There is a minimum anyone in the ed-tech space must do around accessibility to even be considered relevant. Adding to this minimum, there is an increased expectation of what every ed-tech company should do. And then, of course, there is the hope all ed-tech vendors will do the right thing. Let’s examine each of these:
The Minimum: Do the fundamentals and be held accountable
Any reading system that delivers content into a learning environment must respect the markup that is within the files they are delivering and expose that markup to assistive technology. The use of web technologies is pervasive today and you would never consider building an app that did not work or somehow leverage the internet. It is unthinkable (and dare I say irresponsible!) to have a reading system in today’s ed-tech marketplace that is not accessible. WCAG 2.0 is a fundamental assumption now, and provides clear direction on what every vendor must do. You have to support the content markup, as well as be completely transparent in sharing just how well you do that. Publishing your VPAT may be the current minimum legal requirement, but your transparency must extend beyond this as well.
The Expectation: Be a good partner and take the long view
There are many players in the ed-tech ecosystem, and solving an individual’s needs requires every part to work together. This means doing more than handing someone a VPAT. You have to be transparent about your capabilities (such as the excellent epubtest.org site for comparing EPUB capabilities and your accessibility support) because your partners, your customers, and other important ‘links in the chain’ you may never have contact with all need that information. You have to adopt standards for metadata (like the recently improved accessibility work at schema.org) to enable discovery of content. Above all, you have to be prepared for the journey. Delivering an accessible platform is not about checking a box and saying you are done. Operating systems are updated regularly, assistive technology comes out with new versions, and your own application will continue to enhance its own capabilities. Longevity is required, and a perspective that accessibility is a non-negotiable requirement. You will never solve the problems at hand if you are trying to fix things afterwards or in a later release. Design it in from the start, and make it a commitment and a fundamental part of your DNA.
The Right Thing: Be a participant, not an observer
As we all work to improve our solutions, we still find gaps that need to be filled. These gaps may be in functionality, in the standards, the laws or even in the processes involved. Participants, especially from the ed-tech community, need to be involved in identifying these gaps and filling them. We all need to ‘roll up our sleeves’ and participate in the working groups, in the test creation and in the community discussions about the best ways to partner. The needs of each part of the supply chain have to be respected and yet we all need to work together to come up with solutions. Even when you do everything right, there will still be the situation where the publisher has marked up the content, the distributor has adopted the right metadata techniques for discovery, the platform is accessible and doing the right things, and the needs of the user are still not met. The unsung heroes are in the disability service office at each campus. They work with individual users to ensure their specific needs are accommodated, and they need the right tools to service these situations. Publishers, vendors, and retailers have to come together to help create these. The work of the IMS Global Accessibility Community of Practice is a great example of places where all of these participants are coming together to solve problems and propose solutions.
As you can see, when it comes to claiming “accessibility” for your platform, there are no binary decisions. The evaluation of accessibility is one where you have to examine the content, the platforms and the discovery and delivery process. Only when all of these parts are working together can we start to approach such a bold claim. To use an old phrase, we are all moving down this information superhighway. The pace of change, and the volume of content moving is increasing each and every month. Without all of us revisiting our assumptions about how we need to “solve” accessibility, we will wind up in a cul-de-sac, instead of being in the fast lane. The increasing nomadic behavior of the participants, as their interconnected devices provide access to this critical content without any boundaries or restrictions, requires us to take a broader view and partner everywhere we can. This is where standards win. None of us can do this alone. Standards enable us to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ that have come before us, but also let us be immersed in the crowd and share what advances we can contribute.
In upcoming posts I’ll elaborate on where VitalSource is with these challenges in more detail. We have a long history of making accessibility “job one”, and many happy users and partners who are leveraging that work every day. Our involvement in delivering, and helping to create the standards behind these solutions is something that we are very proud of, and yet it compels us to improve things as well. Together with our partners, we are excited about what where we can go in the future!
Read the first post in the series - Accessibility & VitalSource - Part I