Considering Institutional Accessibility

sign taped to a metal pole, reading "do you want a future of decency equality and real social justice"
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When it comes to the accessibility of online information, the standard is pretty high – and measurable. However, the path to an accessible institution is not always so obvious or easy to travel. This is fertile ground where inspired guidance can do a lot towards making inroads for positive change.

If you look at the entirety of what is required for accessibility in online education, it becomes clear that ensuring accessibility is beyond the scope of a single person. It takes a team to make online learning happen, even if it is just the teacher and parents working together.

For best results, accessibility requires a concerted effort from all the people involved.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to be an accessibility expert, but they should know how to perform their role correctly.

Every individual needs to be aware of how their job impacts accessibility, and how to perform their job in a way that makes that impact a positive one.

It is important to recognize this aspect of accessibility in order to provide the proper support and accountability required to affect awareness and change.

It is not fair, reasonable, and certainly not effective, to lay all of the responsibility for accessibility on the shoulders of teachers.

When everyone understands accessibility as a matter of basic quality control, accessibility simply becomes part of doing a good job.

When managed appropriately, accessibility becomes evidence of an organization that is trained, knowledgeable, well-resourced, and performing at an optimum level.

Essential Accessibility

a woman and child hold hands while walking down a forest path illuminated with beams of sunshine
Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

You might have recognized that accessibility happens across a spectrum of detail and capability.

There is a simple and essential accessibility in having the ability to open a digital file and perceive the contents. On the other end of the spectrum is a polished document with detailed formatting and consideration given to the concepts of universal design and equitable experience.

In the midst of an accessibility breakdown, the first priority is to establish reliable communications.

Ensure that the essential learning objectives can be taught accessibly, even if it is just through simple text.

Enhancing engagement becomes a secondary concern when a student can’t even access the information to try and engage with it.

Making your instructional content as accessible as possible for future cohorts of students is still a priority, it is just secondary to ensuring essential access.

Doing it Right the First Time Saves You Pain and Expense

The logistics of accommodating an individual who is not physically located at your institution present numerous challenges.

There are simply too many unforeseeable variables to provide effective accommodations in response to users in real time as they are notifying you they have a need.

We have to ensure effective access for all individuals in advance of courses being offered. This is the only way to avoid students with disabilities getting stuck in a situation where they need to be accommodated in order to proceed and succeed.

As challenging as it might be at times, the time and resources spent making content accessible in advance will always save you money when compared to the cost of responding to a legal complaint over inaccessible content.

Usability vs Technical Accessibility

Even though the two concepts are very closely related, there is a big difference between usability and accessibility in practice.

Usability is the determination of whether or not something is actually functional and useable by an individual with a disability.

Accessibility is a measure of quantifiable criteria, according to a specific standard.

Often the adoption of Accessibility standards will lead to usability, but not always.

Online accessibility needs to be established in concert with a high degree of verified usability in order to ensure effective access for individuals with disabilities.

Content that is not usable is unacceptable, regardless of how well it measures up to any technical standard.

100% Accessible is a Myth

The fact is, 100% Pure and Total Accessible does not truly exist in the wild.

Whatever content you create, given the extreme diversity and sheer mass of humanity occupying the planet, it is inevitable that someone can be found for whom your content will be unusable and inaccessible.

The truth is, we are making things adaptable when we say they are accessible. This is because often the specialized needs of one individual require content to be formatted in a way that makes the content inaccessible according to another individual’s specialized needs.

In designating something as accessible, there is an expected element of flexibility and adaptability that prevents anything being nailed down too rigidly.

Accessibility does not mean you deliver 100% usability so much as you deliver content that is as open to customization/personalization as possible.

Additional adjustments are expected by individual user technologies, and thus the final rendering of the information is not in your purview.

“Technology-Agnostic” content is a term for content that can be rendered accessibly across different hardware and software platforms. Well-formatted, technology-agnostic content is what is necessary for the greatest usability scenario.

Accessibility is Adaptability

In the social model of accessibility, it is not the individual who is “lacking” anything because of a disability. It is the environment that is lacking the appropriate design elements to make it usable by the citizenry.

The transferable idea for online learning is that technology can be managed in a way that provides the necessary customization of the digital landscape for each individual as needed.

It is understood that everyone will show up with their own unique skillset and abilities. We all meet in the middle, leveraging our technology to ensure access where necessary.

We don’t need to anticipate every potential usage scenario. We just need to maintain an environment with as few obstacles to people using it in the manner they need to.

Responsive Accessibility

a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a graphics tablet, and a cell phone all sit on a desk displaying information
Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash

We can deliver the most effective instruction when each individual is able to configure their interface and information delivery to meet their needs.

True responsive design happens when the content has the appropriate structure to provide consistent meaning while retaining the ability to flow into whatever specialized technology a student might be using.

For example, MS Word is a powerful editing tool for digital content. Even so, it is not always the best digital container to present information in.

However, the content created in Word can be styled and formatted in a way that enables it to be easily converted into any alternate format you need. It is easy to convert content from MS Word to be presented in many different digital frameworks.

This enables one source document to be created that can be delivered to an entire class of individuals with differing needs and specialized software, and each of the students will get the customized rendering of the content in the format they are able to interact with.

You don’t have to make any of these formats, you just make the one master file in a way that allows the technology to convert the information into the appropriate format for each student.

These capabilities are the result of technological standards such as Section 508 and WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). These standards identify the essential considerations for making your content accessible enough to be usable in most conceivable situations.

However, even when you meet all the technical standards, your content is not 100% accessible. The best you can say is that your content is conformant with the Section 508 standards and WCAG.

There is always a chance that tomorrow some individual with a unique set of skills might show up to educate you further in the amazing diversity of humankind.

You Make the Difference

Leadership is the element that brings this vision to reality, and it is critical to realize that leadership is not reserved for management. Sometimes the most effective leadership is that inspiring example you provide by simply doing the best you can.

You have the ability to inform and inspire your colleagues by setting the right example, and by speaking up and sharing what you know.

If you are involved in governance committees at your institution, make sure that accessibility is discussed and addressed. Providing awareness of accessibility is the first step towards affecting change.

When the entire institution is informed and empowered to do their best work, accessibility can happen as a result of people simply doing their job right.

Informed and effective management can ensure employees are properly trained and held accountable. The creation, delivery, and maintenance of accessible infrastructure and processes becomes an accepted aspect of basic operations.

Remember that accessibility is not just the right thing to do according to the law, it is the right thing to do for delivering truly effective education, and the right thing to do for the people in your community.

Think about this – we all benefit when the education system is more accessible to the people who need it.

Thanks for doing your part, and thanks for reading!

Fear of Accessibility in Higher Education

Scrabble tiles spelling FEAR

Despite our advances in technology and social awareness, when it comes to disability awareness, the cruel ignorance of a bygone era lingers in our education system.

People with disabilities are still seen as tragic figures, and the concepts of digital accessibility are as alien to many as little green beings from Alpha Centauri.

Happily, things are changing and the fear of accessibility is being ushered out as a wave of awareness and new tools are being introduced into the curriculum.

Why is Accessibility Scary?

I actually don’t think accessibility is scary- even though I can often smell the fear on people.

In my time as an Accessibility Specialist I have encountered a lot of fear surrounding the topic. On the worst days, I have seen the fear of accessibility render otherwise intelligent and modern-thinking people into caricatures from an ignorant and darker period of human history.

Typically misplaced and unnecessary, fear of accessibility can be a difficult stumbling block. However, I believe this fear is mostly unfounded and misunderstood. In fact, it is largely fear of the unknown, not fear of accessibility.

Fear of the unknown is a natural and powerful emotion that can be useful in some cases, but in terms of accessibility, it is probably not serving you well.

Unchecked in the absence of knowledge, the fear of accessibility can run rampant through your mind, creating all kinds of false boogeymen, such as:

  • Accessibility is difficult.
  • Accessibility means ugly and plain content.
  • Accessibility means huge legal penalties for getting it wrong.
  • Accessibility is expensive.
  • Accessibility is something you feel you should know more about- but you’ve been hiding your shame for so long it would be professional suicide to reveal it…

Accessibility is beginning to be perceived as one of the basic skills and knowledge sets for modern professionals. Does that scare you?

Don’t let it scare you. Let it motivate you.

Happily, there are lots of free resources available to help with accessibility. In fact, you actually have a chance to become one of the more knowledgeable people in your organization when it comes to accessibility.

We are living in the sweet spot of history where it isn’t necessarily difficult to learn about accessibility, but it is still novel and rare to find someone with good accessibility skills in most organizations.

I encourage you to capitalize on this opportunity, and learn the skills that will help you do well by doing good for others.

Ignorance and Fear

One of the hardest parts of addressing the fear of accessibility surrounds our rapid cultural and societal growth and change over the past century. We don’t all find enlightenment at the same time, and many among us still drag their feet in different ways, lingering in the attitudes of the past.

It is still the case that awareness of accessibility is often limited to those who have a disability, or those who have a close friend or family member with a disability.

Most people are blissfully ignorant of what it means to have a disability, and even more ignorant of the concept of social responsibility that is necessary to ensure accessibility in a modern democratic society.

The concepts and techniques required to transform something inaccessible into something accessible can seem very intimidating as well. Technological standards often create their own fear in and of themselves.

Further, issues of legal sensitivity and disability etiquette can also blindside you. And yes, that is OK to say to someone who is blind or visually impaired.

Ultimately, I believe that people who are afraid of accessibility are simply ordinary people who are afraid of doing something wrong, afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, and afraid of letting people down.

Fortunately, ignorance of accessibility is a correctable condition.

Accessibility is NOT Difficult

Good news everyone!

I recognize this idea may be totally contrary to what you might have experienced in the past. There was a time when accessibility really was much more difficult. However, things have changed for the better.

Modern technology can be leveraged to help us communicate more effectively with each other and without requiring teams of translators and specialists.

I have found that accessibility in higher education is often not so difficult to deliver, with proper training and tools.

Best of all, it can bring faculty great relief (and even joy) when they learn how to create and deliver accessible content. They end up teaching better, and we find higher success rates for ALL students.

Typically, ensuring accessibility is really just adding a new awareness to your process. The first step is being aware and mindful of the fact that you have the power to make the change.

Your decisions and actions as an instructor also need to be supported by your institution. With proper support in terms of time, tools, and training, accessibility becomes a solvable problem.

Accessibility is NOT Ugly

 Of course, it is certainly possible to create an ugly and plain version of anything. But accessibility doesn’t have to be like that.

One reason this idea continues to come up is because of the abundance of inaccessible, yet visually attractive, information on the Internet.

Many times faculty will include digital content as part of their online course because it offers a means of “spicing up” their course, or making the content more engaging and approachable.

Oftentimes viewed as digital shortcuts for engagement, these technologies are focused around a specific aspect of digital communications, typically without accessibility in mind. Worse, there is often little proof these techniques actually work to increase student engagement.

These digital shortcuts are not necessary when faculty are properly supported in creating and delivering their courses.

Learning to use your tools to create accessible content means you can comfortably add whatever elements you know are going to enhance the learning experience. You don’t have to guess or worry about a student with a disability showing up. That’s not ugly, that’s beautiful!

The Only Thing to Fear is Telling Your Professor You’re Deaf

While I started out addressing the faculty perspective in this post, I realize there is another side of the issue to discuss- the fear of being a student with a disability in the midst of a culture of fear and avoidance.

Being on the receiving end of ignorance can feel like intolerance.

This issue deserves its own post, but in the meantime, consider how difficult it must be to be a student with a disability. Everything about your day is harder and takes longer than it does for others. Education might be your best if not only hope of rising out of poverty.

Do you really want to add yet another obstacle to their path? Do you really need to use that inaccessible content?

Of course not! I know you’re better than that, why else would you have read this far?

Bigger than You Alone

I find that once people have an understanding of digital accessibility, their next stumbling block is simply doing the work. While the processes may not be terribly difficult, the amount of work needing to be done creates a new problem.

In these cases the fear of accessibility is more likely the fear of an insurmountable workload. It is not fair to portray a lack of accessibility as fear of accessibility or lack of concern for students with disabilities when there is more work than can humanly be done.

Most of the faculty I know love to help students, and we need to empower them instead of shaming them.

Let’s try using the motivating power of fear to create a deeper understanding of what is needed for accessibility, and finding the support needed to make it less of a burden. I know faculty who have thrown away content they spent years working on because of the workload in addressing the accessibility challenges. This is tragic, and unnecessary.

Recommendations and Resources

Following are some resources and advice for increasing your ability and knowledge of accessibility.

But first, take a moment and recognize that you are a special individual if you read this far. Lots of people won’t. Even if you skipped all the preceding content and are searching for the resources, something has motivated you to care enough to find answers- and that is HUGE. Thank you!

I’m happy to tell you that showing up is often the hardest part of this. With the right tools, creating accessible digital content can be surprisingly easy.

What You Can Do Today

I recognize that “Don’t be afraid” isn’t all that helpful, but hopefully the following information is.

Text is Essential

All digital accessibility boils down to digital text at some point. Digital text is the most reliable and economical form of digital information. Digital text is the foundation that accessibility requires.

Here’s why text is so important: there are lots of different technologies and different levels of internet access used by your audience. In order to be CERTAIN the message you are trying to share can be spread through all of the different technologies used by your audience, there will need to be a textual version.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have graphics, audio, and videos/animations, but it does mean there will also need to be a textural version of that content.

Structured Text

The next thing you need after you have digital text is semantic structure.

Don’t freak out at the geekiness of the above statement, it just means you have to use the styles included with your authoring software.

Use the heading styles to create meaningful titles and introduce the major sections of your message.

This will go farther than you might realize in ensuring accessibility for individuals using assistive technologies such as screen readers, and it will help ALL students digest the information better.

Descriptions (more text)

As mentioned above, you can use all of the non-textual content (video, audio, animations, images, charts, graphs, maps, etc.) you want, you just need to include textual descriptions as well.

Depending on the software and media you are working with, there will usually be a process to include a textual description of the content.

Audio files require a text transcript, video/animations require closed captions and narrative descriptions, form fields need labels, and tables need headers.


The interactivity of digital content provides capabilities that require much further discussion, but here is a simple guideline: If the only way to accomplish an interaction is with a mouse, there is an accessibility problem.

Learn how to use the keyboard to interact with your content. If you can’t interact via the keyboard, there is an accessibility problem.

Likewise, device-centric solutions to providing content are always questionable, and often dangerous approaches to ensuring accessibility.

Resources for Further Study

While I’m always happy to help you at, there is much you can do on your own. Here are some resources you can turn to for more information on accessibility:

World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative: (
Literally the source of all web standards, and home of the legendary Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Don’t know what any of that is about? Visit this site and prepare to learn- lots.

WebAIM: (
The fine folks at WebAIM have been solving the world’s accessibility problems and sharing what they learn since 1999. They provide the WAVE toolbar, free helpful tutorials, and a listserv that is full of helpful and knowledgeable people who can be very helpful.

WebAXE: (
Created and maintained by Dennis Lembree, creator of EasyChirp, an accessible Twitter client. This blog (and once podcast) has been a wealth of news and information about accessibility and the accessibility community since 2005.

Access Technologists Higher Education Network (ATHEN): (
Some of the world’s most renowned and knowledgeable accessibility experts make up the ranks of ATHEN. Uncompromised, unapologetic, and unrivaled in addressing accessibility issues that affect students with disabilities in higher education.

CCCAccessibility Center: (
The California Community College system has been addressing accessibility issues in higher education for over four decades. They share training information, technology reviews, policy and planning resources, and more.

Caption Key: (
The Described and Captioned Media Program provides the definitive best practices for captioning and describing digital media. Funded by the US Department of Education and the National Association of the Deaf, their mission is to provide equal access to communication and learning through described and captioned educational media.

A Legacy of Accessibility and Positive Disruption

“Accessibility in Higher Education is Like Making Elephants Dance.”

~Ron Stewart

Dancing elephant

I still remember attending my first big workshop about how to address accessibility from a campus perspective. It was one of those transformative experiences that sparked a fire in me, and it would help guide me from a job to a career of making higher education accessible for students with disabilities.  The leader of this workshop was a man whose influence on me and my future I could not have then guessed, but we would eventually grow to be friends and coworkers, and he would continue to show me how accessibility could successfully drive institutional change for the good of the order- or as some people describe it, how to be a professional royal pain in the ass.

It was in 2004 at the CSUN conference, back when the conference still occupied both the Hilton and Marriott hotels on Century Blvd, right across from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This was a pre-conference session entitled “Developing A Fully Accessible Postsecondary Campus”, and it was an interactive session led by Ron Stewart. Using Ron’s personal experience and stories as the basis of our materials, we explored the very messy issue of developing a campus-wide program for assistive technology, universal design, and addressing the many cultural issues surrounding the topics of disability and accessibility.

At the time, I was working as an Alternate Media Specialist at Mendocino College, and my scope of influence for transformative change seemed rather limited. Still, I was fascinated with the idea of an accessible campus, and I remember listening to Ron with rapt attention and a growing fascination as he described his experiences doing something I had spent most of my life avoiding: engaging in prolonged conflict with authority and workplace politics- or in other words, advocating for accessibility in higher education.

As I was conflict-adverse and rather shy in those days (believe it or don’t), issues requiring leadership or confrontation and conflict were usually red flags for me to keep my head down and try not to draw any attention- much like a mythical hobbit. If you had told me then that I would someday be arguing passionately with senior administration about anything at all, I would have laughed in your face. While the very notion was unthinkable to me, I still found myself following along with Ron and his story. I couldn’t help but find parallels between my own situation and what he was describing, and I found myself learning some of the usually unspoken facts of life in higher education.

“To behave with equanimity is the sign of inborn nobility in humans.”

~Aelian, Circa 200

Now let’s address the elephant in the room: Ron never was a wilting flower, nor was he known for his equanimity- in fact he could be downright difficult to deal with. His passion and insistence on doing what he believed was right proved to be a force that few could stand up to, and he never shied away from a fight. However, as difficult as he might be, he always stood up for the truth and what was just, and he was a tireless champion of the rights of human beings everywhere to rise out of ignorance. Say what you want about equanimity, Ron was righteous in his own noble mission to ensure people be treated with dignity and have equal access to gain an education.

I remember one story in which Ron described a confrontation with senior administrators who were resisting his advice to hold deans and faculty accountable. One of the administrators protested “We can’t possibly do that Ron, the elephant just won’t dance that way!” At this point, Ron  paused for dramatic effect and a sly smile grew across his face as he proceeded with the story of how he taught that manager a couple of lessons in making elephants dance.

The point of the story is not that Ron liked dancing elephants, but that advocating for systemic, institutional, and cultural change can seem impossible at first glance, much like getting an elephant to dance. However, upon closer scrutiny we find that it is not so much impossible or difficult as it first seems. True, it is sometimes difficult (and perhaps dangerous) to get an elephant to dance- but you might be surprised at how gracefully it can be done with the right approach. In any case, the benefits of transforming a campus culture into one that values and delivers accessibility is certainly worth the risk and effort.

After all this time, I can tell you that what seems like endless potential for conflict can sometimes be endless opportunity for education. Advocating and teaching about accessibility often brings unanticipated potential for surprising partnerships that can drive a campus together into a more effective learning community.

When managed artfully, accessibility can happen organically as an unstoppable force of our nature to do good work. I believe this because despite our differences and peculiarities, at the end of the day my community is made up of educators working towards the common goal of supporting students in their pursuit of an education. Our work in supporting accessibility in higher education is simply about making sure ALL students get the same opportunity to pursue that education.

I am sorry to share that my friend Ron died last week, and his loss is felt across the country. The outpourings of sympathy interrupt my daily drama with bittersweet thoughts and memories. I am reminded that sometimes it is all too easy for me to forget the origins of my journey here. With everything that still needs to be done weighing on my mind, it is all too easy to forget how much has been accomplished by pioneers like Ron, and how different everything was just a short while ago. These are the moments when you have to stop and take stock of your situation, and check your course.

In 2004, I could not have guessed how many opportunities I would have to work with Ron. Our relationship would grow and change in many ways, and I’m happy to have been fortunate enough to become and remain his friend. I am humbled and grateful for the time he has shared with me, and I am honored to have been able to work with Ron and continue advocating for accessibility in higher education. Over the course of our friendship, Ron shared several pearls of wisdom that still help me persevere and retain the critical connections with what truly matters in our life and our life’s work.

Ron Stewart in Buffalo Hat
Ron was the Grand Poobah of the Access Technologists Higher Education Network (ATHEN)

While I am saddened by Ron’s passing, I take some small comfort in knowing the impact and influence of his work (and his personality) will continue to reverberate throughout the A11y community. What’s more, because of his work and influence, the world of higher education continues to grow richer and be a better place for ALL students.

And coincidentally, I’m hearing that sightings of dancing elephants are also on the rise…