Blackboard earns award for blind accessibility

The newest version of the software has more features for blind students.

Blackboard Learn, learning management software used by MU students and faculty, recently won an award from a national blind advocacy group for being accessible to blind students.

The National Federation of the Blind awarded its Nonvisual Accessibility Gold Certification, the organization's highest level of recognition, to Blackboard this month.

"The National Federation of the Blind is thrilled with this development because this is the first learning management software application to receive this certification," NFB spokesperson Chris Danielsen said.

Blackboard allows teachers and students to interact on a web-based application that allows academic participation to extend beyond the classroom.

"It's a very widely used application," Danielsen said. "It's really important because it both makes this very popular application accessible and it obviously sets an example for other learning management software and universities to do this."

According to a company news release, Blackboard Learn Release 9.1 enables blind users to more effectively interact with the platform, "creating greater opportunities for disabled students and learners to more fully engage in the education and course experience."

MU Disability Services staff has been pleased with Blackboard's recent improvements, Disability Services Director Barbara Hammer said.

"As of today, we have 23 students who have some type of vision-related disability," she said. "We work with these students very closely. We're very pleased because Blackboard is finally reaching that point where they are in fact functional and accessible for students who are blind."

Prior to the release of Blackboard Learn Release 9.1, the software lacked the technological compatibility necessary to offer extensive accessibility to blind students.

"What was happening with Blackboard and other applications is that the website and web applications were encoded in such a way that it was very hard for blind people to use them," Danielsen said. "If these applications and these websites are not encoded properly, then the screen access technology that we have can't interact with them and the blind person doesn't get the information that they need or has a hard time interacting with the software."

Blackboard's recent accessibility enhancements offer a number of new opportunities for blind students, allowing them to become more fully engaged with their studies.

According to Blackboard's news release, the improvements include "faster navigation and better form interaction for blind users that make it easier to submit assignments, participate in discussion forums, submit responses to tests, upload files, create content and more."

Hammer said her department needed MU's Adaptive Computing Technology Center to help implement the changes.

"We work hand-in-glove with ACT," Hammer said. "With their office and ours, we do a lot of work in converting texts for students and also supporting students in other ways to ensure that they actually have access to material in electronic format whether that's websites, software programs, or things like that."

Abbie O'Sullivan, ACT director of information technology, said the two departments work together frequently.

"We collaborate together on everything because we're the technology side for the students, faculty and staff with disabilities," O'Sullivan said. "We work very closely with them on all angles of technology and disability."

Even with all of these recent technological improvements to assist students who are visually impaired, there is always more work to do, Hammer said.

"This is a long road," Hammer said. "There are always areas that could benefit from improvement. Web accessibility is a big concern. Just technology accessibility in general is a concern. One of our objectives is to work on these very issues of technology accessibility."

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