Distance Learning & Online Accessibility: What Faculty with Disabilities Want Institutions to Know

March 21, 2013 BY SHANNON K. MURPHY
Updated: December 6, 2021

faculty accessibility

Last Thursday, the Sloan Consortium held its third webinar in a four-part series dedicated to accessibility in online learning. The most recent webinar examined “What Faculty with Disabilities Want Institutions to Know,”. Some speakers were disabled, some were not, but all are doing exceptional things in higher education to further the scope of online accessibility.

This begs the question, why are the opinions of faculty so important? Supporting faculty through technology or human systems affects the performance of students. Student success is dependent upon faculty knowledge. Furthermore, the ability of disabled faculty to work with accessible online platforms in a seamless fashion creates a better experience for students. Online course leaders are a university’s best ambassadors for distance learners.

Watch the webinar: Faculty Panel: What Faculty with Disabilities Want Institutions to Know

Speakers Included:

Jonathan Lazar – Harvard University and Towson University
Alexa Schriempf – Pennsylvania State University
Valerie Haven – University of Massachusetts Boston
Alex Cohen – MS Alumnus, Drexel University & Current Doctoral Student, Drexel University

Two themes were prevalent in the webinar. One focused on creating an accessible university infrastructure, including disability rights, law and policy, and universal design. The second theme was how to create accessible and successful work environments for professors. Below we have compiled the advice and tips that our accessibility experts provided.

Creating an Accessible University Infrastructure

Give Faculty Training: Numerous times we have heard about the importance of training staff in accessible practices. This can be broken up departmentally, or with internal accessibility advocates leading the way. Jonathan Lazar, a professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University, introduced a novel concept of reward. Very simply, faculty who comply with accessibility guidelines regularly should be recognized in some manner. Assessments for online teachers are especially important in this regard. A simple question such as “Were course materials for this class easily accessible?” introduces accessibility feedback. Faculty posting inaccessible content continually should be required to get help from IT to make their online content accessible.

Design Courses with Accessibility in Mind: Accessibility and WCAG guidelines take into account universal design principles that make the internet more enriching for us all. As Alexa Schriempf, an instructional designer and deaf online faculty member at Penn State points out, the internet is the primary means of information and redefines “literacy.” “…Captioning is really just another way of doing universal design that benefits everyone. Our digital world is simply going to, in my opinion, reinforce the notion that literacy in the 21st century is very different from the literacy of the past,” she says. “Capturing our audio and making audio ‘visual’ is completely consistent with the demands of… education in the 21st century.” As such she makes her courses accessible by providing video, video captions, audio files and transcripts. Her four-pronged method takes into account not only disabled students, but students in rural Pennsylvania with limited bandwidths.

Perform an Accessibility Audit: Deciding which items are accessible and which are not is the first step to scaling accessibility. Often, universities hire accessibility consultants on a one-time basis, but on-going testing is vital. Also, feedback from students and faculty on accessible interfaces is invaluable as they work with these systems daily.

Develop an Accessibility Plan: Universities are layered with many facets of administration, but Lazar advocates that developing an accessibility plan should be a top priority. Like many of our accessibility experts, Lazar recommends starting with procurement forms. (Read more about procurement policies in our interview with Gaeir Dietrich of California Community Colleges or check out Resources for Online Education Accessibility and Policy Building for additional guidance). Furthermore, captioning video needs to be as easy as possible for faculty. By providing faculty the ability to add captions themselves, institutions lower technological barriers and enable professors to craft better online courses as well as video presentations. Lastly, Lazar supports more stringent accessibility requirements for grant proposals. He finds this to be the easiest way to budget for accessibility and it creates accountability. Providing for accessibility in grants gets those within the university structure thinking about it proactively.

Get Support From the Top: As we covered in our blog “Digital Does Not Mean Accessible: Building Accessible Institutional Infrastructures”, a wrap-up of the first Sloan-C Webinar on accessible online learning, our experts declared that it’s important to get buy-in from members sitting atop the university structure. Lazar too, drives home the point of shared responsibility. “I have never seen a situation where the Office of Student Disability Services handling the entire thing leads to success. Why? They usually are understaffed. They’re not high enough in the power structure of the university. To really get this to happen, to really improve IT accessibility on campus, you need to involve the provost. You need to involve the CIOs. You need to involve Academic Affairs. The provost and the deans and the chairs, you need to involve the CIO who’s in charge of the IT infrastructure.”

Create Partnerships: Many universities neglect to ask for help from some of the nation’s leading accessibility advocates. Lazar recommends that institution should consider reaching out and establishing partnerships with the following organizations: State School for the Blind or the Deaf, the State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Office of Rehabilitation Services, Workforce Development Offices, National Association of the Deaf, National Federation of the Deaf, or the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

Tell a Story: Simply put, no one wants to be told they have to do something, but making them feel as if they are invested in a cause can do wonders. Lazar advises telling a story, specifically the story of those with disabilities and how they interact with technology. “I have three friends…” is how Lazur often starts and then elaborates on the unique challenges faced by each. Pulling his audience into an identifiable situation, he furthers his campaign.

Survey Adjuncts: Alex Cohen reminds the audience that “…adjuncts can be a great source of feedback for the university because we’re part of the team and happy to be so, but not necessarily part of the system. So we can really give a good external perspective that you might not be able to get from internal faculty.” A PhD candidate and adjunct professor in Drexel University’s Hospitality Program, Cohen makes a good point. After all, a fresh set of eyes, unjaded by established rules and accepted norms, can offer a new perspective on what actions should be taken.

Creating Accessible & Successful Work Environments for Professors

Create Accessible Human Resources and Institutional Resources: Make sure standard forms, like your university’s I-9’s and tax forms are completely accessible. The partnership between a university and new faculty member starts off well when basic procedures go smoothly.

Orient New Hires & Review Technology: When on-boarding a new professor or adjunct with a disability, familiarize them with the technology they will be using, particularly online learning platforms. Don’t rely on accessibility measures provided by the software manufacturer. As Cohen tells us: “Training videos that show live screenshots with the mouse going around and somebody narrating what to do, don’t really work that well because they don’t work well for screen readers.” Video tutorials are another issue. “A lot of the time, the narrators conducting these trainings say: ‘If you click over here, you can clearly see that this happens,’ and I say, ‘I can’t clearly see anything!’,” says Cohen who is blind.

Allow Advanced Access to Content: For a disabled professor, stepping in to lead a course is not easy. Since teaching materials and course structure might have been crafted by a previous instructor, a disabled professor needs more time to review teaching aides and course content. Often disabled instructors must convert a semester’s load of materials into an accessible format. For example, a PDF might be embedded into a presentation, but unreadable by a JAWS screen reader.

Assess if Accessible Learning Management Systems Help Teachers: Many LMS’s work for students with disabilities, but not necessarily teachers. For example, a teacher may not be able to interact with certain buttons or modules to create courses. Finding tools that can be used within the primary software should be a priority. For example, Valerie Haven, an instructional technologist for UMASS Boston, recommends a program called ATutor, developed by the University of Toronto in Canada. ATutor is an accessible learning platform that is free to use and links directly into Blackboard. As a technologist, Haven appreciates that the password protection of the main learning platform remains intact while assistive technology allows disabled faculty to build classes without help.

Delegate Institutional Support for Faculty: Some institutions have more resources than others. Yet, disabled professors need assistance where software falls short. As an example, Haven recounts some of her recent troubles as a blind instructor, “At UMass, we now use Blackboard Learn 9, and that’s gotten a lot of attention about its usability and its accessibility, and that’s a great thing…. For me as a blind instructor, in Blackboard Learn 9, I can’t put my grades in myself in the Grade Book. I have to have assistance with that.” Furthermore, it is important to identify contacts for different kinds of support; whether IT, disability services or on the department level.

The last tip may surprise you!

Become a Complainer: “One of the biggest problems in any type of IT accessibility is not complaining,” Lazar explains. “And you might say, well, I don’t want to complain. I don’t like being a complainer. The problem is very often, government agencies, companies, universities, what they do is, they say: ‘We must be accessible because we haven’t received any complaints.’ That’s faulty logic, but that’s what they say.” This is not the first time we have heard about the importance of self-advocacy in the disabled learning community. It seems, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

What did you think of the above recommendations? Agree or Disagree? Achievable? Realistic? Sound off below.

Watch the webinar: Faculty Panel: What Faculty with Disabilities Want Institutions to Know

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