Are you helping, or are you just buttering the cat?

In late 2021, the group #DisabilityTwitter began using the question “are you helping or are you just buttering the cat?” to encourage the Twitter community to think about accessibility accommodations and if these accommodations are actually helpful.  For example, an automatic door that can only be reached by a set of stairs fails to be helpful since the stairs make it inaccessible.  Enter into the story Jorts; a fluffy orange cat with over 160,000 Twitter followers!  The storyline goes that Jort’s co-worker, Pam, who was “putting margarine on Jorts in an attempt to teach him to groom himself better,” Fortunately, Pam now understands that she “is NOT to apply margarine to any of her coworkers.”  Good advice for us humans as well.

The need for accessibility accommodations stretches beyond our physical environment. In the learning and development industry, these accommodations are often referred to as “508” or “508 compliance,” in reference to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires that persons with disabilities have access to electronic information – including eLearning – in the federal sector.  That access must be comparable to the access afforded individuals without disabilities.

A quick internet search will produce plenty of technical information about the tools available to developers for creating accessible eLearning but, keeping the buttered cat in mind, it’s critical to ensure that the tools are being used in a way that gives all learners the best experience possible.  

  1. Write appropriate alternative text. 

It should be meaningful and succinct.  For an image of two people talking to one another, the alternative text might say, “Two people in conversation.”

Turn off the alternative text for any object that does not convey meaning, such as a background image.

  1. Think outside the box to create accessible experiences.

How would you handle a course with dozens of clickable definitions that are optional for the sighted learner?  Instead of forcing a screen reader to interact with each item, consider storing that information in one of the player features, like the glossary tab, and creating a hidden text box on screen to inform screen reader users about the optional information.

  1. Always test your work with a screen reader.

In addition to these three easy steps, we don’t want to forget about our fluffy feline friends Jorts and Jean, the two office-mate cats with different abilities who have taken the internet by storm.  To learn more about – and from – their saga, check them out on Twitter, Reddit, or really, just about any news site.  You may even get a t-shirt about buttering Jorts!   

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