Education for all means including students from all walks of life — including those with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, require greater access for students with disabilities, yet amid concerns regarding funding and physical access to campus and its classrooms, they can also face an even more fundamental challenge: How will they learn?
Technology is providing not only improved access, but also improved learning experiences for students with disabilities. Under its jurisdiction, the ADA stipulates that all online courses are fully compliant from the start of each course — a requirement that can prove challenging for students and teachers. Yet for digital learning platform BNED LoudCloud, the American with Disabilities Act is just the starting point. “We’re not just building software to be compliant with the ADA,” points out BNED Marketing Manager Sean O’Connor, “What we’re aiming to do is to make the whole learning experience more fully accessible. As part of our Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) process, we engaged visually-impaired and hearing-impaired quality assurance engineers to test our platform and provide us with detailed feedback on how to optimize our Courseware.”
To do that, LoudCloud front-end developers Gianluca Macciocca and Zenon Jordan take meticulous care to ensure the application code they write will be of maximum utility to the user. “Part of that means ensuring the code will be useful to devices like screen-reading software, which is essential for a blind or visually impaired person, enabling them to follow the course,” Macciocca explains. Screen-reading programs such as VoiceOver on Mac OS or NVDA on Windows, analyze the webpage for hidden ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) tags written within the HTML, which in turn enables the student to interact with the program. “The screen reader can then transmit, either by describing aloud or providing tactile prompts, the information displayed on the screen,” he adds.
Attention to the smallest detail of code can mean a significant difference in the way a student will experience the course, and it can be painstaking work. “Unfortunately, the technology between the readers isn’t consistent. The way those tags are read in different browsers can be very different, so that’s where we’re going to have to create extra coding,” explains Jordan. LoudCloud applications also must be accessible to students on various kinds of devices. “Courseware, specifically, was written initially as a mobile application,” Macciocca says, “and we need to pay a lot of attention to the various kinds of operating systems for different devices.”
Dinesh Warrier, Creative Director for LoudCloud, leads the product strategy and manages the roadmap for the LoudBooks and LoudSight applications. He believes that technology can provide access to more students who might otherwise be challenged by higher education. “Physical textbooks are designed for the mainstream reader and are practically inaccessible for print-disabled learners who can find it difficult to handle physical books or even turn pages,” he points out.
In addition to physical challenges, disabled students may also be hampered by course information that provides color-coded information they are unable to interpret or by difficult-to-read text and image sizes. Warrier, who has an impairment that limits his field of vision and visual acuity, understands that accessibility must go beyond just technical solutions. “Users with visual and physical impairments expect platforms like LoudBooks to “level the playing field” and allow them to enjoy equitable, if not equal, access to learning content and learning experiences,” he says.
Because of legislative changes, expanded inclusive education practices and more informed support, the number of students with disabilities participating in higher education continues to grow. Research estimates that between 8–10 percent of students attending college have a disability, with an increasing number of high school students with disabilities now planning to continue their education after graduation. It’s a population that may be challenged by traditional learning methods, but the kind of assistive technology platforms that LoudCloud offers can significantly help. “For learners with visual or physical impairments that make orientation and mobility difficult, e-textbooks are a more convenient option,” Warrier points out. “They can limit dependence on physical books that cannot be adapted to individual users’ needs.”
As a learning platform, LoudCloud is looking to provide disabled students with not only access, but also greater consistency of experience on par with their non-disabled student peers, ultimately fueling opportunities for employment and independent living. It’s a process that starts with one line of programming code at a time and a deep understanding of the ever-changing nature of technology. “Yes, it’s a moving target,” admits Jordan, “but we’re trying to improve on that experience at every opportunity we can.”