How D2L is Making Learning Accessible

  • 4 Min Read

President and CEO John Baker discusses D2L’s new partnership with the NFB, and what it means to be digitally accessible.

At D2L – from the moment we were founded – we set a goal to make education accessible to everyone. What that means, though, is sometimes difficult to grasp. It took time for us to understand how to make sure our products meet the needs of physically impaired people in a way that goes beyond the benchmarks for “web accessibility.” And over time, we learned that the effort must start at the cultural level, and be written into every line we code.

That’s why we’re so proud that D2L was recently recognized as the first learning technology provider and second organization to partner with the National Federation of the Blind’s new Strategic Nonvisual Access Partnership (SNAP) program after Target Corp. SNAP was established to set new standards for accessibility in corporate culture and technology through certification programs and other resources.

Removing barriers to education is particularly important when it comes to those with physical impairments – both in the workforce and in schools. According to the Washington-based National Center for Education Statistics, 63% of students with disabilities graduated from high school in 2014. That’s 20% lower than the U.S. average. This statistic makes it clear that efforts to embed accessibility into education have generally fallen short.

For more on D2L’s evolution on accessibility, we asked our President and CEO John Baker some questions about the journey.

What does it mean to be digitally accessible?

John: Being digitally accessible means that someone with a physical disability – visual, hearing or otherwise – should be able to navigate an organization’s online platforms and apps just as quickly as someone without any physical impairments. The user should experience no differences in terms of what content is available.

What does it take for an organization to be digitally accessible?

John: We can’t just make sure a screen reader works properly and then check an accessibility compliance box. It’s more than just being compliant with relevant regulations and standards.  Browsers change, technology evolves, there are always new things that look great on the surface, but you have to make sure that they work flawlessly for any kind of user working on any kind of technology. Because accessibility is a never-ending effort, it must be part of a company’s culture — it’s not just a checklist we run through, but a way of approaching our work.

What led D2L to put accessibility at the forefront?

John: Back in 2008, California State University System provided us feedback that our organization hadn’t focused enough on accessibility for people with physical impairments.

This was a shock given our efforts.  The worst part is, they were right. Even though we were saying D2L’s mission was to remove barriers to education, when we autopsied our demo site, we realized that we were focusing on technical accessibility. We spent our time checking boxes – making sure we have textual equivalents for images, for example – instead of really trying to understand the roadblocks a blind person might hit when using our software, even when it’s technically compliant.

What changes did you make within the organization?

John: We realized that we needed to change our approach to design. We needed to re-engineer our product line-by-line. This came at a great expense, but it was an investment we had to make if we wanted to live up to our founding mission, to make education accessible to everyone . So now, all our designers, developers, and testers need to work on our product “blind” from time to time. They need to test navigation without a mouse and flag not just compliance but every frustration point, however miniscule.

Can you give an example?

John: Let’s say someone who’s blind is using our Brightspace learning management system and wants to call up a class roster and keep it on the side of the workspace. He or she will get a stack of tiles, each one representing a student. For a user with full sight, the email icon on each tile is intuitive. A site with a screen reader that’s technically compliant will say “email” when the user’s mouse hits the little envelope on each student tile. That might let a company check their compliance box, but we can and should do more. We want the screen reader to make it clear that the icon they’ve hit will “email Tracy” or “email Rakesh.”

How do you keep the focus on accessibility?

John: Take the mouse-over-email-icon for example. The additional information provided through our screen reader is useful for all blind users, and makes a world of difference for those who also have mobility issues — since every move around the screen requires extra effort that those without physical limitations won’t understand.

We’ve made it mandatory for everyone at D2L to understand that our products have to be easy to use by anyone on any device working with any bandwidth so that accessibility becomes part of our culture. We’ve still got more to do, but I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made so far in living up to our mission.

Here’s more on how D2L is making learning more accessible with Brightspace:

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