The Web Accessibility in Higher Education Project

Key Takeaways

  • The Web Accessibility in Higher Education Project works across 25 Oklahoma institutions of higher education to provide resources and help campuses meet technology accessibility goals.
  • Decentralized campus technology environments combine with accessibility's wide reach to create barriers to success.
  • To successfully plan and implement a technology accessibility initiative, campuses need higher-level administrative support, subject matter expertise, a representative team of the appropriate size, and an understanding of how processes work.

Rob Carr, Accessibility Coordinator, Oklahoma ABLE Tech, Oklahoma State University

The complex problem of ensuring that technology is accessible to people with disabilities touches nearly every aspect of a campus, from course material to enterprise systems for registration and financial aid to public web pages. Solutions to creating an accessible IT environment require a full campus effort. The Web Accessibility in Higher Education Project (WAHEP) works across 25 Oklahoma institutions of higher education to provide resources and help campuses meet these goals. In this process we have learned valuable lessons regarding campus leadership, collaboration, and expectations. These lessons can aid any higher education institution seeking to establish or grow a technology accessibility initiative.

About WAHEP

WAHEP provides a type of support unique in public higher education. By addressing access to technology by people with disabilities at the statewide level, the project has been able to identify patterns and focus technical assistance and statewide training efforts on areas that most institutions struggle with.

For example, working with vendors to procure accessible software is one of the consistent pain points for institutions across Oklahoma, so an upcoming WAHEP webinar will focus on this topic. As project coordinator, I have also heard repeatedly about the challenge policy creation can be for medium to small institutions. As a result, conversations with the state Regents for Higher Education Office Staff have focused on ways to create a policy template that institutions can adopt without the effort required to create such a policy from scratch. Without working across so many institutions in the state, it would be difficult to identify and prioritize challenges like these.

As a result of WAHEP's work, institutions have assigned accessibility responsibilities to staff, brought current and potential vendors into conversations about accessibility, and established or bolstered internal training to include digital accessibility for people with disabilities. Project teams receive targeted training and technical assistance from Oklahoma ABLE Tech and the accessibility experts at WebAIM. Teams are charged with creating an accessibility policy and an implementation plan and building internal expertise to develop campus-wide accessibility initiatives. Each team has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) indicating their willingness to target specific goals:

  • Establish a web accessibility policy
  • Improve the accessibility of the institution's primary website
  • Participate in WAHEP webinars

Training and assistance come through regular webinars, virtual meetings, onsite visits by me as the WAHEP project coordinator, and e-mail and telephone communications. In addition, WebAIM performed accessibility evaluations of sample web pages from the institutions' websites at the project's beginning. These evaluations serve as a baseline measure of accessibility in the institution's primary website. Follow-up evaluations are under way now (at the halfway point). These will provide institutions with feedback about how they have progressed. Finally, evaluations will occur again at the end of the project in 2016 to help institutions gauge their progress over WAHEP's life.

Training covers a wide range of topics about IT accessibility in higher education. Policy-driven subjects include the legal landscape surrounding technology accessibility in higher education, technology accessibility as a culture change in higher education, and creation of a sustainable technology accessibility initiative. More technical subjects include basic web accessibility, web accessibility testing, and accessible responsive web design.

WAHEP gives project participants a single point of contact for specific questions: the project coordinator.I answer questions and provide additional resources to support the institutions' efforts around technology accessibility. I also work closely with WebAIM and its sister group, the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE). Any of these groups can provide specific technical assistance or consulting through project funding.

Project teams are polled, formally and informally, on a regular basis to make sure that training and technical assistance are on target.

Three Approaches to Technology Accessibility in Higher Education

While the WAHEP MOU sets out goals, institutions have a lot of freedom in how they implement their accessibility initiatives. Institutions are encouraged to work beyond making their institutional website more accessible to people with disabilities. Many take a broader focus, including integrating accessibility into their software and web design procurement processes, creating accessible classroom materials, and creating accessible multimedia resources. Ultimately, WAHEP seeks to make higher education in Oklahoma more accessible to every potential student, faculty or staff member, and the public.

Examining the way three of these institutions approached implementing their technology accessibility initiatives illuminates not only the success a campus can achieve but also the challenges they will encounter.

Institution A

Institution A started its initiative by focusing exclusively on a technology accessibility policy, with a policy committee established by the institution's provost. As a result, the group consisted of faculty and staff who focus on the campus's academic activities. Committee members included students and faculty with disabilities. The group had support from the institution's legal counsel, who was eager to get a policy in place after seeing discrimination complaints settled at institutions across the country.

The committee created a subcommittee to focus on the draft language of the policy, which was circulated through the larger group when ready. After some minor edits, the draft policy was complete.

The provost reviewed the draft and said it met expectations. However, the provost ultimately decided that the accessibility policy should come out of a more centralized office so that it could reach beyond the provost's scope of authority.

The committee took this feedback and adjusted the policy to reflect a broader reach. They did not bring in more participants from other parts of the campus and kept the conversation narrowly focused on policy. As a result, the accessibility policy was published less than one year from the committee's formation. It was ultimately housed in the disability services office on campus.

After adoption of the accessibility policy the committee stopped meeting, leaving discussions about implementing the policy unanswered. The disability services office continues to work with senior administrators to further implementation of the policy. A top priority from the perspective of the disability services office is to secure a full-time staff position to attend to technology accessibility and oversee accessibility policy implementation. At this time, no-one on campus can dedicate his or her time to integrating accessibility into the many parts of the campus where it fits.

Pros

  • The policy group was small, narrowly focused, and had the support of leadership to dedicate time to drafting and reviewing policy.
  • Policy was quickly adopted for the campus.
  • The policy committee included a student and a faculty member with disabilities. Having the perspective of those most profoundly affected by accessible technology can help make the policy more effective.

Cons

  • The committee's focus was too narrow. While this led to quick adoption of policy, it has kept the institution from looking at implementation plans to make the policy effective.
  • The committee's composition was too narrow. The committee did not include representation from key parts of the campus such as purchasing, student affairs, financial aid, or high-level administration. Once the policy scope increased, the committee should have grown.

Without a larger committee that includes high-level administrators as stakeholders, it is more difficult to implement a policy. This has proven true at Institution A, which has yet to put together an implementation plan. Without such a plan, the institution continues to see accessibility implemented only in some units and departments on campus. The lack of an accessibility integration plan also limits the institution's ability to secure a position that can focus on digital accessibility.

Institution B

Institution B's technology accessibility committee also began small. When committee members discussed technology accessibility, the committee leadership realized that accessibility touches most of the campus. The committee invited additional participants as both committee members and stakeholders who would remain informed and provide occasional feedback. The committee meets regularly and includes mostly mid-level leadership, including IT, classroom instruction, faculty council, student disability services, legal counsel, and others. The committee is led by two co-chairs, the chief information officer and the associate director of Communications. This larger group of stakeholders includes administration and front-line faculty and staff as well. The committee members represent many units on campus.

Institution B's committee focused on policy from the beginning, but as the committee talked about policy, it also talked about implementation. This led to conversations about resources and the recognition that a successful initiative will need dedicated subject matter experts and other resources. The committee is working to create a policy, an implementation plan, and a resource plan. Key additions to staff — part of the committee's implementation plan — would include a campus-wide Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator in the short term. In the medium to long term, the committee hopes to secure funding for a position dedicated to accessible technology.

Despite the breadth of stakeholders, the committee's reach into leadership on campus only goes so high. This has limited the ability to get those most responsible for implementing the draft policy to begin to apply deadlines and evaluate resource needs for the implementation. The process has slowed as the committee's leadership has worked to educate more senior leaders on campus about the importance, impact, and outcomes of the draft policy.

Pros

  • The committee represents most of the campus as either direct participants in the committee or stakeholders who stay in the loop via their committee representatives. This helps in creating a comprehensive policy.
  • The policy committee and stakeholders come from throughout campus. This sets the committee up to have more success when it comes to publishing policy and implementing its action plan.
  • The committee meets regularly, and this has gone a long way toward ensuring the success of an effort that spans so many parts of a decentralized campus. Regular meetings once a month keep topics fresh and help maintain momentum.

Cons

  • Progress is slow, although the resulting policy and plan will benefit from a deliberate effort.
  • Not involving senior administration directly and early on has led to a delay in getting an implementation plan in place. Leadership on the committee is limited in its ability to allocate resources of time, people, or money.

Institution C

Instead of developing a formal policy, Institution C began its technology accessibility initiative by integrating training on accessibility into existing training. Institution C already had existing training on using its content management system (CMS). This existing training gave the institution a great place to integrate training about making web content more accessible.

Instead of adding additional training about accessibility, Institution C works accessibility into its general training. In some cases, this is as simple as mentioning the importance of color contrast when discussing the color palette already specified in training.

Institution C does has a draft technology accessibility policy, but its efforts have focused more on integrating accessibility into their day-to-day operations rather than on fully developing their policy.

Pros

  • Building accessibility into existing training is a great way to reach a larger audience and make accessibility something that the audience can relate to. Adding technology accessibility as additional training, without support or mandate from administration, is sure to limit participation.
  • A focus on implementation over policy means that action is taken to address barriers to accessibility and some of the underlying causes that lead to those barriers' presence.

Cons

  • Institution C's technology accessibility initiative is limited to a defined group: content managers on campus. To succeed with a broader accessibility initiative, it is vital to address a larger audience.
  • Institution C does not have higher level administrative support for a broad technology accessibility initiative. The web team is focused on accessibility and trains others to create more accessible web pages, but that does not reach into classrooms or other parts of campus.
  • This approach also isolates most of the accessibility knowledge and momentum within the web team. If one or two key people leave that team, then the campus faces the possibility of losing its institutional accessibility knowledge.

The Technology Accessibility Initiative Shopping List

Higher education institutions face myriad challenges when first addressing digital accessibility. Decentralized campus technology environments combine with accessibility's wide reach to create barriers to success. Institutions can make digital accessibility into something so big that it seems impossible, or too small to warrant action. Administration may believe that someone on campus has a handle on digital accessibility, when accessibility truly is a hot potato. These, and other, factors can all combine to keep an institution from establishing direction and processes that would otherwise help it create a more accessible technology environment.

That lack of direction can risk the success of students, faculty, and staff on our campuses. As we take things like our academic material and hiring processes online, it is all too easy to leave out steps that are vital in making sure these resources are accessible to people with disabilities. This closes doors to opportunity that we otherwise strive tirelessly to open.

So what does a campus need to successfully plan and implement a technology accessibility initiative? Administrative support, subject matter expertise, a representative team of the appropriate size, and an understanding of how processes work.

Administrative Support

Institutions need a group of high-level administrators behind a technology accessibility initiative to successfully make it part of the campus. A couple of high-level staff might successfully start an initiative, but it is critical that administration understands why the institution should take proactive steps to address technology accessibility on the web, in the classroom, and in campus employment. With a larger group of administrators involved, a sustainable technology accessibility program is likelier to result.

Subject Matter Expertise

One of the larger challenges that I have observed comes from the lack of specific digital accessibility subject matter expertise at a central point on any of the three campuses described. Institution A in particular struggles to articulate the resource needs demanded by its digital accessibility policy without someone who has the combination of time, expertise, and communication skills to lead the conversation. Institution B's slow progress with its implementation plan can at least partially be blamed on the institution's lack of such a dedicated subject matter expert to carry the plan forward to administrative staff.

A Representative, but Appropriately Sized, Team

While someone needs to champion technology accessibility, it will take more than one person to make it happen. A team is a necessity. It might be a committee or a task force, but it should bring together people from across campus to talk about how to make accessibility part of the day-to-day operations instead of something that happens at the end of individual projects — if at all.

Obvious participants include IT staff, web/communications staff, and instructional designers, but several other groups also need to be considered, such as procurement, human relations, and other functional areas. Look at the software and web-based tools that students, faculty, staff, and the public use. Work back from the tools to identify who owns them. That will get you started in identifying who should be part of the conversation.

Involve mid- to high-level administrators in your team as well. Having administrators directly involved in the workings of the committee will help them see the breadth and depth of a technology accessibility initiative at your institution. It can take a few conversations to convey that, so they might sit on your committee for a few meetings. As things progress, they may become stakeholders who advocate for your committee's efforts but do not participate in every meeting.

An Understanding of How Processes Work

It is impossible to integrate technology accessibility into the campus without an understanding of where it fits. This is where technology accessibility subject matter expertise combines with a broad-based team and high-level leadership to identify where accessibility can be integrated and the benefits of an accessible digital environment.

Having a team comprised of people who know the campus and know who to bring into the conversation is key. People who know campus processes and procedures will inform your efforts to integrate accessibility instead of adding it on to existing initiatives. These same people can work together to identify potential barriers to the initiative and shift strategy as needed. Finally, growing experience with technology accessibility will lead to best practices that others can adopt for their own projects.

An accessibility initiative might not be a campus-wide effort on some campuses, but Oklahoma's experience with WAHEP has shown that a few necessary components can get a campus moving toward more accessible technology for its stakeholders. Maybe the most significant lesson that WAHEP participants learn is the importance of taking the first step.