pivotal information (such as the details of an event or emergency information).

While I am thankful to no longer be in the “unknown unknowns” phase, I am still a work in progress. I still make mistakes, and I still have areas that I’m working on. But by embracing being a lifelong learner, I am making strides in my digital accessibility journey.

Beginning steps

If you are new to digital accessibility, here are some practical ways to get started.

1. Choose one of the common “don’t know that you don’t know” practices that I listed earlier, and make that an area of focus for one week. Use the linked resources in this article (along with your own additional research) to learn about why that practice is problematic, whom it creates barriers for, and how you can proactively design your content to be more accessible. These accessibility resources from the University of Minnesota and CAST can be helpful places to start.

Once you have a better understanding of the issue, practice applying the accessibility techniques you learn as you create and share digital content throughout the week. Many platforms (such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint; Apple Pages, Numbers, and Keynote; and Google Docs and Google Slides) offer helpful guidance in how to remedy common accessibility issues.

2. Each week, focus on a new “don’t know that you don’t know” item and repeat. The more you learn and practice the skills, the more they will become second nature.

3. Follow people, organizations, and other accounts that are experts in digital accessibility, and turn on notifications for their posts so that you’ll see them in your feed on a regular basis (e.g., Accessibility Awareness).

4. Attend workshops and listen to podcasts about accessibility (such as Gagné’s Accessagogy podcast).

5. Share what you learn about digital accessibility with your students so that they, too, can learn how to create accessible content.

I started this article with a quote, and I’d like to close with one, which is attributed to Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Now that you know more about the importance of digital accessibility and common practices to avoid, what will you do to ensure that the content you create and share is more accessible?

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