The Importance of Teaching All Students About Tech Accessibility Features
Although many see accessibility features as solely for users with disabilities, a wide variety of students can benefit from them.
Traditionally, accessibility features have been perceived as tools that only benefit specific learners. For example, if you have a student with dyslexia, you might help that student learn how to use the text-to-speech and speech-to-text features of their device when reading and writing. However, accessibility features (while essential for some learners) can also be beneficial to other learners.
If we view accessibility features through the lens of Universal Design for Learning, then we realize that accessibility features are one way to promote access and minimize barriers for the wide variety of learners in our classrooms.
For example, text-to-speech tools are beneficial not only for students with dyslexia but also for students who are learning a new language, students who are proofreading their essays and want to catch errors easily, and students with limited time who want to complete readings while they are in transit. In addition, text-to-speech tools allow for multimodal learning opportunities.
iPad Accessibility Features
In my work with K–12 schools and universities, a key area of focus has been helping educators explore how they can enhance teaching and learning with the iPad. There are dozens of incredible accessibility features built into Apple devices, some of which are listed in the accessibility settings and others that are embedded features of particular apps. Below are seven iPad features that I think are helpful for students.
- Spoken Content: Spoken Content is the iPad’s text-to-speech feature, and it can read a selection of text or the full screen. Students can also adjust the rate of speech and customize the appearance of the text as it is read. For example, words and sentences can be highlighted in different colors to make tracking easier. Spoken Content also includes a typing feedback feature whereby the iPad can read text aloud as students type.
- AssistiveTouch: AssistiveTouch makes it easier to navigate and control the iPad, and students can customize the actions to best fit their needs. For example, students can add a screenshot action that makes it much easier to take screenshots on the device.
- Safari Reader: With Safari Reader, students can eliminate distracting content from webpages (such as ads, menu bars, and banners). They can also customize the appearance of the webpage, including the font, font size, and background color.
- Magnifier: Magnifier allows students to magnify different objects in their environment. For example, students can magnify a page in a book, a historical artifact in the classroom, an object in nature, or anything else in their environment that they want to examine up close.
- Dictation: Dictation is the iPad’s speech-to-text feature. As students talk, the iPad will automatically convert their speech into text.
- Translate: The iPad has built-in translation capabilities that work across apps. For example, students can highlight text on a webpage and translate it into other languages. There is also a Translate app in iPadOS 14 and higher that allows students to translate text, voice, conversations, and even text on objects in their environment!
- Live Captions: Live Captions is a new feature in iPadOS 16 that allows students to caption spoken content. For example, students can enable Live Captions during a lesson so that they can easily follow along with what the teacher is saying, or they can enable Live Captions while listening to a podcast.
Google and Microsoft Accessibility Features
There are helpful accessibility features built into Google and Microsoft tools as well. Below are a few examples.
- Students can use Voice Typing in Google Docs and Google Slides to convert their speech into text.
- They can translate Google Docs from one language to another.
- Students can also enable captions when presenting in Google Slides.
- Students can use dictation in Word and PowerPoint to convert their speech into text.
- They can enable live captions or subtitles in a different language when giving presentations in PowerPoint.
- Students can use Immersive Reader to perform a wide range of helpful tasks. They can have text read aloud as words and sentences are highlighted on the screen, click on words to hear the pronunciation or view an image from the Picture Dictionary, translate text from one language to another, and color-code words based on their parts of speech. Immersive Reader also has tons of customization options. For example, students can adjust the display of the text (e.g., text size, spacing, font, background color) and how many lines of text they focus on at a time. Immersive Reader is built into Office 365. In addition, there is a “Use Immersive Reader on Websites” Chrome extension that will read select text on a website.
Teaching Students About Accessibility Features
There are three important questions we should address when teaching students about accessibility features:
- What are the accessibility features of this device/tool?
- How do I use them?
- When should I use them?
Students also need opportunities to practice using the accessibility features in different contexts; this can not only help them develop greater fluency with the features but also help them transfer their knowledge to new situations.
Teaching students about accessibility features need not be a time-consuming or cumbersome process. In her book Transform Your Teaching with Universal Design for Learning, Jennifer L. Pusateri suggests a strategy called “5-Minute Feature,” where each week, you take five minutes to share a helpful feature.
As we work to help students become creators rather than just consumers of technology, teaching them about accessibility features can also help them ensure that the content they create is accessible to others. For example, by learning about the importance of captioning, students can ensure that the presentations they deliver and videos they create are proactively designed with accessibility in mind.
By taking the time to explicitly teach students about accessibility features, we can ensure that our students have the opportunity to personalize their learning and demonstrate their understanding in ways that acknowledge learner variability and promote student agency. We can also equip them with tools to make the content they create more accessible to others.