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guidance, Opinion piece

Why media students should learn how to produce accessible digital content

By Vicky Dermitzi, Digital Officer, Business Disability Forum

Training environment

Digital accessibility means that digital products such as websites, apps, audio-visual content or digital documents are designed and developed in a way that makes them accessible to people with disabilities.

Digital products are accessible when they are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust; the acronym POUR is commonly used to describe the four main principles of accessibility.

Research shows that a high percentage of online content is still not fully compliant with the POUR accessibility principles. For example, in February 2021 inaccessible content was found in 97,4% website home pages according to “The WebAIM Million; An annual accessibility analysis of the top 1,000,000 home pages”.

So, why don’t we create accessible digital products?

When we want to solve a problem in the digital world, we retrace our steps, find and fix the tiniest detail that has gone wrong. Many times though, the solution isn’t just about applying a fix in the code, but mostly about evaluating the end result by reassessing the project specification.

If inaccessible digital content is what we want to address, then we probably have to retrace our steps…

Digital content producers start from somewhere

The new academic year 2021/22 has started, and media students are already dipping their toes in the magnificent world of digital content production, film making, media management, campaigning, and public relations – just to name a few sectors.

Most of the media projects assigned to them include audience analysis; a critical step covered by all media-related courses and an opportunity to learn how to adapt content production techniques to audiences’ needs and interests.

Learners are going to find out that when their audience analysis is thorough and accurate, they are likely to produce well-received content, they’ll deliver successful campaigns and will achieve high engagement.

However …

Do institutions teach media students how to make content accessible for everyone?

The short answer is ‘no’ and the most accurate answer is that it depends on the awarding body and the curriculum.

When we task media students with content production, it isn’t usually required to factor in disabilities in the audience analysis nor is it required to implement accessibility in media projects.

And in many cases, digital media learners – myself included – may complete their course with distinction without ever being exposed to the main accessibility principles.

“But closed captions aren’t a requirement!”

I have, for example, asked learners to incorporate closed captions (CC) in their videos where I’ve heard: “But do we have to do this? It will take ages!”

When I elaborate, the students usually follow-up by asking: “Do we get marked down if we don’t have CCs in our videos?”

If the course specification doesn’t list accessibility requirements, many learners will choose not to make their content accessible and, in all honesty, it isn’t their fault; we are teaching them that accessibility is ‘extra work’ instead of making accessibility a key component of the process.

I have worked with learners who were required to produce content inaccessible even to themselves – which is certainly an irony and a strong indication that we still don’t realise that digital accessibility should be incorporated in a project from inception.

And this is how we create a vicious circle; students will soon enter the workforce and they will produce wonderful yet inaccessible content.

What should media students learn about digital accessibility?

There are many resources broadly available, and although web or digital accessibility sometimes appears to be very complicated, media learners can investigate best practice principles and apply them to their content.

The article “Planning, creating and publishing accessible social media campaigns” posted by the Government’s Communication Service summarises tips and pragmatic advice on best practice and outlines key steps including accessible colour contrast, fonts, images, animations, gifs, video content, and graphics.

We have also many available free resources on our website including the “Best Practice Guide for Accessibility testing”.

Vicky Dermitzi is BDF’s Digital Officer focusing on user experience, digital product management, and digital accessibility. Her background is in education and she has worked as a Classics teacher, ESOL lecturer and has held roles as a digital media lecturer in England and abroad.

Business Disability Forum is a not for profit membership organisation that exists to create a disability smart world by linking businesses, disabled people, and government. Our 400 members employ around 20% of the UK workforce and an estimated 8 million people worldwide. Find out how you can join them (link to the membership benefits page) – plus highlights of the services and networking opportunities we offer.

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