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Accessibility Specialists: Understanding “Invisible” Disabilities and What this Means for Online Education

  • On Tuesday, the Sloan Consortium concluded its accessibility series with the fourth and final webinar, Accessibility Specialists: Understanding “Invisible” Disabilities & What this Means for Online Education. This webinar was dedicated to facilitating learning for those students who may otherwise appear “normal,” but who have a disability that inhibits the learning process. These disabilities can be physiological, cognitive, or behavioral.

    Providing an equal learning environment for those with hearing or visual disabilities is already difficult in online classrooms where students are somewhat anonymous. They must self-identify as a disabled person. The same is true for invisible disabilities, but unlike physical impairments, where teachers can reasonably infer limitations, faculty are not familiar with accommodations required for these conditions. This post contains some key takeaways from the webinar and more about how institutions of higher education can meet the challenges of online students with invisible disabilities.

    Watch the webinar: Accessibility Specialists: Understanding “Invisible” Disabilities and What this Means for Online Education

    Webinar Accessibility Experts:

    Kelly Hermann– SUNY Empire State College – Director of the Office of College-wide Disability Services
    Michel Miller – Drexel University– Assistant Professor of Special Education
    Keith Jervis – Pennsylvania State University – Disability Specialist Liaison
    Cyndi Rowland – Director, WebAIM & Technology Director, National Center on Disability and Access to Education

    What Is an “Invisible Disability”?

    An invisible disability is a disability that is not physically noticeable, but impacts an individual’s ability to go to work or school, socialize, and more. “Although the disability creates a challenge for the person who has it, the reality of the disability can be difficult for others to recognize or acknowledge.” Depression, bipolar disorder, autoimmune disorders, and Lyme disease are all examples of invisible disabilities.

    See a list of additional invisible disabilities.

    A TBI, or traumatic brain injury, is another example of an invisible disability. As we explained in our interview, Experts in Video Accessibility: Dominique Williamson, Online Student & Disabled Veteran, traumatic brain injuries sustained as a result of battle can make everyday life hard for veterans returning to school. TBIs affect a veteran’s ability to retain information and may require the individual to take more time completing assignments. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is another invisible disability, or “invisible wound,” affecting a large number of returning soldiers. In fact, it is believed that 25-40% of the 1.6 million soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan return with psychological and neurological injuries.

    Redefining Disability

    Why are these invisible disabilities considered disabilities? What impact do they have in developing university courses? In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA) redefined what it means to be disabled. The ADAAA made changes to the definition of “disability,” clarifying and broadening it. Today, more people are protected under the ADA and other Federal disability nondiscrimination laws. Universities are federally required to make accommodations for these individuals.

    Now let’s learn a little more about the lessons each speaker had to share.

    Accessibility Best Practices & Supporting Students with Invisible Disabilities

    Kelly Hermann stressed that universal design has become increasingly important at Empire State College, both for online courses and on-campus courses. While some faculty may be intimidated at first, Kelly urges educators to remember that they do not need to be stifled by these restrictions and that their creativity can still flourish within them.

    7 Principles of Universal Design for E-Learning Instructors

    1. Equitable Use: design provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
    2. Flexibility in Use: design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. (ie. Left or right handed access and use.)
    3. Simple & Intuitive Use: design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
    4. Perceptible Information: design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
    5. Tolerance for Error: design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
    6. Low Physical Effort: design can be used efficiently and comfortably. (ie. Online classes allow consumption of information with little eye strain and fatigue.)
    7. Size & Space for Approach & Use: design provides for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility. (ie. Online learning platforms allow for the use/integration of assistive devices such as a JAWS reader.)

    [Source: http://www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/sites/cud/content/principles/principles.html]

    Designing Courses around Student Personas

    Michel Miller introduced a new concept to the accessibility discussion with the development of student personas. A common concept within product design, personas are tools for selling products intended to be utilized by a diverse group of users. Real information is applied to imaginary people who represent each demographic.

    At Drexel University, the use of student personas have allowed faculty to create courses with the limitations of the student body in mind. Instead of reactively adjusting courses for disabled students, they are able to design for multiple user sets. Currently, the Online Accessibility Committee at Drexel has developed five personas. Miller discussed the personas that represent a student with a cognitive impairment and a student with a social or emotional disability (ie. autism spectrum disorder), but Drexel’s other personas represent a student with a visual impairment, a student with a hearing impairment, and, lastly, a student with a physical disability.

    During her talk, Michel introduced us to Jenny and Matt. Take a look at Jenny’s persona profile.

    Hidden Disability Student Persona

    Because of her problems with linguistic comprehension, Jenny works best when:

    • Content is structured with headings and bulleted lists,
    • Labels are used consistently,
    • Page layout is simple, without distracting images and animations,
    • Due dates for assignments are clearly stated and easily located in the course,
    • Large assignments are broken down into components and feedback is provided on each submitted component before the next one is due.

    Those are only a few of the ways which accessibility advocates have come to understand Jenny’s cognitive impairment. There is much more information available for instructors, enabling teachers to build accessible classes from the ground up. Before, many teachers reactively changed courses as students self-identified their hidden disabilities. Michel elaborates: “…faculty often share: ‘oh, I wasn’t even aware or thinking about students with disabilities in my course until I encountered a student with a hearing impairment, and then I was back pedaling and trying to redesign my assignments and courses to be accessible.’”

    Identifying Disabilities in Online Environments

    Keith Jervis has found accommodation becomes easier to anticipate when faculty can create a conversation about disabilities with students. 21% of Penn State’s World Campus online students request extensions for mental health problems, as opposed to only 4% of brick-and-mortar class attendees. The problem with invisible disabilities is that online, they become harder to detect, with the need for extensions confused with laziness. As such, Penn State encourages students to be proactive and disclose disability at the time of admission.

    Furthermore, academic advisers of the World Campus have been trained to identify language that might mean accommodation will be necessary in the future; phrases like “It takes me more time to do my assignments,” or “I had an IEP (individualized education program) in high school,” help tell the story. Identifying these students helps Penn State make sure they get the support they need.

    All Penn State faculty must include a syllabus statement, informing students about the Office for Disability Services. Additionally, there is an online training program with six common scenarios that familiarize faculty with the needs of students with disabilities. Because instructors interact with these students more than any other university personnel, they lay the foundation for a universally accessible online campus.

    Embracing User-Centered Design & Accessibility for Web Designers

    Cyndi Rowland approached online accessibility from the perspective of a technologist, considering some of the ways faculty interact with students before content even becomes a consideration. For all of us, inconsistencies in web design can be annoying. Imagine, however, you have a cognitive disability that makes busy navigation confusing or distracting. Cyndi calls for everything on the technical side to be “natively accessible,” following the WCAG guidelines. University web developers can lend some of the most comprehensive support for students and faculty with disabilities.

    “It’s really wonderful to be multimodal, because it can aid in comprehension. Think of yourself on a foreign language site. A lot of times, the way that you figure out what’s supposed to go with what is the full environment, the full context. Some of our students, frankly, are feeling like they’re in their own little foreign language with some of our content.”

    Cyndi Rowland | Director, WebAIM

    What can web developers do?

    1. Assistive Technology Compatible: Form labels; alt text, table headers; logical heading structure; logical reading and navigation order; keyboard accessible; caption and transcripts.
    2. Transformable: Support enlarged text images; support disabling of styles and images; support enabling of user styles or contrast changes.
    3. Multi-modal: Content in multiple mediums; use images, audio, or video combined to enhance content comprehension; captioning and use of transcripts.
    4. Semantic Structure: Headings; lists and chunking.
    5. Consistent: Navigation; structure; interface elements; interaction elements.

    For more information, please see WebAIM’s: Cognitive Disabilities Part I.

    Providing support to students with invisible disabilities takes several forms. It can be counseling and resource driven: identifying and enabling students as soon as they enroll. It can mean training faculty and educating instructional designers. Lastly, an overlooked area of support is technological, building accessibility into the university website and learning platforms.

    These levels of support echo the cautionary lessons taught to us by Gaeir Dietrich in Digital Does Not Mean Accessible: Building Accessible Institutional Infrastructures, a summary of Sloan Consortium’s first accessibility webinar. Gaier made it clear that accessibility can break down at any level. Don’t let your online program break down. Assume that all students have different needs, whether they broadcast these or not. Create an action committee, and broadcast these best practices.

    Additional Resources

    Invisible Disabilities Association & Invisible No More TV

    College Students with “Hidden” Disabilities: Freshman Survey Fall 2010

    Invisible Wounds: Serving Service Members and Veterans with PTSD and TBI

    [LIST] Resources for Online Education Accessibility & Policy Building

2 Responses to Accessibility Specialists: Understanding “Invisible” Disabilities and What this Means for Online Education

  1. Marcia Ashbaugh says:

    I have prescribed this blog for my students in a professional development course at the University of Illinois. One recently pointed out that you have misspelled “principle” in the heading titled “7 Principals of Universal Design for E-Learning Instructors”. It is important that we convey higher ideals in educational scholarship which would include grammar. I know this will be embarrassing yet so was I knowing I had recommended the resource without catching the error myself. ;)

    • Emily Griffin says:

      Thanks, Marcia! This post is due for an update anyway. Thanks again for catching that, and for recommending our content as a resource for your students.

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