ADA Section 508 in e-Learning: the Next Step towards a Better Education

Stepless entranceThere are plenty of examples of urban accessibility, such as shopping mall ramps, stepless buses, and many more. They were challenging to invent, difficult to embody, but crucially important to implement. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity in every possible realm. This year we are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We decided to talk about accessibility in education and the rapid evolution of e-Learning. The traditional e-Learning program is often difficult for students with special needs. Here are some statistics to think about:



 More than a quarter of a billion people on earth are visually impaired


 1-9% of the population have movement-related disabilities


 About ten percent of the people in the world have some degree of hearing loss


 And roughly every sixth person in the US population has learning-related disabilities


Woman looking through blindsThe adaptable learning environment in the digital age can be liberating for disabled students. According to our statistics, accumulated over the years of working with eLearning content, during a course semester students make an average of 3,000 - 4,000 clicks in the online educational systems, 90% of which usually fall on assessment and homework questions. Yet, the lack of accessibility sometimes means the e-Leaning world is a step too far for many.

The US Federal Government ratified Section 508 of the ADA in 1990. The intention was to adapt information technology for different users. The UK's DDA and the Canadian AODA follow the same goal. The Disability Acts summarize the minimal standards, such as “the use of text labels or descriptors for graphics and certain format elements.” This section addresses the usability of multimedia presentations, image maps, style sheets, scripting languages, applets, plug-ins, and electronic forms. The Section 508 was targeted to:

  • Eradicate barriers in IT
  • Make new opportunities accessible for people with special needs
  • Encourage the expansion of new technologies that will help achieve these goals

Since June 2001, Section 508 has required that all content created using federal money to be compliant with its rules. So, even though the instructions are not mandatory for everyone in the world of technology. It is great to see how much progress the community has achieved in the recent years. Nonetheless, rule compliance can still be tricky even if you are experienced in the field. Often the cost of adapting content to ADA requirements is up to 40% of the project cost. Accessibility in the e-Learning industry is somewhat broader than what Section 508 requires. Sometimes vendors delegate the compliance to different developers. This practice can have a negative effect on the quality of the resources.

 hand on the mouseAt Competentum, we have created a team of experts dedicated to managing accessibility compliance. They have a wide range of experience in section 508 rules compliance. We also regularly update our internal rules and practices. The team’s biggest weapon is thorough testing on students. This process includes quality assurance (QA) done by learners with the various different sets of limitations.

In the end, all students, including those with special needs, will get the skills and knowledge the courses intend to provide.

We use special color contrast tables to ensure all color-coding will be accessible to learners. At Competentum, we build-in plenty of intricate features for the student who is unable to process any visual information. Our resources are adapted to the special assisting programs, such as “Jaws” on Windows, “Voice over” on Macintosh, and others. That means that all our materials are ready to be used on most PCs and tablets. Our special ADA navigation tools are adapted to mobile devices too. Students with visual impairment are offered a special voice over text. They can use keyboard navigation to go through the resources, jump through paragraphs, choose answers for multiple questions, and fill in entry fields.

arrow buttonsOur video materials are equipped with special texts too. One explains what is happening on the screen, the other is devoted to the text in the video itself, if it has any. We make sure that the voice over that explains the video does not overlap with the other sounds. That requires quite an effort. To enhance the complicated structure, these texts feature easy navigation.

We have solved the challenge of making accessible graphics with draggable elements. To best manage the task, we have created a graphic library, where draggable points can be moved with arrow buttons, as well as with a mouse. After testing in a classroom, we received very positive feedback from the students. Now we are using this feature for all of the educational objectives to meet the most demanding accessibility criteria. Our product, called G2DGraph, is a great example of the successful culmination of modern design, scientific accuracy, and contemporary accessibility. Here we incorporated texture incorporated tooltips for clear identification of the selected point and its position. Learners can navigate easily via left, right, up, and down arrow keys, as well as zoom in/out/reset via ‘+’, ‘-‘, ‘home’ and left side navigation buttons. This provides an alternative for the students with motor skill disorders, to give them a better interaction experience with plotted data.



The resources also support screen readers via special WAI-ARIA attributes of the graphed object. This involves filtering items that are currently visible on a screen with the help of the data rendered on a graph in a tabular format. This feature facilitates quicker navigation and graph zooming for visually impaired students. For those who cannot access audio content, our team creates a set of subtitles and closed captions, describing speech and sounds. There is still plenty of content which is challenging to adapt. For example, a voice-over app would not be able to describe anything about the inactive part of the model. If, for instance, there are two interactive graphics on the screen, the student would miss out on the content. Moreover, the second one, although inactive, correlates to the changes made on the first one, therefore, the explanation to the student will be incomplete without a special effort. The challenge here is to create a set of text that will, first, accurately describe what is happening and, second, will be short enough to fit into the standard lengths of 250-500 symbols. At Competentum, we possess all the resources to complete tedious tasks such as these.



formulas The HTML5 platform is challenging for voice over features. Some of the vector objects may be confusing for a text-to-speech reader. That is why we are building tailored descriptive texts. We are using them mainly, but by no means exclusively, for formulas, which could indeed be misinterpreted or misread. The library of these texts helps us to make the process even more efficient.

Even when all standards are met, our team continues to look for an opportunity to improve the tools to assist and support the learners as much as possible. For example, there is no formal rule about how text-to-speech would read the table – in this case, we are testing different methods to make the information as useful as possible for listeners. We are also considering each large and small detail, such as video sounds being compatible with the text reader, etc.

a blind runner and a guide hands tied togetherWe all know that Section 508 compliance is no longer an extravagance, but a necessity, and we are proud that our team has sufficient resources to go the extra mile to tackle the challenging issues like assessable e-learning. After all, what is the goal of our work, if not to make our world a better place!

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