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International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Berklee Online Celebrates Its Students as Instruments of Change


Every year since 1992, the United Nations has marked December 3rd as a day to raise awareness and promote action to equalize opportunities for persons with disabilities. In observing this day, governments and organizations around the world are urged to develop, improve, and carry out strategies that will one day achieve a society for all. On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we’re taking note of the ways the Berklee Online educational experience is designed from the ground up to be accessible for all students.

Course development at Berklee Online, as with other online schools, is guided by United States federal laws. Standards set in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provide for a framework in which no student can be denied the opportunity to participate in a service or be provided with alternative programming which is of lower quality. These regulations keep Berklee Online accountable to its mission of delivering access to Berklee’s acclaimed curriculum from anywhere in the world.

Delivering access means designing courses within a framework of accessibility. Course designers consider a host of “use cases” to understand how the process of hearing, seeing, and navigating a lesson could differ from student to student, based on their needs and preferences.

Berklee Online’s Audio for Visual Media Technologies Specialist Gabriel Ryfer Cohen shares a story about a student who couldn’t look at a computer screen for an extended period of time. Throughout the semester, Ryfer Cohen would go into the course, topic by topic, and save the lesson as PDFs, so the student could print out the lesson so she would spend her allotted screen time learning from the videos within the course. Ryfer Cohen shared this info with the tech team, which built in a functionality that optimized printing.

“We are committed to always improving the student experience, so naturally, we not only encourage but rely on student feedback quite heavily,” says Ryfer Cohen.

Celebrating the differences our students make on International Day of Persons with Disabilities. #IDPD2018 Click To Tweet

Visually, designers prioritize cognition and clarity on the various devices which students use to access courses. Lesson pages are laid out in a logical format with links and controls that are easy to find and use, and can be navigated with only a keyboard. Text is magnifiable and has a high contrast ratio so that it can be read easily.

“We’re designing with an accessibility framework in mind,” says Berklee Online’s Director of Technology and CTO Molly Tomlinson.

Special attention is given to choosing colors which will be easily identifiable. Images in Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format are commonly used because they can be enlarged without compromising clarity. Lessons are compatible with assisted reading technology, including screen readers which translate text and descriptions of images using braille or a synthesized voice. Music notation examples are made available as MusicXML files so that students who are visually impaired can access and hear them.

Berklee Online provides lifelong learning opportunities to people interested in music and working in the music industry with a goal of being accessible to all students. The courses are subject to manual and automated testing procedures to ensure that accessibility standards are met. Designers stress the fact that the most helpful information in improving accessibility is feedback from first-hand user experience. The members of the team at Berklee Online say they are happy to work with students on a one-on-one basis to ensure that every student’s needs are met.

“Many of the features found in our platform came about in that way,” says Ryfer Cohen.

Andrew Walls is a copyeditor and audio editor at Berklee Online and a professional music student at Berklee College of Music. He also has a degree in political science, which has helped him land a couple bass gigs.
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