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There are 60 million people with disabilities in the US banner by Yahoo! Accessibility Lab on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA licenseWhen students compose assignments, I expect them to pay attention to accessibility in addition to the usual issues of content and format. After all, even the most brilliant document will be unsuccessful if readers cannot access it.

When students are turning in PDF files, the basic process is to create the document in a word processor and then use that word processor file to generate a PDF. To guide this process, students can use any one of dozens of checklists and resources for help. In particular, the Checklist for Making Accessible Microsoft Office and PDF Documents from Johns Hopkins is thorough and includes links to additional information.

The information in such checklists can be overwhelming, however, especially for students who resist the additional step of ensuring accessibility. To simplify the process, I focus on these three steps in my instructions to students:

  1. Use built-in tools for document styles.
    Word processors have built-in style templates for a document’s title, headings, and lists. Screen readers  – software applications that assist sight-impaired users access what is on the computer by means that are not sight-dependent  – look for these templates as a key to the organization of a document. If the document has created its own style markers (say, using a bold, 12-point font for primary headings), the screen reader won’t recognize that information as headings. Beyond making documents accessible for screen readers, the built-in tools create a professional design without any extra formatting work.
  2. Choose meaningful names for hyperlinks.
    Screen readers read all of the links in a document in a kind of menu. These links are read without the surrounding text that provides their context. To ensure that your readers find the right hyperlink, use the name of the document that a hyperlink connects to, rather than vague text like “Click Here.” Because of the way that screen readers read the links, “Click Here” doesn’t make sense since the context is missing. Basically, readers have no idea where “Click Here” will take them.
  3. Use Save As PDF... and never Print to PDF.
    If a PDF does not include text (words and other characters), screen readers don’t know how to interpret the information. That’s the problem with the Print to PDF command: it saves an image of the document rather than the text. The resulting PDF may look the same to someone with sight, but the screen reader can’t use it. Additionally, any special features like embedded hyperlinks will be gone in a document created with the Print to PDF command. Instead, always use the Save As PDF command, which maintains text recognition and features like embedded hyperlink. For extensive information on how to save your documents, I recommend PDF Accessibility: Converting Documents to PDF from WebAIM. Microsoft also has instructions on how to Create Accessible PDFs.

There is much more that can be done to make a document fully accessible, but this bare minimum goes a long way toward ensuring that someone gets at least the basics of what the document is trying to communicate. For other ways that I address access, you can read details on how I tell students about accessibility in my courses as well as how I ask students to crowdsource accessibility documents for the course.

Do you have any activities or instructions that you use to talk about accessibility with students? Tell me about them in the comments below. I’m always eager to find new resources I can use in class.

 

 

Photo credit: There are 60 million people with disabilities in the US banner by Yahoo! Accessibility Lab on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license.

For the past several weeks, I have been meeting with faculty from across our university. The meetings have been part of an effort to build a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) emphasis at our institution. When originally asked to be part of this effort, I was a bit surprised. WAC was not a term I typically applied to my teaching or my own research on community partnership/literacies. Yet as I talked to faculty from Geography, Psychology, and Mathematics, I was struck by the overlap in our goals as teachers committed to creating classrooms where writing was an important part of the learning process.

 

In fact, it seems that my emphasis on Writing Beyond the Curriculum might actually be deeply enmeshed with the goals of Writing Across the Curriculum. As a result, I found myself rethinking how key frameworks from community partnership/literacy might allow me to more freely build amongst courses and programs across the university.

 

Research Communities

One of the tenants of community literacy is that every community has its own unique way of studying and framing solutions to problems. The belief is that if we listen deeply enough to how communities cite evidence, we will see patterns of argument and action through which we can form productive partnerships. Our work as teachers is to enable students to hear these latent community strategies, instead of imposing their own viewpoints. These same pedagogical values of rhetorical listening can frame research within classes across the curriculum. Instructors in every class need to find ways to teach students to hear the strategies of their disciplinary community, to see how evidence is gathered, and to develop a productive conversation. Indeed, unless such an engaged conversation is developed, it is not clear the student has actually come to understand the values and goals of that discipline.

 

Writing Communities

As students engaged in community partnerships continue to work in a community, they must also consider what forms of writing are seen as important to a particular neighborhood. In the process, they must think through what types of questions those genres support as well as how they might work with the community to expand genres and conversations to create new possibilities. Similarly, for university faculty, a key goal becomes demonstrating to students the affordances of the genres which mark their discipline, the questions such genres support, and how those questions push the limits of convention. Indeed, teaching students how to both inhabit and expand the possibilities of a discipline’s ways of writing becomes the way to initiate them into the creation of new forms of knowledge.

 

Addressing Communities

Producing writing designed to circulate and be read in a community necessarily implies a sense of audience. One of the struggles students in community projects often face is that for most of their academic careers they have not actually had to address a real audience. Instead, they see writing as something transactional between the student and the professor. The reality of real readers in a ‘real’ community causes them to take much greater care with their writing, develop a much more nuanced sense of language, tone, and style. There is a sudden need to make sure each sentence produces the intended results, functioning in harmony with community goals. It could be argued, however, that university classrooms should offer a similar sense of urgency and importance to writing. Students are not so much addressing a professor, but addressing a field, a discipline. Often, this is not the framework of a typical assignment. If classroom writing was reoriented along a community partnership axis, assignments could be restructured in ways that ask students to develop a sense of the community being addressed – the issues and stakes in using one term over another, how each term locates them differently in a community debate. Bringing in community partnership/literacy pedagogies, that is, might enable such an attention to writing to emerge within any university classroom.

 

Changing Communities

Inherent in almost any community partnership/literacy effort is a sense of needed change. Whether the change is as small as a tutored student’s manipulation of sentences or as large as a struggle against gentrification, there is a sense that the status quo is incomplete. That a better world is possible. Lessons learned by students in community partnerships include how to understand what type of change and scale of action is necessary, what skills need to be brought to the task, and how to assess success/failure. These lessons are also inherent in any university classroom – an attempt to demonstrate the value of endlessly seeking a more accurate sense of the issues at hand, a constant learning of the skills required for this to occur, a need to assess the success of the effort. So if “producing change” became a framing narrative of the course, students might be able to better understand the stakes, the scale of the work at hand, and find value in the work being asked. They might see themselves as part of a collective effort, no matter how small their role, to create change dedicated to a deeper sense of truth, a better framework from which to guide their actions outside the classroom.

 

Of course, there is much more to say on these connections, more time needed to connect community partnership pedagogies to the work of writing across the curriculum. And in a discussion devoted to learning with and from communities, a single authored blog post seems a bit of a contradiction. It is out of this context that on Thursday, April 19th at 3pm EST/12pm PDT, I hope you will join me at a Bedford/St. Martin’s sponsored conversation on this very issue – how writing communities can support writing across the curriculum. If you are interested, you can register for the webinar here.

 

I would love to learn from your insights and to begin a dialogue which can bring these seemingly distinct parts of our field into productive alliance for our students.