Considering Institutional Accessibility

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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

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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

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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!

Where Online Accessibility Begins and Ends

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The essential capabilities that allow a student with disabilities to acquire digital information begin with the technology you use as an educator, and continue along a chain of technology used to store, distribute, and ultimately receive the information by the student.

There are many links in this chain that are beyond your control, but the technology you start with will ultimately determine what and how your students are able to learn via your online education efforts.

If your tools are not able to deliver the information in a format that your students can receive, then you are not going to be able to deliver effective or accessible instructional content from a distance – plain and simple.

This is why most modern democratic societies have put in place some sort of requirements for technology and digital information to make sure the public institutions are providing services that are truly accessible and available to all people. Here in the US we have Section 508, and globally we have WCAG.

Whether or not you are a public institution, it is the collection of requirements and guidelines used by the public institutions that serve as the best metric to quantifiably measure the accessibility of digital content. These are the standards and guidelines that have already been blessed by the courts, so they should be able to help you stay on the right side of the law, if nothing else.

Having said this, the ultimate test for accessibility is actual usability by the end user – but usability does not lend itself as well to a checklist format as the 508 and WCAG.

Balance Achieved?

So we have a foundation-level of accessibility requirements for technology and digital information. That is great news, but don’t get too excited yet.

It turns out that the required level of accessibility is often insufficient to ensure that effective access is provided to people with disabilities. Even with the requirements and guidelines in place, many people are missing the opportunity to participate in our society as fully and effectively as their non-disabled peers.

student using laptop
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

These issues are constantly being sorted out in the courts, and you often find that it is not a question of when your institution is going to be sued, but a question of how many lawsuits does it already have going on…

Accessibility exists on a spectrum, and because of this, managing accessibility becomes a risk mitigation issue, much like network security.

Accessibility is not impossible to establish as standard operating procedure, though it is not a simple issue to address. Ultimately, the solution to institutional accessibility is the same solution for how to eat an elephant – take it one bite at a time.

What to DO

Policies & Procedures, Technology, Training, Testing – rinse and repeat.

If you are seeking to create institutional change, make training available for everyone who creates or selects digital content.

If you have tricky unions or difficult faculty associations who refuse mandatory trainings, then be strategic about how you communicate and remember that training is a resource that often costs people a lot of money. I’m just saying…

If you’re faculty and reading this, then thank you for being one of the good ones. Seriously. We need your help to support the effort, to participate seriously and fully, and shame your colleagues who do not attend trainings or support the cause.

We need to establish a culture of intolerance for laziness and ignorance among the people who are in the front lines of this effort.

Faculty should be given the support and encouragement they need to succeed and teach as effectively as possible, for all students.

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That is how the revolution will be won, and it will be driven by technology and administrators who increasingly demand and deliver conformance with accessibility guidelines. Technology is not going to replace teachers, but teachers who can use technology will replace teachers who do not know how to use technology.

Bottom line needs to be a simple matter of quality control: Inaccessible content is substandard content. If you don’t address the accessibility issues with your course, you won’t get to put it online.

Policies and Procedures

It is important to address these things according to the law of the land – meaning your institutional policies. People may scoff at the law of the State and Federal government, but they tend to respect the laws that govern whether or not a paycheck will show up for them. Make the law of the land fair, make it known, and make it real through consistent enforcement.

Address institutional processes and communications protocols to ensure that individuals with disabilities who require assistance or have any accessibility questions are responded to within a 24 hour period.

Section 508 guidelines:

  • Make sure to use the appropriate sections for your procurement processes. That is where Section 508 actually makes a difference in things across your institution.
  • For content creation concerns, insert references to Section 508 in the acceptable web use policy for your institution as well as the obvious curriculum development and non-discrimination policies.

WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines):

Use the WCAG for developing policies and trainings, and establishing criteria for, and monitoring of, the accessibility of digital content. It is the best advice and guidance you can find for web accessibility, from the people who bring you the technology that drives the Internet, and it is free.

Students Need Support Too

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Remember there is a chain of technology between the teacher and the student. Huge equity issues persist with students not having adequate access to computers and internet connections.

In both rural areas and inner cities, students are faced with incredible challenges in terms of having access to internet and the technology required to open and make use of the content being delivered from the school and teacher.

While you can’t solve all of these problems yourself, you can avoid making things worse.

Don’t use the most cutting edge technology as the exclusive means of delivering your course. This includes video or fancy multimedia, which are often problematic for bad internet connections and older technologies.

Likewise, don’t add another cost for students by just using a publisher pack of content that is also full of accessibility problems. Students deserve better from you, and you should have more pride in your work. Step up your game, your students need you!

Pay attention to issues like minimum technology standards when you design your instruction and remember to ask the students who are using the technology how the experience is working for them. Call out specific issues about technology and internet access, don’t assume that students are going to feel compelled to volunteer such things without being prompted.

While it is easy to get caught up in the challenges that we face as educators, it is essential to remember the students and make sure we are focused on the right things for the right reasons.

So good on you for being the kind of person who takes the time to read accessibility blogs. 😉

Keeping accessibility in mind as you practice online education is more than the hallmark of a modern professional who knows how to take care of business – it is simply the right thing to do for your community.

Thank you, and thanks for reading!

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…