Developing Accessibility Training Strategies in Higher Ed
Updated: January 24, 2019
Well-developed accessibility training programs aren’t easy to come by, especially at large organizations like universities that have a variety of roles and departments. Michigan State University (MSU) decided to take on the challenge of developing a strategic plan to change how they support and train their staff and faculty on digital accessibility.
MSU set their focus on accessibility due to the broad, diverse student body they needed to reach. They realized that providing training to everyone would get them more involved and invested in accessibility, and that it would encourage those in charge to bake accessibility into processes and policies.
In the past, MSU has required that all employees and staff receive some type of accessibility training, but they recently implemented a five-year-plan process to move accessibility forward more impactfully. As part of this initiative, MSU created distributed work teams tasked with putting together different five-year-plans. Among those teams was the University Outreach and Engagement (UOE) unit, which accepted the challenge and went full-speed ahead.
MSU UOE Accessibility Training Survey
Building accessibility training programs for big institutions is a bit like treading into uncharted territories. That’s why the UOE decided to conduct a survey in conjunction with developing a five-year accessibility training plan for their fourteen divisions.
What Is the UOE?
The UOE itself has diverse programming and engagement initiatives, catering to internal and external audiences such as graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, industry partners, government, and social media. Along with a diverse set of audiences, each division under UOE is creating and delivering a variety of content like community learning courses, complex reports and PDFs, online surveys, magazines, and e-newsletters.
Amidst the challenge of developing a five-year accessibility training plan, the UOE wanted to consider how they could implement a practical strategy. As they thought about how they could meet needs across different departments and roles, many questions came to mind.
- What kinds of training would be most effective?
- What resources would be needed?
- What types of content are being created?
- How could they help develop a working knowledge of accessibility across all divisions?
In light of these questions, it seemed a survey would be the best way to get some answers. In the first year of the five-year plan, while awareness for accessibility efforts was being raised, the UOE sent out a ten question survey. The same survey was sent out again in 2018. The questions were designed to obtain relevant information like:
- Role within or relationship to the UOE
- Types of documents typically made as a part of job function
- Level of expertise with different technologies (i.e. laptop computer, smartphone, etc.)
- Confidence levels for creating accessible content in varying formats (Word, PDF, etc.)
- Any previous accessibility training
- Knowledge of MSU accessibility policy
The goal of the survey was to gauge the state of accessibility awareness and knowledge across the UOE and to understand training needs.
Results of the 2017 survey showed that most people were creating Word and PDF documents across all divisions, though among faculty, PowerPoint presentations were especially common. There was a significant percentage of respondents that said they didn’t know how to make Word (44%), PDF (47%), and PowerPoint presentations (52%) fully accessible. Only 6% of respondents had a robust understanding of MSU’s accessibility policy. Nearly 50% of respondents selected that they had no previous accessibility training, and those with knowledge were majorly self-taught (21%) or trained by a colleague (24%).
Results of the 2018 survey showed an increase in confidence levels and in previous accessibility training, particularly from trainings and workshops offered by MSU. This increase may be due to a face-to-face Word training offered by the MSU IT department that many people attended.
As far as the UOE is concerned, there’s still a ways to go with accessibility. The survey showed that it’s important to pinpoint which trainings will be most useful across different roles, such as faculty or administration. There’s a clear need for Word, PDF, and PowerPoint accessibility training, and for making people more aware of training opportunities in general. Finally, they would like to increase collective knowledge of MSU’s accessibility policies to ensure those policies are being followed.
Jennifer Ismirle, who works in the Usability Accessibility Research and Consulting (UARC) division of the UOE unit, was at the helm of the survey. “We [feel] like UOE is useful as a case study for considering and developing training strategies,” says Jennifer.
She hopes that other organizations can look at the progress and knowledge MSU has gained from their own experience and apply it to their own accessibility training efforts.
Accessibility Professionals in Higher Education Study
With accessibility in higher education on the mind at MSU, several more questions were raised. How are people carrying out accessibility work in higher education? What types of activities are they engaged in? What do they prioritize in terms of accessibility? Phil Deaton, Digital Information Accessibility Coordinator at University of Michigan, and former Digital Accessibility Coordinator at MSU, set out to answer these questions. Eager to understand perceptions of accessibility professionals, he conducted a survey of his own.
The survey showed that most accessibility management teams are small, typically one to two people, showcasing the need to expand accessibility knowledge and get more people invested in the process. One finding in particular brought to light a core issue in the stunted progression of accessibility training and awareness in organizations. About 71% of respondents said that institutional support doesn’t match the accessibility needs of the institution. Furthermore, 60% strongly disagreed and disagreed with the statement, “my institution provides sufficient support to individuals who work on digital/EIT/web accessibility.” Based on this survey, it’s clear that there was a significant lack of fundamental support for accessibility efforts from an institutional level. But what does that mean for accessibility training?
On a higher level, there needs to be more support for content creators as accessibility grows. Accessibility is a complex issue and must be built into organizations. Providing high quality training and defining a training strategy is necessary for success, since progress can’t be made without providing employees with the proper skills and background knowledge.
Phil puts it this way: “Organizations in general need to provide better support to the individuals who do accessibility within the organizations. A core way to do that is to get more people involved by providing high quality training opportunities, and also by defining a training strategy.”
Designing an Accessibility Training Strategy
The process of designing an accessibility training strategy can be challenging, but with digital accessibility becoming more pertinent than ever, it’s a necessity. In higher education, and among most organizations, there are no two cases that are exactly alike in terms of their accessibility needs. However, by following cues from institutions like MSU, any organizations can take steps towards providing a more accessible landscape for their audiences.
There are specific things to strive for when formulating a strategy that will put in place a structure for success.
- Gain executive support for training
- Align organizational goals with accessibility goals
- Understand the end user to ensure you’re meeting their accessibility needs
To provide an accessibility strategy that is effective, the execution must be intentional and well-planned out. It is not enough to provide tangible and valuable knowledge to those within organizations. Ensuring that information is being delivered to them in a convenient and usable manner will stimulate both participation and progression.
- Provide just-in-time training resources like a “Quick Tips” shareable document
- Offer multiple face-to-face trainings as a source of in-depth training
- Meet people where they are; offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced trainings
After all is said and done, it’s important to understand the progression of accessibility efforts over time. By looking at what has and has not worked in the past, organizations can adjust for the future in order to improve accessibility strategies. Accessibility in itself is dynamic and ever-changing, therefore those who want to implement it must be willing and ready to change with it.
- Evaluate progress over time by conducting surveys and studies
- Allow people to submit suggestion for new technology training
- Be responsive to users and accessibility changes instead of reactive
For institutions looking to improve their accessibility efforts, progress and positive change starts from within. Organizations like MSU are paving the way towards increased digital accessibility, and are creating valuable maps for other organizations to follow.
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