State of the U: IT Accessibility Approaches, Issues, and Progress
Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler
The legal basis for accessibility on campus is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and its 2008 amendments. However, we don’t want to just consider the legal obligations--we want to strive for the inclusivity of all students and look at ability as a continuum, where all individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, or manage their health. Every person’s abilities change over time, and the line between ability and disability is blurry.
Accommodations and universal design (UD) are two approaches to access for people with disabilities. Both approaches contribute to the success of students with disabilities. Accommodations are a reactive process, providing access for a specific student and arise from a medical model of disability. Students might be provided with extra time on tests, books in alternate formats, or sign language interpreters.
In contrast, UD is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach to disability and is beneficial to all students. UD is designing products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. A UD approach can benefit people who face challenges related to socioeconomic status, race, culture, gender, age, language, or ability. Applying UD to information technology would include building in accessibility features and also ensuring compatibility with assistive technology. In other words, a universally designed website would have text alternatives for graphics, present context via text and visuals, include captions and transcripts for all video and audio content, ensure that all content and navigation can be reached with the keyboard alone, and spell out acronyms.
UD of instruction is an attitude that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. It can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefits to all students, promotes good teaching practice, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. UD can be applied to all aspects of instruction, including class climate, interactions, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, feedback, and assessment.
Educators who effectively apply UD and accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities and make instruction welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. They minimize, but do not eliminate, the need for accommodations.
More information about UD can be found in DO-IT’s Center for Universal Design in Education.
State of the U: Accessibility of Websites, Documents, and Videos
Presenter: Terrill Thompson
When we’re creating digital content such as web pages or online documents, we may envision our typical user as an able-bodied person using a desktop computer. In reality, users utilize a wide variety of technologies to access the web including assistive technologies, mobile devices, and more; everyone has different levels of ability when it comes to seeing, hearing, or using a mouse or keyboard. Since the World Wide Web was invented, HTML has included alt tags and other accessibility features. WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, second version) shows how web content can be made accessible to all users. WCAG 2.0 follows four main principles; information should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these principles is defined by more specific guidelines, and those are further defined by specific success criteria, which are assigned Level A, AA, or AAA, with Level A success criteria including the most critical issues for accessibility. Level A success criteria are fairly easy to meet. In resolution agreements and legal settlements, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights have identified WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a reasonable target to ensure websites are accessible.
A push for accessible tools and features will help make all web content more accessible. Using accessible themes in WordPress and Drupal is an easy way to spread accessibility across campus and utilize necessary accessibility features such as keyboard accessible drop-down menus and proper headings. ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) can be used to analyze accessibility, and it communicates the interface elements to users and designers. Canvas and similar learning management systems need to be made accessible and used accessibly; faculty need to learn about headings and alt text and the right questions to ask about accessibility.
On UW campus, the UW accessibility web special interest group formed in 2002, where staff and faculty began discussing ideas around web and technology accessibility. In 2006, we began hosting web accessibility capacty building institutes, which initiated a movement towards more accessible IT websites. The IT Accessibility Task Force formed in 2012 to tackle accessibility issues on each UW campus, and they developed the UW IT Accessibility Guidelines and accessibility checklist.
For more information about web accessibility, check out these resources:
- 30 Tips for Improving Web Accessibility
- Accessible Technology at the UW
- Accessible University Demo Site
- UW Document Conversion Service
Pulling it All Together to Create an Accessible Online Course
Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler
In this presentation, we focused on what staff and faculty need to do to make their classes welcoming to and accessible by students with disabilities. These professionals typically do not develop their own learning management system (LMS), website, or other technology tools, but rather use what is already out there. However, educators do have the choice to create accessible instructional materials and teaching strategies. Educators should consider if everyone can gain knowledge, if everyone can interact with others, and how everyone can demonstrate their knowledge.
Faculty often get overwhelmed by universal design and accessibility; they see it as just another thing they need to make time for in their busy schedules. Applying specific tools and strategies to make content accessible from the beginning is easier than retrofitting classes after they’ve already begin. It is important for faculty to understand what makes a course accessible; what are some strategies and resources for accessible design; what legal mandates are in place; and what creates a welcoming, accessible, and usable environment for all potential students.
Accessible means a class or product is usable to the same level by all students. While accommodations are important, we can minimize retrofitting for specific students by implementing universal design in planning the class. In the first online class taught at the UW—one I taught in 1995 on adaptive technology for people with disabilities—my co-instructor and I made it as accessible as possible to showcase that it was possible for any student to engage in an online course. I still take the same basic approach in an online class I currently teach about accessibility and compliance of online education.
The first step towards creating an accessible syllabus with structure and key information, including a statement on accessibility and disability-related accommodations. Then apply DO-IT’s 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course. The list includes considerations regarding both IT (e.g., providing alternative text for images, designing accessible PDF, captioning videos) and pedagogy (e.g., providing multiple ways to gain and demonstration knowledge). Further guidance and resources can be found at DO-IT’s AccessDL website.
State of the U: Engagement with IT Vendors and Campus Units
Presenter: Hadi Rangin and Dan Comden
UW-IT has been working with vendors for many years to encourage them to increase the accessibility of their products. These companies include Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Instructure, Moodle, Ebsco Publishing, Elsevier, Ex Libris, BB Collaborate, Qualtrics, Elucian, and many more. We have received very positive responses from companies, indicating that this sort of collaboration with on- and off-campus entities can result in positive changes.
We continue to strive to increase designers’ and developers’ knowledge of accessible design to ensure that products that they develop are accessible out of the box. We want the community to know that accessibility is more than just alt text and that it brings more value to a product. The goal is to be able to purchase a product with an accessible design rather than buy a product and address accessibility issues later. Unfortunately, many products are either inaccessible or haven’t been tested for accessibility.
Sometimes vendors provide Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) forms, which is a vendor-generated statement that provides relevant information on how their product or service conforms to Section 508, IT accessibility standards used by the federal government. Many VPATs state a vendor’s commitment to accessibility without providing a clear description of whether the products are accessible. Purchasers may not be savvy enough to recognize this distinction. Often, these products are purchased and deployed on our campuses without being fully tested for accessibility.
Some universities, including the UW, promote the consideration of accessibility as part of product testing and evaluation in the purchasing process. Ideally, products are tested independently for accessibility and shortcomings are identified. A plan for creating a timeline for fixing/enhancing their program and negotiate a contract around that timeline and solutions to make products usably accessible. A program with 100 shortcut keys may be technically accessible but not usable by a person who is blind. But what should we do when there is no viable alternative for the product being purchased? Should a lack of accessibility be a deal breaker?
We believe that an important part of the solution is collaboration. It is important to bring the purchasing department and vendors together to come up with an accessibility plan. A full accessibility/usability evaluation should be performed, issues should be identified and prioritized based on their severity, and a plan should be incorporated into the contract. The contract should specify clearly what issues will be addressed and the consequences if the vendor fails to deliver. When evaluating a product, it is important to focus on usability rather than just the technical aspects of the product. Examples of good questions to ask are these:
- Can users accomplish particular tasks?
- Can users post to a particular forum/thread?
- Can users determine how much time is remaining for their quiz?