Testing Accessibility for Education Content And Platforms

Tarveen Kaur February 23, 2018
There is good news. While we might not be there today, we as a society are trending to become more inclusive. The world is making platforms and content accessible and laws of the land promote and mandate it. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended to adopt WCAG 2.1 accessibility standard in Jan 2017. This implied that all learning content available to the world needed to be compliant to these standards. So what does this mean to the learners? This means that the law grants equal rights to all students including those with special or different abilities to access all the wonderful content the rest of the world enjoyed for years in now a standardized by WCAG 2.1. So what does it take to get there?
Road to accessible content and platforms
There are a large number of technologies, platforms and OS in use today across devices of multiple form factors. The choices are diverse and the demands of consistency and quality have to be met regardless of these boundaries. There are a huge number of environments today. New OS & browser versions are being released with ever increasing frequency. Each version brings new functionality that soon becomes mainstream as competition catches up to innovation. On top of these OS, device and browser variants, there are 3rd party tools to contend with. The 3rd party tools interpret accessibility standards in their own way and have finer nuances. They often depend on underlying browsers, OS and devices.
Screen Readers Galore
Screen readers play a huge role in making the content accessible to people with disabilities. The primary task of these readers is to read the content that is selected or in focus. There are many screen readers available in the market today. Different screen readers behave differently in different environments. The screen readers need to contend with a combination of different browsers, device and OS versions. Some of the popular Screen readers include Jaws (Windows), NVDA (Windows), VoiceOver (iOS and Mac), ChromeVox (ChromeOS), TalkBack (Android Nexus), Voice Assistant (Android Samsung) & Narrator (Windows). Since the content or platform needs to play on all of these environments, all combinations need to be tested. Most of these screen readers work best in the native browsers of the respective OSes they support. Using these across other browsers is fraught with challenges. Each of the screen readers have different keystrokes for navigation that adds to the complexity. One example of screen reader nuances include reading of Math Content. As of writing this blog, NVDA is not able to read MathML, MathJax standards based Math content.
Legacy Content
A ton of legacy content was created as static PDF & Powerpoint presentations and some in technologies that are becoming rapidly obsolete (aka Flash). Up until recently, there was a ton of content was being created in PDF & Powerpoint presentations. Perhaps a similar volume was created via Flash, a once ubiquitous technology that is dying today. A large part of this legacy content is still relevant to learners. As educators cope up with accessibility regulations, there is a need to make the content accessible and validate compliance against accessibility standards. New content is being created by teachers and authors across the world. How many of these folks have access to authoring tools that allow creation of accessible content? Today there is a shift towards digital content authoring tools. These tools inherently provide mechanisms to make the content accessible. The task is to verify compliance to the accessibility standards.
Accessibility Testing Approach
First and foremost thing to be done is a simple compliance check. This means testing for compliance against WCAG 2.1 standard, validating all requirements and identifying what fails. Typically this is a list of non-compliance items reported as a list of defects. It is not enough to report non-compliance or gaps. The critical element is also to identify what is to be fixed and how the non-compliance is impacting the learner. Second is to identify how to fill the gaps. Usually this second step stops short of identifying how the fixes are to be done. That is left to the original author to fix in a manner deemed best fit.
Best Practices and Vital Considerations
Tools & Automation: There are many tools and frameworks available today that allow a quick spot check against WCAG 2.1 AA standards. Some testing best practices would include leveraging tools that are available off the shelf and augment them with tools that are specific to the content. A good suite of automation tools are essential for a basic compliance test. As an example there are tools that will check for contrast, missing Alt-Text, etc. Catching instances of such non-compliance can be a tedious job if not done via such tools. Manual Check: There are aspects of the testing that cannot be done via automation. What is needed is a team of experts thoroughly experienced in validating against the standards for compliance testing. Screen readers read through the content that need to be verified. Content that is dynamic on web pages (or applications) require the tester to have familiarity with functional aspects of the applications being tested. One of the clauses related with Alt Text guidelines in the WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines states: “If non-text content is a control or accepts user input, then it should have a name that describes its purpose.” Description of the purpose needs to accurately reflect the context of the non-text content. This verification cannot be done by any automation tool today. Another example is closed captioning and audio description within a video. These need to be validated for accuracy of description and synchronization. Real test of any content or platform accessibility is a test performed by the community of differently abled users. Testing by a community of visually impaired or color blind learners is a classic example of testing by a real end user. The product being tested will not have gone through a meaningful test without testing by the community of differently abled users.
Ensuring Cost Optimized Conformance
Here are a bunch of recommendations to optimize accessibility implementation costs: a. Ensure that the implementation teams are well versed with accessibility compliance standards as they build new content or update old ones b. Avail of industry best practices, reusable frameworks and tools c. Leverage differently abled user community to design products and validate implementations
Future of Accessibility Testing
While a lot of accessibility testing today is manual, there are pockets of innovation that give hope. These tools are on a journey that just started and provide nascent checks. In addition, with time, larger segment of differently abled communities will actively participate in making digital products accessible.
Accessibility compliance is mandated by law and will be an ongoing need for all future products. For a cost effective roadmap, a well thought out strategy is needed to ensure a quality outcome. Let’s get accessible content delivered well so everyone would have a much deserved access to education regardless of abilities. To get expert accessibility solutions, visit our website (www.magicsw.com) or write to us at sales@magicsw.com.

Tarveen Kaur

Accessibility Practice Lead at Magic EdTech, Tarveen is actively engaged in building new class digital accessibility solutions for education.