Tiny Hawk: Small Changes Make a Big Impact

Accessibility is the practice of ensuring that information, activities, and/or environments can be efficiently used by anyone, regardless of their visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive abilities. Hawkes Learning is moving beyond technical compliance and working toward Section 508 compliance and WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance in all our materials! This process includes developing content that is “born accessible” as well as developing processes for remediation of existing content. Visit our accessibility site to learn more about how Hawkes is dedicated to providing all students with an engaging online learning environment, access resources and explore best practices.

In this guest blog, co-authors Chrystal Trapani and Kristin White explore what it means to create accessible content, why it’s important, and a few key elements that you can implement to accommodate your students’ needs.


When most people hear the word disability, they think of an elderly individual in a wheelchair.  However, the term encompasses far more than that.  Over 25% of the world is disabled, and nearly everyone will experience some form of disability in their lives.

When you start thinking about accessibility, it is not about disability at all.  Accessibility is about ability and making things easier for everyone.  The odds are you rely on things that are related to accessibility in your daily life.  When you go to the grocery store, you walk through the automatic doors, and when you go to leave, you take your cart to the curb cut to go to your car.  If you are watching a movie, and you do not want to wake someone in the next room, you might watch it with the subtitles on.  If you are looking at an image on your phone that is too small, you probably zoom in to make the image clearer without giving it a second thought.  You might dictate a text message to your phone.  These items make the world more accessible for individuals who are disabled. 

Accessibility is the design and creation of products, devices, services, or environments that are usable by people with disabilities.  Nearly everyone interacts with others in a digital environment, so any documents or files that you create must meet web accessibility guidelines. The internet helps break down barriers because it provides everyone access to materials; however, since it is designed to work for all people, it has to be accessible to people with a diverse range of abilities.  The internet, effectively, has removed barriers to communication and interaction that many face in their daily lives.  However, if a website, recording, or digital document is poorly designed, it can create a barrier that excludes people from digital materials.  It is important to change your mindset from “I have to make these documents accessible” to “Making an accessible document is part of the process of making content.”

This side-by-side comparison of our homepage as seen by someone with typical vision versus protanopia-type vision is one example of what someone with a visual disability (colorblindness) experiences. Note that while shades of blue aren’t greatly impacted, red and green buttons appear grey, which would be virtually impossible to distinguish against a light grey background.

Unfortunately, some instructors incorrectly assume that if they do not have students with documented disabilities, they do not have to generate accessible course material.  While this might be the case presently, they may easily have a student later who has accommodation paperwork.  Additionally, there are many reasons why a student who needs accommodations does not have them.  Getting accommodations is expensive, so odds are there are students who will benefit from accommodations, but access to them is impossible.  A student or someone in their family might think that they do not “need” accommodations.  A student who is color blind may think that they do not need or cannot get accommodations, but they are at a disadvantage if course content does not meet color contrast standards.  While the student themselves may not need accommodations, someone in their family unit may benefit from accommodations.

Often digital accessibility is presented in a way that is not always approachable, but that does not have to be the case.  There are two easy adjustments that everyone can make that will positively impact their students: contrast and font selection.

Contrast (Color Contrast)

Have you ever struggled to match a pair of black and navy blue socks and needed better light to tell the difference?  Imagine not being able to get “better light” to decide what color something is.  Someone who experiences a form of color blindness may see the world differently from you.  Additionally, a student who has low vision may override your document colors to view them in a color combination that works best for them.

Background and foreground colors may be perceived differently by users with visual impairments, and those with cognitive differences may have difficulty reading text at certain contrast levels.

When considering contrast, navigating the course content gets a lot more difficult if contrast standards are not met.  While many colors may look fine to a typically-abled user, they may be impossible for someone who has color blindness.  If you ask a student to identify a red bar on a chart, they may not be able to complete the task if they are colorblind.  This is why color should never be the only indicator to identify something.

Color contrast is the difference between the background color and foreground color.  Your background color is the color that is on the page (e.g., a Google Doc or MS Word document starts with a white background).  The foreground color is the color of the text or images that are being put on top of the background (e.g., Google Docs and MS Word start with black text in the foreground).

Color contrast is often expressed as a contrast ratio that ranges from 1 to 21 and is written as 1:1 (white text on white background) and 21:1 (black text on white background).  The first number in the ratio refers to the relative luminance of light colors the second number refers to the relative luminance of dark colors.

There are two great tools that take the guesswork out of making accessible documents.  WebAIM’s Contrast Checker allows users to put the color information from their documents into the fields and use the slider bars to locate a color that meets contrast.  Inversely, if someone is just beginning a document, they can use Color Safe to generate an accessible color palette.

Font Selection

Many do not consider the font that they are using when accessibility is mentioned, but the fonts used in a document can have a big impact on your students.  Unfortunately, there is debate in the disability community about what font is best.  There is no clear consensus.  Some believe that sans serifs are better for screen reading while others feel that serifs are better for print reading.  Serifs are the decorative tails and strokes that stem from letters, if something is sans serif, it does not have the tails.  You should aim for simplicity in your font for the most readability.

Because there is no consensus, there are several things to consider:

  • Ensure that documents use simple, familiar, parsed fonts that do not have complex characters (e.g., cursive script fonts)
  • Use limited numbers of fonts; every time you swap fonts, the reader has to adjust their reading pattern (no more than three fonts is ideal)
  • Avoid small-size fonts
  • Avoid ambiguous characters such as a font where a letter o and zero are similar or a c that is nearly closed and looks similar to a letter o
  • Consider spacing and weight; fonts that have little spacing between letters are hard to read (e.g., cool may look like cod if the letters are too close).  Additionally, fonts that are very light are difficult to read.

Conclusion

Accessibility shouldn’t feel daunting; it is important to remember that it is a process, and we all need to start somewhere. Contrast and font selection are great first steps to begin your accessibility journey to positively impact your content’s digital accessibility! Changes take time and will not happen overnight, so give yourself grace and accept it is okay to make mistakes along the way — we all do. But learn from your mistakes and commit to continuing to make progress on your accessibility journey.

Creating digitally accessible content is important, but it is also important to change your mindset from, “I have to make these documents accessible” to “Making an accessible document is part of the process of making content.” The more you put these concepts into practice, the easier it gets! Instead of taking additional time to remediate your content after it has been created, you can make your life easier and save time by building with accessibility in mind from the get-go. Now that you have learned a little more about accessible contrast and font selection, it is your time to shine and spread your Tiny Hawk wings!


Meet the Authors

Chrystal Trapani is an Instructional Technologist with the Center for Learning and Teaching, an adjunct instructor in the Department of English at Old Dominion University, a Google Certified Trainer, and Instructure’s Educator of the Year (2022). She is a doctoral graduate student at Old Dominion University in the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies in the Instructional Design and Technology program. Her research focuses on instructor attitudes towards digitally accessible course materials in basic writing courses.

Chrystal blends her experience working with first-generation and non-traditional students, curriculum development, creating interactive and accessible online course content, digital accessibility, and training faculty in order to help them achieve positive student outcomes and success. In working with faculty, she helps her colleagues gain strong, working knowledge of how to make course content successful for students of all learning abilities.

Kristin White is an Instructional Technologist with the Center for Learning and Teaching at Old Dominion University; she has been an integral part of ODU’s transition to remote teaching during COVID-19 and continues to develop and facilitate faculty support on topics including Zoom, Canvas, VoiceThread, Kaltura, and other instructional technologies via workshops, consultations, videos, and support documentation. While building online interactive activities for faculty, she has noticed the absence of basic accessibility knowledge and does her best to inform and educate others on how to make content accessible to all learners.

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