“Accessibility is essential if all students are to participate fully in higher education. Campus buildings may be more accessible now than they were in the 1980s, but new technology barriers have cropped up over the years that didn’t even exist a few decades ago.”
This according to eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY, a digital accessibility solutions provider who recognized a widening gap between the physical and digital world for people with disabilities. With technology now an integral part of higher education, especially as campus services, content and information go online, the need for web accessibility has never been greater.
While some disabilities that interfere with using the web, like blindness and deafness, are obvious, some are not: color blindness, low vision, dyslexia, repetitive stress injury, seizures, cognitive impairment, the aging process and more. Thus, accessibility is essential for ALL learners if they are to participate fully and successfully in their own educational journey.
More than a policy or plan, digital, or web, accessibility should be a system-wide priority for higher education today. Here, the University of Delaware and University of Michigan share their accessibility philosophies, strategies and projects. And how rSmart has helped them facilitate accessibility on their campus portals.
But First, Some Research
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S. have disabilities (2011-2012), representing over 2 million learners. At the same time, the Hechinger Report says that only a third of the students with disabilities who enroll in a four-year college or university graduate within eight years. And for those that enroll in two-year schools, the outcomes aren’t much better: 41 percent, according to federal data.
CAMPUS TECHNOLOGY reported that a 2012 study by the Worldwide Institute for Research and Evaluation indicated just how unprepared higher education is. The study examined web pages from 100 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities selected at random. Only one-third had a posted policy about web accessibility, and only 17 percent of those had visible guidelines for faculty or instructional technologists. Only two institutions mentioned IT accessibility in their accreditation improvement plans.
In a 2018 EDUCAUSE Review article, author Sue Cullen said that accessibility is a shared campus responsibility best accomplished with executive support. “While we await technologies that are 100 percent accessible, we must proactively work to obtain the most accessible products for users, and we must be ready to assist students with individualized accommodation services,” she explained. “This means as technology is selected, vendors need to be accountable for meeting the accessibility standards to which higher education programs and services are held.”
University of Delaware: Campus-wide Accessibility Initiative
In fact, web accessibility is such a growing concern in higher education that many schools are establishing committees or initiatives to address it, like the University of Delaware. According to the initiative’s project manager Sarah Meadows, that’s because all the university’s stakeholders, not just employees and students, but anyone that has any sort of relationship with the University, needs to be able to access its online content. “Otherwise, we are missing out on key audiences,” she explained. “We’re really focused on equal access for everyone.”
Fortunately, the University of Delaware strives to walk the talk. “We hired a third-party to perform a web accessibility audit to better understand where we stand as a university,” said Meadows. The audit evaluated several high-traffic, high-profile websites from different areas of the university, including their My UD campus portal, to get a better understanding of the challenges.
With different platforms, different types of service providers, various home-grown applications and multiple vendors with digital platforms, that’s a tall order. “We needed to understand what’s within our control and what’s within the control of a vendor, and whether our vendors are willing to partner with us to make improvements to their product to make them more accessible,” revealed Meadows.
The audit, which began in early 2018 and ended in April 2018, identified typical things that are easy-to-fix elements that most people don’t think about, like the use of alternative text for images, according to Meadows. “The audit helped us to get a better understanding of what different accessibility issues our sites and platforms have,” she explained. “It helped us prioritize our efforts and better understand the support and resources our stakeholders would need to be successful with improving digital accessibility.”
Partnering for Accessibility
According to Meadows, My UD, the university’s instance of OneCampus, has become a one-stop-shop for the university community to find different resources on campus without having to know that the registrar owns that form or HR facilitates that process.
The University of Delaware launched My UD in August 2015 and have increasingly heard positive feedback from users during events where IT promotes it. “Users have even bookmarked the portal as their personal home page so it’s the first page that comes up when they open their browsers,” said Meadows.
Maria Mullin, associate director of web development business systems, explained that the accessibility audit identified several issues with My UD related to keyboard navigation, dynamic content for screen readers, and use of device-dependent event handlers. “I brought the audit results to the attention of rSmart in May, and in less than a month, the company issued their latest release, which fixed the majority of the issues,” she explained. “In general, I feel rSmart is very responsive to our feedback and very timely in addressing issues reported to them.”
Web accessibility is an ongoing and evolving campus-wide initiative, according to Meadows. That means the university has done a lot of leg work over past few months to try and figure out what tools and resources are needed to support accessibility efforts on campus, how to increase awareness training and ensure action is taken to improve accessibility in a distributed digital environment, what training faculty and staff require based on the kinds of digital content they work with, how to ensure the vendors we work with provide products and services that are accessible, and the best way to get all that information out to different campus audiences.
“We will be launching an awareness campaign to the general campus community, starting in the next months,” Meadows related.
The initiative also involves working with the university’s communications office, HR, and diversity and inclusion group, as well as reaching out to colleges and departments to engage them in conversations about goals and helping them work toward improving accessibility.
“We will have a central accessibility website where people can find all the tools, resources and information they are looking for,” Meadows shared. “Increasing education and awareness ensures that colleges and departments have the skills they need to manage and improve their own digital assets. It’s a real team effort that we plan to continually grow and improve upon as we progress with this initiative.”
Meadows explained that the team is now setting up conversations with colleges and business units to establish accessibility goals for 2018-19. “We want to come up with something that’s realistic and achievable so content owners can gain small wins as they begin learning more about digital accessibility and are motivated to pursue more aggressive goals and bigger wins as we scale the initiative,” she said. “It’s going to take time to reign in all of the content and websites that are out there since our faculty, staff, and students currently have a lot of freedom to create sites in our distributed environment.”
“We’ll start with our front-facing websites because for key audiences like incoming students and employees, that’s their first exposure to the university,” said Meadows. “We’ll post the KPIs on the accessibility website to keep the campus community engaged and informed about the goals we are all working together to meet. Before the start of each semester, we’ll assess whether the goals from the previous semester were achieved and set a new goal, aiming for bigger and bigger wins as we gain more experience with digital accessibility.”
“Universal design concepts are general best practices for everybody because it improves the accessibility and usability of our sites and applications, opening them up to a broader audience,” Meadows concluded. “We don’t want to limit, or worse, exclude, anybody from accessing our content.”
University of Michigan: Accessibility is Foundational
Lindsay Miller, user experience analyst on the University of Michigan’s web team, explains that, “For the ITS Web Team at the University of Michigan, accessibility is not a separate box to check.” Rather it’s foundational to all digital work they do. Whether it’s applications or websites employees are using or tools students are using to be successful academically, accessibility is important throughout technologies on campus, not simply an afterthought.
“That’s why recently we brought on two new team members, our digital accessibility analysts, so we can really dedicate resources to ensure that’s happening, not just for our unit but across the University’s web landscape,” Miller said. “Accessibility is their jam.”
Evolving Web Strategy
Because the web is now the hub of daily business for students, faculty and staff at U of M, their expectations are expanding. Thus, the university’s ITS web strategy provides a consistent approach to meet the needs of all stakeholders. Key priorities include device independence, findability, consumable information, seamless experience, usability and of course, accessibility.
“Each of our six priorities focuses on usability, and we can’t talk about usability without talking about accessibility,” Miller explained. “They really go hand in hand. Not only are we legally required to make our websites accessible, but it really improves usability for everyone. Accessibility is the expectation.”
Like all things web, the web strategy is a work in progress that evolves from year to year. It guides how they design and think about websites and web applications, in particular those owned by ITS, the central IT organization. According to Miller, the goal is to expand this to include other IT units across the University.
One of the team’s new digital accessibility analysts, Darrell Williams, reported that while already unified at the ITS level, they are striving to be even more unified so that accessibility is part of every process that goes toward developing products. “We’re working with team leaders and project managers to ensure that accessibility is part of the job as things are being discussed and as they are rolled out,” he said.
For Miller, building bridges by tying in with broad university initiatives is another way to expand the impact of their web strategy. “Campus partners, like the UM library and Council for Disability Concerns are strong accessibility partners who are highly invested,” she said.
According to Williams, the council offers a forum for community members to speak about issues about accessibility and their personal experiences. “These are things that we factor into how we approach accessibility in ITS.”
With two new digital accessibility analysts, ITS now has enough internal capability now to assist people with vendor evaluations. “We are training procurement to do product evaluations themselves,” explained Gonzalo Silverio, the second new analyst. “ITS plans to make it more part of the process for vendors.”
Accessibility and OneCampus
U of M is piloting OneCampus, and according to Silverio, he diagnosed some accessibility issues and made recommendations to rSmart. “I was gratified to see one of them addressed in next release, which speaks of a good relationship with the company,” he reported. “The application obviously has been crafted with a lot of care to provide a high level of interactivity for the user, but that is a very hard thing to do accessibly. The OneCampus application has succeeded in doing that by and large.”
“I recognize that rSmart has many customers and balancing the requests and needs of those customers is probably a challenge,” Miller reflected. “The company does a good job of collecting feedback and input and evaluating it, having customers weigh in and implementing changes that work for most. Which I think is a great way of improving the user experience broadly of the product, not just our instance.”