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Empathy and Collaboration: Accessibility in IT

min read

To better support users with disabilities in their interactions with technology, IT professionals should ask for their input, take a moment to experience their challenges, and collaborate with others.

A man in a wheelchair and a woman sitting at a desk working at the same computer
Credit: WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock © 2018

Accessibility in IT

IT accessibility has been an important legal consideration for quite some time, but what that means, how it looks, and what end users should experience when interacting with technology are much more challenging issues to address.

Often, people will talk about accessibility as a binary—as if something is accessible or not accessible—but accessibility doesn't work that way. Accessibility is a gradient, not an absolute. Accessibility issues in the physical world can be difficult to evaluate, requiring careful measurements and testing. IT accessibility can be even more challenging to evaluate because it is not immediately visible, though processes and tools—such as WCAG 2.0, the VPAT, and numerous checklists and accessibility checkers—make assessment easier.

Ultimately, though, technological tools can only help so much. Software deemed accessible by vendors or basic checkers may actually present extensive issues and challenges to users. Even if these software tools are accessible, they can often be used to produce or share inaccessible materials. Fixing the problems tends to be both time-consuming and expensive. Being proactive in approaching accessibility can save both time and money, in addition to creating a more welcoming environment for individuals with disabilities.

A Teleconferencing Challenge and Response

University of the Pacific, California's first chartered institution of higher learning, is a private, nonprofit institution with campuses in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Stockton. Most degree programs are provided on campus, but in the past few years, we've expanded to online and hybrid offerings. This shift has introduced a wide range of IT challenges, including the question of digital accessibility.

Three years ago, one of our new hybrid programs required meetings via teleconference. A student who is blind quickly encountered issues with the teleconferencing tool. The problems were difficult to fully understand and describe, so we collaborated with our campus colleagues to work toward a solution.

The academic program, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Pacific Technology, and the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (OSSD) coordinated a demonstration to observe how the student interacted with the tool. This test of the teleconferencing tool was designed so that participants could hear what the student heard but could not see the student's screen. This exercise allowed everyone to hear what the screen reader was saying, and the student also provided feedback and comments on the process. By the end of the test, it was clear to everyone that although some of the features of the teleconferencing tool were technically accessible, it was not practical or friendly to use. In response, we tested and implemented an alternative teleconferencing tool.

The test also highlighted the deep value of cultivating empathy for the end users of technology and of developing interdepartmental cooperation. Although empathy is not explicitly stated as a Top 10 IT issue for 2018, it's incredibly important in supporting the main themes in IT. Empathy allows us to better understand another person's experience, and we can all point to IT initiatives that failed due to insufficient information about the end user. How, though, can we raise awareness and understanding of the challenges experienced by users with disabilities?

Accessible Mindset

Pacific's CTL developed an Accessible Mindset workshop to help faculty understand some of the challenges experienced by students with disabilities. The workshop allowed faculty to experience instructional media and activities that simulated some common problems that individuals with disabilities might encounter when interacting with technology.

Accessible Mindset was then adapted to support staff members from across the university, including Pacific Technology. This allowed for both developing empathy and getting people from across Pacific who are interested in accessibility into workshops together. Plans are in place to continue and expand offerings of Accessible Mindset and to develop other more-focused workshops.

Continued Collaboration

In addition to workshops, Pacific Technology, the CTL, and the OSSD have developed lines of communication to expedite accessibility issues as they arise, allowing for a much more nuanced understanding of and proactive response to the challenges students and staff experience. For example, the vendor of our newer teleconferencing tool came out with a new interface, and we had the choice of immediately upgrading or remaining with the old interface. Pacific Technology initiated collaboration with OSSD and CTL for testing and training. We found that the revised tool was more accessible and easier to use, and our partnerships across campus and also with the tool's vendor enabled us to transition to it quickly. CTL provided support to faculty in learning and using the tool, and OSSD ensured students were supported in learning the new tool.

Dismantling the silos that separate the departments that support technology, faculty, staff, and students has been a positive side effect of accessibility initiatives. Awareness of accessibility is essential across functional groups, and it presents an opportunity to bring people from disparate backgrounds together to learn.

Awareness at Your Institution

Based on our experiences, here are a few ideas for how you can increase awareness of accessibility:

  • Involve students, faculty, and staff with disabilities in your testing and design processes whenever possible.
  • Partner with colleagues who can facilitate workshops, training, demos, or other support. Not all institutions have personnel with expertise in training on digital accessibility, but there are many free or low-cost workshops, webinars, and other opportunities to learn, ranging from the basics to complex concepts.
  • Start with small, high-impact projects, then allow your efforts to build from there. For example, how accessible are your email templates and security alerts?
  • Connect and collaborate with others interested in accessibility within and beyond your institution.

Small changes have made big impacts at the University of the Pacific, with an improved understanding of accessibility, improved supports, and a better user experience for individuals with a disability. There is always room for improvement, and I hope that sharing our experience can help all of us to support accessibility more effectively.


Tara Bunag is Senior Instructional Designer at University of the Pacific.

© 2018 Tara Bunag. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.