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Designing the future to be accessible

At Texthelp, we believe that everyone has the right to understand and be understood. We love hearing from other like minded people who are passionate about education, accessibility and technology.

That's why we have invited Luis Perez, Technical Assistance Specialist at CAST, and Mindy Johnson, Director of Digital Communications & Outreach at CAST, to join us for this episode.

We’ll be discussing the importance of accessibility, both as a foundation for UDL, and in online teaching in general. This includes the steps that educators can take to ensure accessibility on their materials, as well as the importance of making sure that PDFs are accessible.

To find out more about how OrbitNote can support accessibility in your classroom visit: text.help/about-orbitnote.

Other useful links from the episode:

CAST UDL Symposium July 27 – 29 (online): bit.ly/cast-symposium-2022

UDL-IRN Summit March 31 – April 1 (online): summit.udl-irn.org

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST: aem.cast.org (Resources on POUR: Designing for Accessibility with POUR, Vetting for Accessibiltiy with POUR, Creating Accessible Documents).

Mindy’s always-up-to-date digital handout on accessible social media: bit.ly/a11y-social

You can also hear more from Luis over on Twitter, @eyeonaxs and Mindy, @min_d_j.

Transcript

Joni Degner (00:15):

Welcome to another episode of the Texthelp Talks podcast. We've got a host of experts covering a range of topics from education right into the workplace. So make sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode.

So today you're hearing from me, Joni Degner, territory director from Texthelp and I'm joined by two of our good friends from CAST, Luis Perez and Mindy Johnson. If you're not yet familiar with CAST, CAST is a nonprofit education research and development organization that actually created the Universal Design for Learning framework and the UDL guidelines, now used all over the world to make learning more accessible and inclusive for all learners.

So first we're joined by Luis Perez, technical assistance specialist at CAST. Luis also did a lot of work at the AEM Center, so Accessible Educational Material Center and I'm going to let him talk a little bit about that. But Luis promotes the creation, delivery, and use of high quality accessible educational materials and technologies to support equitable learning opportunities for all learners.

And we're also joined by my good friend, Mindy Johnson. Mindy is the director of digital communications and outreach at CAST. She develops and oversees a consistent and engaging strategy for all CAST online communications and social media outreach. Mindy's also a former special education teacher and one of the co-founders of UDL Chat, a bimonthly Twitter chat focused on Universal Design for Learning.

And I speak sincerely when I say these two are not only my good friends, but have been fantastic mentors to me throughout my career and any time that I want to run something through the accessibility mill, anytime I want it scrutinized to make sure it is dead on center before it goes out to learners, these are the two people that I look to. So you're in good hands today and I'm really excited to connect you with both Luis and Mindy.

So today we're going to be discussing the importance of accessibility, both as a foundation for UDL and in online teaching in general, because we know that there's a lot of online teaching and learning happening all over the world right now. And so first let me just say, Luis and Mindy, it's so great to have you here on the podcast today. Thank you so much for dedicating your time and your expertise to our listeners.

Luis Perez (02:48):

Thank you so much for having us. And one thing that I want to mention in the introduction is I've benefited greatly from the application of accessibility in UDL over the years, because I'm a person with a disability that uses a number of these supports, but even before that, I'm an English language learner. And so having access to content in various ways with various supports has been helpful throughout my entire life in various different ways. So really appreciate those of you that are out there really increasing the level of access. Appreciate the work that you do.

Mindy Johnson (03:23):

And it's so great to be here, Joni. I'm really excited to chat with you and Luis, two of my favorite people to talk to about accessibility. And being a former special education teacher, I have the context of the classroom, but I also in my roles at CAST, I've been at CAST for about 15 or 16 years and I've done instructional design. And then I moved into communications and in all of my roles at CAST, accessibility has been a big part of my work and it's absolutely foundational to Universal Design for Learning.

Joni Degner (04:06):

I love it. And all of the work that you guys have put out there have been such meaningful contributions to the field. And so I'm really, really excited for you guys to be able to chat today and just share your expertise and just get in the flow of... I always love when we get to be together in person, which I don't know when that has last happened, but I feel like this is the next best thing to be able to just get into a conversation that is something that's meaningful to all of us, because it's like, I've got a script here and I've got a handful of questions. I know what I want to talk about, but the truth is I also know that we have so much to talk about with this.

I'll also disclose that up until about four years ago, I was a learner with no disabilities and now am somebody who is part of the hard of hearing community. And so, the reality is much of that is an invisible disability because anybody who would talk to me or see me present or do any of my work and interact socially probably wouldn't know that. And so there are just an awful lot of things I think that we can get into here and design for those things, both which are visible and invisible. And so I'm really excited to dig right in here. So I'm just going to go ahead and get into the topic of accessibility as the foundation for Universal Design for Learning. And so if you don't know, a lot of past work focuses on accessibility and how important accessibility is in any learning environment.

And up until a couple of years ago, we probably thought about learning environment equals classroom or school building. But what we now know, after getting into a multi-year global pandemic, is that learning environments can be anywhere. Your kitchen table, the library, the coffee shop, sometimes it is in a traditional setting, but so often it's not. And so I want to talk about the UDL framework, which aims to change the design of that environment rather than to change the learner. And if you've ever been a teacher and I was a school teacher for 16 years, you know anyway, you can't change learners.

And first of all, one of the things that I love, one of our other good friends, Jon Mundorf who is a brilliant teacher and a UDL, I would say guru, but he would probably say, "Don't say that," but he's certainly an advocate and a practitioner. And one of the things he always says is, "Quit trying to fix kids. There's nothing wrong with kids." And so one of the things that is really important is to not look at how we fix learners or fix humans, but how we look at the learning environment and fix the design and continue to iterate on the design. So what I'm hoping is you guys can just chat about that for us and tell us a little bit about what that means and what it means to you.

Luis Perez (07:19):

To me, the foundations of Universal Design for Learning is really thinking about assets. It's an asset based model and it's really about celebrating diversity and variability. And if we really think about it and go back through history, many of the innovations that we all benefit from is because of celebrating diversity and different ways of thinking and different perspectives. So it's really valuing that and realizing that often a lot of the barriers are created by the design. So keeping in mind that design piece of Universal Design for Learning, I'm emphasizing the design piece. That's really empowering because we can adjust the design.

We can make it really flexible so that it accommodates a range of different... We often think of just needs, but also preferences because when we accommodate preferences, it is also motivating. People feel like they have some ownership over the learning environment and that it's inviting to them and they can customize it and make it work for them. So I think that's really a shift in thinking of, "We can design. We are all educators, are learning designers." And that's a shift in thinking of like, "We don't take the curriculum for granted. The curriculum is designed." And so by addressing barriers at that level of design, we can create a more inviting environment where everybody can realize their full potential.

Mindy Johnson( 08:47):

Absolutely. I would also add actually, Joni, it was from one of your UDL talks at the UDL-IRN Summit, which is coming up in April, March and April. You said that all design is communication. And as an educator, I want to make all of my learners feel welcome. I don't want them to feel like I'm not designing for them. And that to me is the very first thing that we need to think about when we're thinking about Universal Design for Learning. We want all learners to feel welcome. We want them to feel like we anticipated their arrival.

Now you were talking earlier about visible disabilities, invisible disabilities. There are also visible things that are happening and invisible things that are happening. So you may have students in your classroom who might benefit from text to speech one day, because you know what? They didn't have breakfast and they're not able to concentrate very well. They want the sound as they're reading. There's things like that, like Luis was talking about preferences. Those kinds of things, if we build in accessibility into our design, that's the easy part.

That's where I can make my students feel more welcome, my learners feel more welcome. That's in a classroom environment. When I speak from my current role as the director of digital communications at CAST, what I'm thinking about are all of the... My classroom is the world of people and I have no idea whether they can see, whether they can hear, what context they're in. They might be in a busy airport. They might be in a coffee shop when they're looking, or accessing CAST online materials or social media posts. So I want to make those people also feel welcome. So I have to think of that wide range of variability that people are bringing to the table.

Luis Perez (10:42):

And if I could add to that, because I was meeting with a group of higher education faculty recently, and I asked them, "What percentage do you think of your students have a disability?" And the figures were kind of low. And then when I told them that it might be anywhere are from 20% to 25%, they were kind of shocked because as you mentioned, Joni, a lot of those disabilities are somewhat invisible or a lot of disabilities people may not be ready to disclose yet. They may not be at that point in their lives where they even think about it as a disability. So it's really important that we design the environment in a proactive way to accommodate all those range of different perspectives, different needs, different preferences for that reason, because like Mindy said, we don't know who the audience is. We don't know who the learners are going to be. And then the other thing is that Universal Design for Learning is based on, really, flexibility and providing choices. But if the choices that we provide are not accessible, then what choice are we providing?

Joni Degner (11:48):

So that is probably one of the most valuable things that I actually have taken away from conversations with Luis, because I did a whole blog and series about some of the pitfalls of designing learner choice. And when I put it out there, again, I was like, "I'm so happy to have somebody say, 'Hey, I think you forgot something here,' because we want anything we put out there to be inclusive." And so that was one of the most meaningful pieces of learning as a practitioner, as a designer that I've ever taken away from conversations with Luis. As he said, "Hey, if only one of your options is accessible, that's not an option. That means that's the one I have to take, where other learners may have options."

So the other thing that I just want to get into a little bit is that because you guys were saying, "We can be proactive. We can design for accessibility in a proactive way." And Mindy, you said, "I don't know. I might have people who can't see it, who can't hear it, they're in a busy airport, they're in a coffee shop." And one of the things that Universal Design for Learning... It tells us is that yes, accessibility is the foundation and that kind of variability that Luis and Mindy have talked about, it is predictable because we can go ahead and assume somebody is not able to see this. Somebody doesn't have their textbook. Somebody's laptop, isn't charged up. Somebody is someplace that's busy and noisy. It's like, go ahead and assume that those barriers exist, because if they do, you've thought of it ahead of time.

And again, we get back to this thing of, "Hey, you're my student. I knew that you were coming. I planned for you." But then the other piece is, "Okay, so nobody ended up being hard of hearing in my class and I built in a couple of options that would accommodate that." But learner variability is not just about needs. It's also about preference, which is why when Mindy said, "Hey, I might have somebody who hasn't eaten breakfast." Well they haven’t stated an accommodation for text to speech, but we all know that if you don't have proper nutrition, it actually can be very difficult to focus. And text to speech is something that can actually help improve fluency and comprehension, but also can help learners focus. And so I think it's really, really an important... To me, an important piece of the framework is that it not only celebrates diversity, but it actually, it values it and invites it into the design, and that it also invites iteration.

So it's okay if you don't think of everything. Now, we've got some ways for you to evaluate your own materials and we're going to get into that. We're going to talk about that, but it's important also to remember that iteration is a really important part of design, because if for instance I forgot that, "Well, I didn't build in anything for somebody who might be hard of hearing," well you can do it now. And then moving forward, that becomes part of your design. And so it's okay to not think of everything. What you'll have to remember is, be open to the learning, be open to resources, and be willing to continue to iterate on your work. Anything you guys would add to that?

Mindy Johnson (15:22):

If I could go back to the learner not eating breakfast example, because the more I plan for the variability that might exist in my learning environment or in the world, the more time I free up for myself to address on the fly variability or difficulties or issues that might arise. So that student who didn't have breakfast, I may not know that. I may see that student sitting there with the headphones on trying to focus, trying to concentrate.

With those options there already built into the design, it frees me up as an educator to go over to that student and say, "Hey, you want to go down to the cafeteria and grab a biscuit or something? Do you want to go get something to eat because..." I can have that conversation. I can have that individual attention, and then I can take care of the kid that didn't have breakfast. I can take care of the human being that is trying their hardest to learn in my classroom.

Joni Degner (16:27):

I really love that.

Luis Perez (16:28):

Yeah. And related to this, I would add a quote from someone that we're working with, David Berman, that we finally have the power to include everybody. We have the technologies, we have the tools and now it's just a matter of adopting some best practices. And one of those best practices is a lot of our authoring tools now have accessibility checkers. So getting into the habit, just like you do a spell check before you submit something, running one of those accessibility checkers to make sure that you are addressing some of the big items. Doesn't mean that the resource is going to be perfectly accessible, because there is no such thing, but it's going to be more accessible.

So thinking about better rather than perfect is really important. But then the other thing is thinking about feedback loops. So when you share that resource, including a statement that says, "If you have any accessibility issues with this resource, contact X," so that over time we can make those resources better. And that's really a big part of user-centered design is making sure that, like you said, Joni, we're iterating over time because we won't get it perfect the first time, but the idea is that we make it better each time.

Joni Degner (17:40):

I love it. So I think that leads into this conversation about how can we help some educators ensure accessibility in their material and help people? If you're somebody who currently designs through the UDL framework or with an eye on the principles of Universal Design for Learning, we want to help support that. And if you're somebody who says, "Well, I've heard of it. I haven't really gotten into it.” Maybe we can kind of talk about how we get into it.

And so, one of the things that we know is that increasingly students with disabilities are spending most or all of their school day in general ed classrooms. Now that's not necessarily the same in every school district, but we know that more and more, we have school districts and universities who've got a real eye on inclusive practices. And so when students have difficulty using their materials and technologies due to a disability, they are at risk for falling behind their peers. And accessible versions of educational materials, it may mean the difference between learning barriers and learning opportunities. So we want to know, what steps can educators start taking to ensure accessibility on their materials that are grounded in these principles of UDL?

Luis Perez (19:02):

Well basically I kind of answered the question is that you can start with making sure that you use a checker, but understand the limitations of a checker. So there are, for instance, a checker will tell you if your image is missing the alternative text, but it doesn't have the smarts to tell you what's the appropriate alternative text based on the purpose for using that image or how it's being used in a pedagogical context.

So those checkers are there to help you address some issues that can be automatically detected, but they're not a shortcut really for learning some of the best practices. But it's a good place to start. And the best checkers, they shouldn't just tell you what's wrong. They should tell you how to fix it. So most of the good checkers have some guidance. And so if you want to continue building your knowledge of accessibility, I would, each time one of those checkers flags an issue, read the explanation because over time you're going to continue to build your understanding. And the next time you go in, you're going to be able to put that practice into action. And that's really what over time builds more accessible content.

Mindy Johnson (20:11):

Absolutely. And even if you're not creating your own materials, anything that you bring into your learning environment, you need to make sure somebody else thought of accessibility as well. So starting to get comfortable with asking your tech director or even asking the organization or doing a Google Search on accessibility and whatever tool you want to use, because that actually helps. First of all, it brings awareness to the people that you're talking to. So the tech director might not know to think of accessibility when they're choosing tools that you're going to be using in your classroom, or if you've chosen the tool yourself.

So asking those questions, getting comfortable at conferences in those giant expo halls with all of those vendors and talking to people and saying, "Hey, what's your accessibility policy? How have you included some of these accessibility guidelines in your product?" Don't be afraid to ask because just asking, even if they say, "Oh gosh, we haven't thought of that." Well, that starts a conversation. And just asking brings awareness and you can't do anything unless you're aware of the problem or the barrier that might exist.

Joni Degner (21:38):

[crosstalk] I would say also if you are an educator who sits on a committee that helps select resources for your school or university, ask those questions, "Hey, what options do you have built into this for people who are visually impaired, for people who are hard of hearing, for people who are English language learners, for people who are struggling readers?" Ask all of the questions and then say, "Show me. Can you show me how that works?" That's really important and that's an important part of being an advocate, I think, for your learners is that nothing is going to be perfect because even all of our publishing companies and everybody who is generating materials for us, they're also iterating constantly.

And so, it's not going to be a perfect world, but the truth is that's why people, like us at Texthelp partner with curricular materials and make sure that all of our solutions work in curricular materials so that we can step into those environments and improve the learning experience, remove barriers for all learners. But lots of people are thinking about that. It's just important to ask those questions and ask them, "Show me. Show me what you see." Other things that you guys would add to that?

Luis Perez (22:57):

Yeah. I would just add that we prefer a market model for accessibility. So the market model means the more you ask those questions, the more you ask, "Show me," the more incentive there will be for vendors to build accessibility into their products. And as you said, it's not just enough for them to tell you what they've done, but is there a trial? Can I take that trial back home? Can I try it out with some of my students? That's really where the proof is, is can a student with a disability or a student who has different preferences, can they complete the learning task? So making sure that you perform some authentic testing is also really important. It is an important component or that vetting process, which is really important. So it's not just creating content, but as Mindy said, a lot of times we're curating content, curating resources, and we want to make sure that those are accessible as well.

Joni Degner (23:50):

The other thing that comes to mind with this is because I actually... I sat on those resource committees so often and I think that one thing is, it's really easy to look at somebody else's design or your own design and look at it through the lens of you yourself as a learner and say, "Hey, I think this is pretty good," because you're looking at it with all of your own bias. And so that's one thing that is like, "Oh gosh, we could do a whole other thing on bias and design bias and implicit bias." But one of the things I think we just have to look at is the assumptions that we make about learners. Mindy, going back to that example of the student who has not had breakfast.

So a lot of times when students or any learner, I won't just say students because that makes you think of a K-12 student, but anybody who's learning, any time that a learner runs into barriers, there's quite often behavior that's associated with that. And that behavior might seem like the sort of behavior that's not welcome in traditional learning environment. So it might look like moving around a lot or it might look like retreating and putting your head down, or it might look like turning around and talking at a time when maybe it's not appropriate or not welcomed.

And so I just think that it's really important to think about the assumptions we make about learners. And to again, go back to that foundational piece of, "I don't want to fix this learner. What can I do in my materials, my resources, my environment, to help better engage this learner, to help better promote independent learning with this learner or to help this learner show me what they know?" To always begin from a place of... I would think of beginning from a place of the benefit of the doubt.

If you're not doing what you're supposed to do, I'm going to start with maybe my goal wasn't clear enough. Maybe you're not doing what you're supposed to do because you don't know what you're supposed to do. Or maybe you don't feel like you have the materials and tools and strategies to get there, which means I can build in some additional scaffolding for you. So I think it's really important to just, as we're thinking about learners and watching them engage in a learning environment and seeing how they... Keep in mind that that any behavior you see is communication. And quite often, it's communication about barriers. Something that's not working for me.

I'm going to move in here to talking a little bit more specifically, because I think that we have to get a little more specific than just looking at your own assumptions and things like that. I do think that we also need to talk about this exodus to virtual and remote learning and teaching. And we know that online barriers can make it very difficult for people with disabilities to access digital content. But what I'm also going to say is, over the last few years, we have a whole number of learners, a huge population of learners who are new to struggling. Students who may have felt that, "Hey, I did great in my traditional learning environment when I was sitting next to all of my peers and I could see all of the cues happening in this traditional learning environment or hear all of the cues that were happening, and now maybe I don't have that. And so maybe I'm a student who doesn't have a stated accommodation in a 504 or an IEP or in an English Language Learners Plan, but maybe I'm just a learner struggling."

So I think it's really important to look at how can we overcome the barriers and digital content that can be a hindrance to learning for all learners, those with disabilities and stated accommodations and those without? We know that there's a set of web content accessibility guidelines known as WCAG. They're built on the POUR, that's P-O-U-R. It's an acronym we're going to talk about. The POUR principles, meaning your digital content has to be P perceivable, O operable, U understandable, and R robust. So for it to be considered truly accessible, it must meet these four descriptors, perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. So if you guys could tell us just a little bit more about how educators can use these guidelines and how these guidelines can improve educational materials for all learners.

Mindy Johnson (29:00):

I'm going to let Luis start and I'm just going to kick back because he's the expert on POUR.

Luis Perez (29:06):

So I want to start with your first point, Joni, about online education because I think online education, it's a great resource when done well, when done excessively. And the reason why I say that is because for a lot of people with disabilities, online education is really an avenue to opportunity. Online work, remote work is the reason why I'm coming to you as a CAST employee. I've worked for CAST remotely from the beginning and I worked remotely for many years before that, but also most of my educational experience has been online. I have a visual impairment and navigating the built environment can be a challenge for me. I would much rather take an online class at times where things can be a little bit more predictable for me. But again, that relies on that learning environment being accessible. And so POUR is really about asking good questions.

And for me, the first question is, who's not at the table and why? So that we're centering the conversation always on equity. Who's not here? Whose voice is not heard and why? And then POUR just makes it a little bit more concrete because we start asking questions related to each of those principles. So for perceivable, can everyone perceive the information or are we relying on one of the senses for how we communicate that information?

So always having another option and text is always a great option. So if you have a video providing the captions, that's text. If you have images providing alternative text, just a text description of the images, that's also another great option. So making sure that you can take in that information in a variety of different ways. And so perceivable really has guidelines around captioning, around alternative texts for visuals, around color contrast to make sure that, again, you can perceive the information, and so that your engagement doesn't suffer from you struggling to be able to perceive the information.

And then of course, in the learning environment, we need to be able to navigate the environment. We need to be able to make choices and we need to be able to respond. So with operable, we want to make sure that we can interact with the information, with the content, and with the interface using a range of different tools. And typically we focus on the mouse, but not everyone can use a mouse, either because they have a disability or they may be older and have challenges like arthritis. So we want to make sure that you can use the information with the keyboard or increasingly with your voice. That's becoming more and more common as we rely on different interfaces. So what we're using today is not going to be the same technology that we use 10 years from now or 20 years from now. So these principles are around creating technology that will be sustainable for a long time.

With understandable, so the U, it's really creating a predictable experience. So following conventions so that each time that you go in, you don't have to relearn how things work. You can then really focus your energies on the content and making meaning of the information and that we're addressing language variability and providing supports like a glossary or plain language to make sure that again, we are conserving those energies that are in such a limited supply at times.

And then the final one robust is just making sure that it works on a range of platforms, a range of different browsers, and it's compatible with assistive technology. And often if we do the first three, receivable, operable, and understandable, we've often taken care of a lot of the robustness. And just a matter of doing some final checks and the like at the end, but we create a resource that will work today, it'll work tomorrow, it'll work 10 years from now.

Mindy Johnson (33:08):

See, I didn't have to say anything. He just has it all. I would just add that putting the POUR principles together and really thinking about them in terms of your learning environment, in terms of any environment, the principles actually apply not only to online content, they can apply to your actual context, your classroom, your browser window. That's online content, but you understand what I'm saying. But it can be the physical environment too. It can be within a document. The POUR principles are so complete in their guidance for us in terms of accessibility that it... Yeah, you can apply them anywhere you are to any kind of learning context.

Joni Degner (34:03):

So that's actually been one of the things that I have loved so much about being a Texthelper is that the tools that we develop, like Read&Write, like EquatIO, they really are designed to promote accessibility, engagement, learner autonomy in a variety of environments. And over the past several years, one of the things that we have really dug into is making sure that it works. I love to say, "Every learner, every assignment, every environment." So that if I say, "Well hey, I use Discovery Education, no problem." "Well hey, we use Pearson Realize, no problem." That we can provide the accessibility tools wherever kids or learners, anybody is working and playing because not only does Texthelp develop tools for K-12, but for also university and college, but also for the workplace. So it's really, really important I think also to think about, when you think about the environment, to think about what do I make available to my learners that they can pull up and use any time?

So if you've got a go-to that you love for text to speech, and again, I'll go to Read&Write, one of the things that I always tell my own students when I was in the classroom, but my own boys who learn at my own kitchen table quite frequently is, "Pull this up. Just because you might be in a PDF doesn't mean you can't get this or just because you might be in your Wonders reading series doesn't mean you can't use this," because it's become important to us to make sure that every learner is supported no matter where they ago, because we know that range of learning environments has expanded drastically over the last few years.

Which brings me to this. I'm just going to put a little bit of a plug in here for Texthelp because we actually just released a new PDF solution called OrbitNote. And one of my favorite things about OrbitNote is that one, it solves a PDF problem that has plagued a lot of instructors and learners over the last couple of years. As people have moved into a lot of virtual learning and teaching, PDFs have presented a number of barriers for learners. And if you're like me, so I was not... Mindy was a special education teacher.

And so, these are maybe some things that she learned about. And Luis has got this background in assistive technology that as a general education teacher I didn't have. And so, over the last couple of years, there's so many times that I've just tried to put myself back in the classroom and thought, "If I assigned a PDF to my class as a PDF assignment and they said, 'Hey, we can't do anything with this.'" Would I know why? And would I know what to do in order to remove that barrier?

And so, one of the things I love is that OrbitNote, it makes... I guess I think about me not having that background and accessibility as a general educator, which to me blows my mind actually, but I didn't have that in my schooling. And so, the thing that I love about OrbitNote is that it makes this notion of accessibility more accessible to the people who are designing learning environments and learning materials, because it actually tell you, "Hey, we can't really find any text here on this page. Would you like us to scan this for you?" And so, OrbitNote uses a one click, let's scan. It automatically will OCR your inaccessible or image based PDF and turn it into, I don't want to say accessible because I don't think that it meets the full range of accessibility, but I want to say it makes it more accessible. It makes it readable.

So somebody who wants to use text to speech will be able to do that. Somebody who wants to be able to look up the words using the dictionaries and things like that, that are available in OrbitNote, they'll be able to do that. And the other thing I love is that OrbitNote has got a range of options for any learner to show what they know, which is quite often what we're doing with PDFs. They've become the virtual version of a worksheet and one of the things I love about it being virtual actually is that now I have lots of ways to show what I know, because in OrbitNote, you can actually leave voice notes. So someone who might need or want to leave verbal responses can actually do that.

Somebody who wants to attach pictures to show their meaning can do that or to draw shapes and free hand drawing, or to dictate their answers. Or if you want to go, "I'm just going to type out my answers," you can do that too. And you can even have those answers read back to you. So you can like, "Okay, is this really what I wanted to say here?" And so I really love that. I actually hated worksheets and I understand why we use them. I understand the convenience as an adult, but as a learner and as a mother of learners, oh mercy. So I really love the way that OrbitNote has transformed that kind of worksheet experience because it's made it certainly more accessible, but I think also highly engaging. So I'm going to have you guys chat for a second about accessibility and the importance of accessible PDFs or more accessible PDFs.

We know that in remote teaching that we rely frequently on PDFs. And again, like I said, a lot of people don't always realize the things that they might be sharing or assigning or expecting students to be able to interact with, but that they're not able to. We know that particularly if somebody has got a visual impairment, they may not be able to read the contents of a PDF if they're trying to use a screen reader on a PDF that's not accessible. So if you guys can chat just a little bit about the difference between a standard PDF file, accessible or more accessible PDF file, readable PDF file, and why is that so important in today’s learning environments?

Luis Perez (40:52):

So I would begin by asking a question, would you give a student a blank piece of paper and ask them to tell you what's on it? Because essentially if you were to scan a PDF and make it into an image based PDF and gave it to a student who needs to read it with text to speech or a screen reader, that's essentially what you're doing. At the best scenario is that they'll get a tone that says, "I can't do that." And they won't know why. So my screen reader will just play a tone saying, "Hey, you can't do what you're trying to do." So it's an image based PDF is essentially the same as giving someone a blank piece of paper. So what we need to do is unlock the text inside of that PDF and make it into actual machine readable text so that it can be selected.

Essentially if you can select it, then that means that text to speech or a screen reader can go in and also select it and turn it into audio, but we need to go a step further. We need to provide navigation structures. So for instance, wherever there are sections, because we often break up the content into sections so that it's more manageable, we need to make sure that those are marked up correctly because I don't want to hear somebody tell me for two hours a piece of content. Maybe I want to just listen to 15 minutes of that content. So making sure that there's those landmarks that we can navigate that document with those landmarks can really make it much more usable.

So the first step is really unlocking the text. The second step is providing structure so that everybody can navigate it and they can listen at their own pace and from where they want to start, and so on. So Mindy, I'm sure you'll have some other comments to that.

Mindy Johnson (43:00):

Just a few. I do PDF accessibility with a lot of help from Luis, but it starts with a well-structured document. It starts with a well-structured accessible document and then you can turn it into an accessible PDF much more easily. The other thing that I want to say is that accessibility really is about empathy. It's about putting yourself in someone else's shoes and trying to imagine what their experience is like when they encounter any of the materials that you're bringing. And it's especially apparent in PDFs, because like Luis said, an inaccessible PDF is like handing somebody a blank piece of paper and expecting them to learn from that, learn something, because they don't know what they're supposed to learn. It's just blank. So being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes that might not be able to access the text, that might not be able to navigate the structure of the document, that might not be able to see the images or access the images.

I often say instead of seeing the images, I often say access the images because if you've ever had low bandwidth and tried to look at a website that is heavily image-based and you get those little broken icons and you can't actually see what the image is, that's what the experience is like and we have learners that have low to no bandwidth in terms of their internet access. So even including those learners when we're talking about learner variability. Again, it's about empathy. It's all about putting yourself in your learner's shoes or in everyone else's shoes and trying to anticipate those barriers that might come up.

Joni Degner (44:30):

So I had a great conversation on an edWeb webinar yesterday with our friends, Allison Posey from CAST and Dr. Lisa Beth Carey from the Kennedy Krieger Institute. One of the things that they also brought up in that webinar yesterday was that when we talk about... There are a lot of people who currently have learning needs that maybe they haven't had in the past. I think when we talk about empathy, really understanding too that some of us have really taken to pandemic life, sort of enjoy being at home. It's like my introvert friends, but there are also many educators, many learners, many families who are experiencing an extraordinary amount of stress and anxiety that at this point is now becoming a chronic now that we're into a multi-year global pandemic.

And so it's really also important to understand how stress and anxiety can affect a learner, any learner, that it affects their ability to strategize, to focus, to recall information even. It's so funny because I was all stressed out right before that webinar yesterday. I was looking desperately for the link to get on. And all of a sudden, I couldn't remember who sent me the link. I mean, I could not [inaudible 00:46:43]. And this is somebody I talked to all the time and I couldn't produce the name to search my email for the link.

It was so funny that we had talked about it, because I thought, "Oh my gosh, I just experienced this five minutes ago," but it really does. I think that the more that we can be proactive, the more that we are open to iteration, the more that we acquaint ourselves with Universal Design for Learning, the more that we can empathize with learners, and the more that we can dig into those poor guidelines around perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust educational materials. The truth is everyone benefits, not just learners with those stated disabilities or accommodations. Everyone benefits.

And learner variability, again, is not just about need, but also about preference. It's also something that's very fluid. I think about we support learners across the globe at Texthelp and when I think about even the tornadoes over the last few months that ripped apart parts of Kentucky and parts of the south, and I think those are learners whose... Everything changed overnight. Their needs and their variability changed overnight. Their level of stress and anxiety and the way that that affects the way that they can learn and think, recall information, and show what they know, it changed drastically. And so, it's important, I think, to just like you said, to empathize with people and to understand what is it like to be anyone other than me trying to look at this material and trying to learn in this environment?

So Mindy and Luis, I have to first just say, I am beyond honored that I got to host you guys in this Texthelp Talks podcast. When they asked me to do it and they told me who was going to be on, I said, "Are you kidding? Of course I will." There are a couple of things here that I want to make sure that I promote because these are things that I know that are near and dear to both Luis and Mindy, to CAST, also to me, and to everybody here at Texthelp, and to so many of the educators that we support and absolutely adore. And so the first of those is the CAST UDL Symposium. Mindy mentioned that briefly. That is actually going to be another online experience this year and takes place July 27th, 2-7, through the 29th, 2-9. And we'll have details available online where you can get to that and also in the Texthelp Talks landing page. We also have got coming up the UDL-IRN. That stands for Implementation Research Network. The UDL-IRN International Summit, which again, is also going to be an online experience this year, March 31st through April 1st. I also want to put a plug in here for the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST, because we mentioned this several times. We've mentioned several of the guidelines and the resources that you can find there to continue exploring and iterating on your resources and educational materials that you're designing for your learners. And you can get to that at a AEM, as in accessible educational materials. That's AEM.CAST.org.

You can find Luis on Twitter, his handle is E-Y-E-O-N-A-X-S. So that's Eyeonaxs. And Mindy is at M-I-N_D_J. And again, I just want to give a big shout out to the both of you. I'm so grateful to you for lending your time and your expertise, your willingness to connect with our Texthelp listeners, Texthelp Talks. So grateful to you. It has been a complete joy to have this conversation. So thank you so much.

Luis Perez (50:32):

Thank you for having us. It's been a pleasure. Always great connect with you, Joni, and thanks to the Texthelp community.

Mindy Johnson (50:36):

Absolutely. And thanks so much for having us. I love the Texthelp products. I talk about them to anybody that I possibly can. Texthelp is such a great partner to CAST and we love the relationship that the two organizations have built over many, many, many years. If you visit our websites, the Texthelp SpeechStream Toolbar is used on many of our public websites, and we are so appreciative for that relationship.

Joni Degner (51:06):

I want to also just put some other news out there that many of you may have heard about at ATIA and maybe even before that, but Texthelp and Don Johnson are now partners in education, which is super exciting to me. I'm so tired of competing with those people, okay? Now they're my friends. Now they're my colleagues and I feel a lot better about it, but what I feel a lot better about is that Don Johnson and our CEO at Texthelp, Martin McKay, that their goal is to reach 1 billion, that's with a B, 1 billion learners. And I've got no doubt that with listeners like you, with experts like Mindy and Luis, and partners like CAST, we will definitely achieve that goal. So really really excited about that partnership and what that means to learners across the world.

If you're not yet subscribed to Texthelp Talks, make sure that you subscribe to that on your preferred podcast player or your streaming service so you can make sure that you catch the next episode and you can share this episode with all of your colleagues and friends. So thanks again to all of our listeners. Big thanks to Mindy, Luis, CAST, everybody at the AEM Center, and we will see you at the next Texthelp Talks episode. Thanks so much.