Building a Culture of Accessibility in Higher Education

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To meet the needs of all users, colleges and universities must weave a mind-set of accessibility into institutional culture, using a process that includes all parts of a campus.

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In spring 2017, nearly all campuses of the SUNY system were served with complaints from the U.S. Department of Civil Rights about the inaccessibility of their web sites. The experience of SUNY isn't different from what many other colleges or systems have experienced. Between January 2014 and November 2017, more than 1,800 complaints were filed by one individual against institutions of higher education.

Most people in education understand that the accessibility of electronic resources is essential, not only because it is mandated by law but also because it is the right thing to do. ELI listed Accessibility and Universal Design as the #2 issue in its 2018 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning. In an unpublished report to the provost, Nazely Kurkjian, SUNY Coordinator of Disability, Diversity & Nontraditional Student Services, stated, "Our community recognizes that accessibility is essential to ensuring equity and inclusion, and while we have a strong commitment to accessibility for all, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be accomplished to truly engrain accessibility within the fabric of the University. Today, digital accessibility touches nearly every aspect of campus life, from applications to websites, to courses, and myriad tools used in curricular and co-curricular programs, services, and activities."

The challenge for each institution, for each system, and for higher education in general is to instill accessibility into the culture and make it a component of implementing technology on our campuses. To achieve this goal, accessibility will need to be a core component of our next generation enterprise IT strategy and be a budgeting priority. These dimensions of guaranteeing accessibility will also affect our sourcing strategies.

Successfully moving to this accessible culture is possible, particularly because we have a number of factors in our favor:

  • Faculty, staff, and administrators want to implement accessible technology, even if they currently lack the knowledge and skills to accomplish this. Getting these people involved, educating them, and involving them in the issues is the best way to being resolving the issues on a large scale.
  • Numerous colleges and systems are blazing a trail to follow. Examining the work of leaders can help institutions that are just starting to leapfrog from their current situation and develop a continuous improvement methodology for moving forward.
  • As more institutions in higher education make accessibility a priority, we can use our collective weight and leverage actions together to accelerate the growth of accessible IT.

It Takes a Village

At SUNY Oswego, as we have implemented our IT strategic plan, "The Digital Campus: Technology for an Enhanced Tomorrow," we have learned that it takes a village to create this digital campus. We feel our best chance to thrive virtually is when the entire community takes an active role in contributing to the infusion of technology. To achieve this, collaboration, cooperation, and communication are keys to all technology initiatives. To deliver value to our community, stakeholders and Campus Technology Services (CTS) must contribute as equal partners to planning, projects, and service delivery.

When we looked at how we were approaching accessibility, we saw that we were reactive; remediation projects were done in isolation, and we did not make systemic changes to eliminate making the same mistakes repeatedly. In the end, we were not involving the community enough to avoid and resolve the issues.

The campus brought together multiple units to leverage and coordinate our effort to develop the culture we desire. Representation came from the president's office, IT, Marketing and Communications, Extended Learning, Procurement, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and Accessibility Services. Assistance was enlisted from faculty who are experts in web accessibility and universal design. We also hired graduate student interns trained in accessible web design to update web pages and develop training modules. Procurement rewrote wording in RFPs for software and in contracts. All web designers have been trained in their responsibilities around accessible web and social media content. As more people have become involved in the project, we have seen the spirit of creating an accessible digital culture grow.

Following the Trailblazers

As we began our project to create an accessible culture, we looked at who the leaders were in these areas and examined what they were doing. Our desire was to leverage their work and accomplishments, create a process of continuous improvement, and, if possible, leapfrog from where we were to where we wanted to be.

A starting point for us was the EDUCAUSE Accessibility resources. It is a wide collection of resources contained in the EDUCAUSE library with a wealth of information. We are grateful to a number of institutions for the work they have done and the spirit of sharing they showed in publishing their work. While many institutions are doing great work, these are the resources that SUNY Oswego used:

Growing the SUNY Village and Higher Education Community

As SUNY schools started to work toward web compliance, SUNY administration decided that a coordinated effort would assist the System to move more quickly towards compliance. Kurkjian became the chair of the SUNY EIT Accessibility Committee, which was established to develop a systematic approach to developing and maintaining accessible electronic environments for campus community members with disabilities. The committee was charged with the following:

  1. Devise a SUNY-wide policy
  2. Provide guidance for SUNY campuses
  3. Coordinate necessary support activities

The committee membership comprises broad representation across SUNY, representing all sectors, including knowledge experts from IT, Library Services, Center for Professional Development, Open SUNY, Disability/Accessibility Resources, Educational Technologies, Centers for Learning and Teaching, University-wide Procurement, Office of General Counsel, Office of University Life, Marketing Office, and Diversity Office. About 15 different universities and colleges were represented and contributed.

Over the past year, the committee has developed policy and recommendations to assist SUNY institutions to move more quickly toward accessibility, including these recommendations:

  • Assist each campus to move accessibility forward by requiring a Campus Accessibility Officer.
  • Develop a Campus Accessibility Access Plan to promote ongoing, inclusive access for individuals with disabilities.
  • To the extent feasible, develop, purchase, host, and/or acquire web pages, websites, hardware and software products, and services that are accessible to persons with disabilities.

This final recommendation, procuring accessible IT products, is an area that will take considerable work and commitment. The reality is that accessibility initiatives have led to pervasive innovation in the implementation of technology, including in speech recognition and driverless cars. Accessible technology is truly next generation IT. But the implementation of accessibility into products institutions procure is uneven and does not always meet voluntary standards that software producers should follow. Evaluating and testing software for accessibility is a time-intensive procedure that requires specialized skill and knowledge.

To push accessibility forward and reap the benefits that it will bring, we are going to have to answer these challenges. A number of systems and colleges have set examples of what must be done. Among the leaders is California State University, which has extensive documentation on procurement and the procurement process. Very shortly, SUNY intends to implement a policy that will provide similar guidelines and guidance on obtaining IT products that support accessibility. SUNY's hope is that once we get some momentum, we will be able to join with other systems to reduce the time and effort required in testing and, more importantly, have more accessible software. As we grow the higher education village committed to accessibility, we can move beyond meeting the minimum requirements for accessibility standards and provide a truly equitable digital experience for all.

Sean Moriarty is Chief Technology Officer at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego and Chair of the SUNY Council of CIOs.

© 2018 Sean Moriarty. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.