Advancing Digital Accessibility

min read
EDUCAUSE Community Conversations | Season 2, Episode 8

Kyle Shachmut, assistant director for Digital Accessibility Services at Harvard University, shares advice on digital accessibility strategies, and talks about his own journey promoting equitable access.

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John O'Brien: Welcome everyone to a community conversation today that I've been looking forward to for some time. I have with me, Kyle Shachmut, the Assistant Director of Digital Accessibility at Harvard University and a Rising Star Award winner to boot. So, welcome Kyle.

Kyle Shachmut: Thanks for having me, John.

John O'Brien: So you made it clear to me that you didn't see this as a chance to talk about yourself, but I can't help but want to know what's your story? I mean, how does one make the journey to become an expert in digital accessibility at a place like Harvard? What's your story?

Kyle Shachmut: So I certainly learned how to become an advocate for myself in accessibility a long, long, long time ago with my parents and teachers and educators that I worked with because I needed technology and even non-technology to be accessible for me to use it. So from a very early age, I was used to asking for and making sure my teachers and my community knew what I needed and getting what I needed. As I grew into my career, I've long worked in IT organizations, in higher education, and originally I was not charting a course to work full time in digital accessibility, but again, in order to make sure I was able to access things, I picked up skills to learn how to make things accessible. And it was a good example of where opportunity existed and my skills were a good match and it's been something I've been able to grow into. In terms of Harvard, it's a really awesome place to get to work, and there's no shortage of opportunities to work and play and research in the digital space, so it's been a great place to get to work on digital access and grow a program.

John O'Brien: What do you mean by digital accessibility?

Kyle Shachmut: Digital accessibility is making sure that all of the technology that we build and create and we buy is usable to people with disabilities. And we want that usability to be at the same time and with the same ease of use, right? Having a disability shouldn't be a barrier to participation in the programs, services, and activities that our universities provide. So for IT leaders and CIOs, digital accessibility is an area where we have the opportunity to lead our campus conversation to be a really trusted partner and a leader on our campuses promoting inclusion for people with disabilities through the technology products that we buy, that we build, and how we train everyone to create websites, documents, digital resources, disseminating research.

All of those areas are opportunities for us to lead, and just like all the other kinds of technologies that we work with, it's a great opportunity to be partners. So we might lead as the technology experts, but we get to partner with our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging offices, or our Communications Offices, or human resources, our faculty, our provost and presidents for governance, right? It's a great opportunity where IT can be a knowledgeable expert leader in that digital inclusion space.

John O'Brien: What advice do you have for campuses where the case hasn't already been made to elevate and prioritize digital accessibility?

Kyle Shachmut: Digital accessibility is certainly an area of work that is growing across our campuses where many campuses have, especially large universities, have a role where that is someone's primary focus, but that's certainly not the case everywhere. It does give opportunities to grow into new spaces, but even in campuses where we have either a person or teams of people who work on digital access, we partner with our Student Disability and Accessibility Support offices who work a lot with our students or our employees with disabilities. Because even if a campus doesn't have a dedicated office, they surely have people with disabilities trying to use or access their content. Statistics show that approximately one in five people worldwide has some form of disability and no one wants to instantly only take off 20% of their potential audience for students or members of the public or employees at a university. So even if it's early days for a particular campus, there is certainly a need and there will continue to be a growing need as populations age, and as we have more diverse campus communities.

John O'Brien: So EDUCAUSE has tried to prioritize digital accessibility and accessibility of all kinds. What has EDUCAUSE gotten right when it comes to digital accessibility? You know, and if you had that magic wand that you could change one thing that we could do better, what would that be?

Kyle Shachmut: So EDUCAUSE has done some really good things in recent years for digital accessibility and the higher education community, generally. I especially think one of the biggest ways we serve as a resource to the community through EDUCAUSE is the IT Accessibility Community Group. It's just a really great resource for people who do this work on our many, many member campuses. We have hundreds of people that join us every month to meet up. We have thousands of people, many of whom actively participate in our community forums and whether people are veterans to the field and they've been around a long time or they're brand new in their first digital accessibility role, that space and that community of people wanting to make higher education more accessible is just an invaluable resource for professionals working in this niche of the field.

All have room to grow in what we do, and I think a great space where EDUCAUSE can lead and continue to lead into the future is helping be a bridge and a conduit between technology companies and organizations and member institutions, and the roles that it plays in helping set standards or expectations or guide people to resources in formalized ways or programmatic ways. I think about programs that EDUCAUSE runs in other areas like privacy or security, research in all sorts of different areas, and IT accessibility is one of those where there's certainly immense opportunity to do so and especially among our vendor partners that we work with so often as educational institutions.

There are thousands of us, thousands of member institutions, and we all have legal and moral and ethical kind of obligations to think about this digital inclusion work, and yet many of us do the same work repetitively across institution after institution. And there are so many opportunities for deeper collaboration and deeper coordination, so that we reduce some of those systemic inefficiencies in trying to make sure students and faculty and staff get what they need, but we're not being redundant over and over again across institutions.

I'd also like to add one of the areas where our community group has been able to work well with some facilitation from EDUCAUSE and partnering with groups like those doing work in IT security, was the most recent iteration of the HECVAT released last fall, where we partnered, the IT accessibility community group partnered with the HECVAT, the Higher Education Community Vendor Assessment Toolkit, which traditionally has done IT security screening of third party vendors and it now has incorporated the ability to screen vendor products for accessibility. So it's an example of a shared assessment framework that was developed by a lot of awesome volunteer experts in it accessibility and the structures and the resources and the connections in place through EDUCAUSE, and its partner networks has enabled higher education organizations that use that tool to screen vendors to now do a more thorough assessment for their it security and privacy practices, as well as their digital accessibility practices.

John O'Brien: You're very kind Kyle to not mention the example that you gave in your featured presentation at the annual conference last year. This is the story of EDUCAUSE attempting to be very responsible and put signs on restrooms as diversity, equity and inclusion move to point out that the restrooms were assigned as individuals deem appropriate. And you pointed out sadly that we put these signs over the braille on the bathrooms and I told you I was going to tell that story as often as I could, because I think it's such a metaphor are for the challenge of working in this field because you can try to do the right thing and do it in a way that's accidentally wrong. You can do the right thing and then find that as you solve that there's a whole nother level of challenges that you've just revealed. It's a challenge, right? I'm not sure that was a question.

Kyle Shachmut: It's totally a challenge and in I opportunity, right? There are many different ways that we can value diversity and attention to different ways that we think about diverse members of our community. And you're totally right at the most recent annual convention, some of the restrooms men were on the left and women were on the right and in other locations they were reversed. And I went to a place to find one and it was covered up, the sign that listed, and I needed to know which one I was trying to go into. So someone was trying to do something responsive and to address community need and they weren't thinking about a different need that was there, right? And we all have opportunities to do these sorts of things all day long. The important thing was, as soon as I pointed out as an anecdote, it was, "Oh my gosh, we need to fix that. What are we doing?" Right? So it was a good learning opportunity.

John O'Brien: For us. Yes, thank you. So Kyle, you've been so active at Harvard, but I know you've also been working at the national and even international level. Could you talk a little bit about those efforts?

Kyle Shachmut: By far, whether I'm at Harvard or beyond, the primary role most often is still awareness raising about accessibility. So many well-meaning people that I meet in academia or in associated areas aren't aware that digital accessibility is a thing. They will see someone with a disability using technology and say, "That's great. I can confidently assume that someone with a disability can use my technology because I've seen someone with a disability use technology." And that is absolutely the case if you've designed it or built it right. So awareness raising is absolutely the single biggest part of any work that we do reminding people that it's a thing, training people that accessibility is important. In addition, I really enjoy the opportunity to be in the classroom to teach and there are many opportunities to teach about digital access across the many disciplines that we have at our institutions.

I'm able to speak with students who study education and the value of digital inclusion for that, or in law schools, or in communications, or those working in government, or if you're learning in the digital humanities about telling stories or doing archival research and sharing it with the world, there are opportunities to learn skills for digital access. There are also opportunities for our curriculum. There are huge organizations that focus on training the next generation of computer scientists and programmers to think about accessibility in their programming work.

And finally, we do tons of collaboration and work with policy makers, with government officials and with standards bodies about digital accessibility to make sure that they are reflecting the most up to date and cutting edge technologies so that people with disabilities aren't left behind. For example, many of our schools will state that they want to meet the WCAG 2.0 requirements. It's the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. But those 2.0 requirements were codified before mobile devices were in wide use, so institutions aiming for those standards aren't accounting for accessibility on mobile devices. And I would bet that makes up a really large percentage of technology interactions on our campus or with the public. So it's important that we take government policy technical regulations and make sure they're always up to date or as up to date as they can be so that we're not leaving people with disabilities behind.

John O'Brien: As you described the great work you're doing at Harvard, I can't help but imagine one or two people saying, "Well, that's all well and good if you're Harvard. We're not Harvard." What do you say to those institutions as far as not being sort of overwhelmed by how much work there is to do? And figure out if Harvard's struggling with it then why even try?

Kyle Shachmut: There's certainly no denying that there is no shortage of work to be done in the digital accessibility space. The good news is that not everything is related to funding or the size of an organization. I think it's critically important that that's why we work together as a higher education community, because many of us use the same vendors, the same platforms, the same products across our institutions. And if those third parties that we work with are able to make changes for technology accessibility that benefits the entire community, no matter the size of your resources, so it's a benefit for everyone. There are also things that can be done with time and effort; again, that's probably tight across every institution type no matter your funding sources, and there is no shortcut no money can buy value and importance of digital inclusion from executive leadership. I'm really fortunate that the president of our institution knows and understands and has a commitment to digital accessibility, and across our organization, there are many people that value and make sure it gets attention and focus.

Not everything can be solved with accessibility with throwing money at the problem. It doesn't hurt, but when you are doing a project for your department, building in time to make sure that that website released is accessible, it can take a little extra time or to make sure that your staff is trained on accessibility is great. Or when you're sending broadcast emails and to have a system that can make them accessible or to know the people that create them or trained how to do it properly, those are things that don't always take money, but they take time and attention and a commitment to doing things that will lead to more accessible content.

John O'Brien: This has me thinking about the Harvard Accessible World, and I'd love you to talk a little bit about that because you just keep coming back again and again to these themes of awareness and communication and this is one way of accomplishing that. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Kyle Shachmut: So Harvard the Accessible World was a recent homepage takeover for the Harvard EDU homepage, and it's still available for anyone to look at. It's called Harvard the Accessible World and I'm sure there's a link where you can Google it there. It shows content that is featured from across the entire institution that's focused on disability and inclusion for people with disabilities. My team did a really great job of adding some call outs that were called behind the designs that kind of mark up and visually show, for site visitors, ways that elements of the website that make it accessible to people with disability so that they're able to fully partake in the work. But the other part was that site is reflecting on the work of digital inclusion across our campus community. So the headline feature of that homepage represented deep space images of far away galaxies and the many different points of light that come across through images that we get from space.

And the team at the Center for Astrophysics was able to take those and turn them into sonifications so that those who couldn't see these deep breathtaking images were able to hear them and hear where there was more or less light or different wavelengths across huge sweeping images of the galaxy. They did it surely to help people with disabilities to able to access it, but they also did it because there were people on the team that required accessibility. They hired, they had people with disabilities that were researchers that just so happen to need this technology. So that's why it's so important that we have authentic representation in our organizations from people with disabilities, because they're able to help inspire or build things that are going to make the work that we do, the research that our institutions do, more accessible to a wide variety of people.

So that homepage featured content about education being made more accessible, human rights law through Harvard Project on Disability at the Harvard Law School, and a wide range of other aspects of access. So it was a great feature to highlight work that was happening in the same way our web team does a great job of highlighting work on climate science, or on women's history month, or a wide variety of other topics, disability and digital access was just another theme where there's spread cross discipline research.

John O'Brien: I'm imagining a job description for your job and I'm wondering what the high priority capabilities are like. I imagine some days you are an evangelist, I imagine somebody good at your job is probably also a diplomat who can take someone aside and say, "I know you mean the right thing, but let me tell you a few." What are the three roles that you think are most important to be successful in your line of work?

Kyle Shachmut: Well, of course there's no substitute for knowing about accessibility and being able to tell someone how technically to make their content accessible. So I'd say many other things are important, but at the end of the day, there's got to be the substance behind advising on accessibility. And I think right alongside that technical expertise is knowing and being familiar with the lived experience of people with disabilities. It helps if you are someone with a disability, I fit into that role and I consume accessible content all the time, but there's no substitute even if you are not a member of the disability community, knowing and being familiar with that experience to be able to communicate that. I think it's really important to communicate, to be able to share why it is valuable and important. Like I said, so many people are still unfamiliar and one of the great parts of what we do in higher education is that there's a lot of turnover in our communities every year with students, right?

Or with faculty and staff, our communities are constantly churning and so even if we've communicated with some, we certainly haven't reached everybody in our community all the time. And then there's certainly an aspect of having a sensitivity towards governance and project management and... It is a relatively simple matter to make a website accessible. It's challenging to have a system in place that can make hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of websites accessible across very decentralized autonomous organizations that for many good reasons have lots of autonomy in what they do. So having ways to communicate and to share and to govern those systems, train people on what they need to do is... those are some of the big areas important to accessibility

John O'Brien: From the time we've had to get to know each other, whether it's at the awards, whether it's meeting in the airport and talking, I have an image of you as a man with a sort of vast reservoirs of patience. Does it ever once in a while call for you to lose your patience? And what does that look like? I'm curious.

Kyle Shachmut: I try not to lose my patience, because I think I'm more effective when I'm patiently communicating what needs to happen for accessibility. It's certainly frustrating as a member of the community. So I wear different hats, I promote digital access, I lead a team for digital access, but I'm also just a staff member. And so when I do encounter an accessibility barrier for a myriad of reasons, of course it's frustrating and that's where it's nice to have a community and a culture that values inclusion so that it doesn't fall to one person. It's my job, I signed up for it, but it should never be the responsibility of random community member with a disability to own and lead the efforts to make something accessible to them.

John O'Brien: What a great reminder of the value of that kind of leadership. Anybody who has known me for very long knows one of my favorite leadership quotes is the Lao Tzu one, which is that, "A great leader when the work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'" And so for you to make the work irreversible to make it part of a community, so what was maybe necessary to get it going isn't relying on one person's effort, which leads me to think about the Rising Star Awards. So as the Rising Star Award recipient at EDUCAUSE, you are part of a really impressive lineup and I say that with no pressure or anything, but I'm just curious what is the Rising Star Award? Is it a community award? What does that mean to you and maybe where does your star go next?

Kyle Shachmut: It was certainly a huge honor to receive the Rising Star Award last fall. It was a great exposure to the EDUCAUSE Community and the community of the Rising Star recipients is certainly probably the best part of the award in my book. I'm certainly inspired by the work that they do and the impact that they have on their communities spread across the country and the world and what they do for higher education. I certainly don't know where it goes next from here. As we've talked about many times today and previously, there is no shortage of opportunities to impact higher education and think about digital accessibility. That's certainly something that I think about a lot. Our community needs the experience of people with disabilities to be leaders in our community, so I hope to get to continue in those roles and to share my expertise where it's possible. And whether that's IT leadership or academic administration or teaching and research or some combination of all those things, I guess I don't really know, but I'm excited to find out too.

John O'Brien: You talked so compellingly about the power of positivity and the things that can be done, but there are also pretty substantial obstacles in the path. So what are the biggest obstacles for making the kind of progress that we want to make?

Kyle Shachmut: One of the biggest limitations that I often see in the work of accessibility is low expectations that we have for people with disabilities. So often, if someone with decision making authority does not have experience working with disabled communities or has a very limited experience of that, it's often written off as why should we spend time and money or effort and attention on this community? We are higher education, we are the ivory tower, we exclude people, we're for the elite, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. Education and the power and the transformational power of education is for everybody and many people with visible or invisible disabilities. So being open to that and remembering that people with disabilities make up 20 to 25% of our population isn't something that can or should be ignored. So absolutely the expectation that disability accessibility is worth and valuable to do and to participate in is critical.

As organizations get more mature, I think it's also really important that we as it leaders know where we stand on accessibility and be able to communicate that effectively to our peers, to our leaders, to our stakeholders. 100% of every product that institutions buy or build probably isn't fully accessible, and I often see messaging across institutions that can be a little overzealous in saying, "We want it to be, so we're doing it. It's done, we're totally accessible." And I think it's very valuable, even if it's maybe not shouted from the rooftops, for leaders and IT product owners to be able to know where limitations lie and where there's still work to be done so that it can be managed like any other project or any other technical debt that we might accrue in our IT shops.

John O'Brien: As you look ahead to some of the emerging technologies, what are you most excited about when it comes to digital accessibility tools?

Kyle Shachmut: I'm excited about the tools that make it easier for a non-technical expert to make born accessible content. There are and should be people at our universities that know about digital accessibility and our experts, but we can't rely on that expertise to make everything accessible. We need the authoring tools that we use every day to make things accessible by default; our website platforms, our learning management systems, our document creation platforms, it's critical that those make things accessible natively so that we don't have to spend time going back and doing more work to make something accessible. So I'm excited about platforms and plugins that make it easier for non-expert content authors to build accessible content from the start.

And I'm a little weary of sometimes platforms and systems can advertise themselves as really easy, quick fixes, and we certainly see a lot of those that say, "Don't worry, you got to pay us pretty much nothing and we'll make it really easy to make all of your stuff accessible." And I promise I would be shouting from the rooftops if I knew of something that could do that today, but it's still more promised than practical reality at this time. So I think we need to understand what our limitations are with what we can do today, but try to make it really easy for non experts to make content accessible the first time.

John O'Brien: And I'll take you up on your offer. And when that happens and you start shouting from the rooftops, we'll do a volume two community conversation with Kyle Shachmut to talk about it. That would be awesome. A lot of people lean on the idea of reasonable accommodation as a key institutional strategy, is it one that you recommend? I find a lot of non experts hang their hat on reasonable accommodation and someone would say, "Well, what do you do? Well, we make reasonable accommodations." Which is essentially reactive and not at all related to design. What do you talk about when it comes to reasonable accommodation.

Kyle Shachmut: Reasonable accommodations are necessary and absolutely something that our institutions need to do, and they must do under the law. We must provide accommodations where needed to people with disabilities, but it is something that people can often rely on a little too much. If something isn't accessible, no worries, there's an accommodations office, they'll handle it. Right? And that makes things one offs individual efforts that aren't addressing the root of a problem. So when we own it accessibility products, when there's a product owner, having that product owner be responsible for knowing accessibility limitations and being prepared to provide accommodations, that's great, it's critically important. But as we try to find ways with technology that we can reach more learners and distribute our expertise or our research at scale at larger things, individualized accommodations by their very definition can't scale in the same way, so it becomes even more important to make things universally designed from the start. So yes, we need to provide accommodations where necessary, but we can probably reduce the amount or the kinds of some accommodations that might be required if we're thinking about those needs upfront.

John O'Brien: I've really enjoyed the conversation, Kyle. Thank you so much for being with us today to talk about digital accessibility.

Kyle Shachmut: Always a pleasure. Thanks for having me, John.

This episode features:

Kyle Shachmut
Assistant Director for Digital Accessibility Services
Harvard University

John O'Brien
President and CEO