Behind the Scenes: The Making of an Accessible Campus at WSU
Updated: February 5, 2021
In April of 2016, Wichita State University (WSU) received a complaint through the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) over an accessibility issue in a face-to-face classroom setting.
Now, as a result, the institution is in the middle of a campus-wide accessibility overhaul.
The school entered into discussion with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) a few months after the complaint and the two sides reached an agreement: all course content and student-facing EIT must be made fully accessible by 2020.
Michael Cole, Educational Accessibility Technologist at WSU, is helping the university meet this goal and recently led a very in-depth webinar on their progress.
This presentation is a must-see for any schools that are considering proactively making improvements to campus accessibility, dealing with an OCR complaint, or vetting potential accessible educational information technology (EIT) vendors.
Below is an overview of major developments in WSU’s journey to 2020, including some key takeaways and insights from their accessibility overhaul that can help improve overall accessibility at any institution.
WSU Timeline: 2016 to 2020
- April 2016: OCR Complaint Filed
- July 2016: Agreement Reached with NFB
- June 2017: Audit Conducted & Procurement Policy Recommended
- 2020: Accessibility Goal
Going Above and Beyond the Agreement
WSU’s OCR compliant only had to do with a face-to-face curriculum, not online content like one might expect in an increasingly digital education landscape.
Additionally, their agreement with NFB was largely focused on improving accessibility for the blind and visually impaired.
However, instead of just limiting their scope to the agreement with the NFB or face-to-face learning environments WSU is creating new policies that encompass all areas of accessibility.
WSU is using this opportunity to not only fix the issues that sparked the OCR complaint but to also take a much more holistic, and proactive approach to accessibility on campus. Doing so will help ensure students and faculty can properly use and access EIT without needing to ask for an accommodation or report an issue to the school or any other entity.
How WSU Plans to Meet Their 2020 Goal
Additionally, the university created and divided responsibilities into two new positions: the Accessibility Coordinator and the Educational Accessibility Technologist
As previously mentioned, Michael is WSU’s newly hired Educational Accessibility Technologist. His responsibilities include educating staff and faculty across the university on accessibility, conducting accessibility audits, and then providing recommendations on how to remediate accessibility problems based on those audit findings.
First Steps: The EIT Audit
The EIT audit is the first major initiative Michael and WSU are taking towards creating a new, accessible campus.
In June of 2017, WSU embarked on an institution-wide audit of their EIT. This included internal (campus-based) and external (third-party vendors) technology.
The EIT audit rubric contains 21 sections intended to broadly define and examine accessibility at the university. The design of the audit relied on input from multiple departments across campus like libraries, bookstores, and IT services. All EIT was compared against standards found in WCAG 2.0 (Levels A and AA), Section 504 and 508, and regulations in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
A major area of the audit had to do with checking LMSes and online course content used by instructors, which included contacting external EIT providers to learn more about the accessibility of those platforms.
A separate audit was also done to ensure physical classroom spaces were accessible. Everything from dental chairs and anatomical mannequins (for dentistry and health degrees) to ATMs in the student union were evaluated.
Results of EIT Audit
When WSU’s accessibility team reached out to educational content publishers used by the university, reactions varied.
Some publishers used by the university were very helpful and cooperative with the audit, some were not, and some didn’t respond at all. Some turned out to be very accessible, and some had many accessibility issues. Many were incompatible with screen readers, had insufficient keyboard navigation, or relied too heavily on Flash.
However, some knew about their current accessibility issues and said they were working on them.
To ensure they met their goals for 2020, the audit team had to recommend not working with those publishers who did not address their accessibility concerns or meet standards.
Additionally, WSU is currently crafting a creative strategy document that will detail how accessibility issues found in the audit will be remediated.
Part of that strategy entails the accessibility team meeting with different department heads and discussing issues with any current technology being used in that department, alerting them to those issues, and putting together a plan to address the problems. The team is also collecting statements from those authority figures and making them known to the department and university.
Here are a couple big lessons that WSU took away from their accessibility audit and OCR complaint:
Working with External EIT Providers
When it comes to evaluating third-party vendors, Michael suggests being thorough and double-checking their claims about accessibility.
They may also only focus on select accessibility issues and not address accessibility as a whole. For example, they may design their video technology to be accessible, but disregard other parts of the platform’s accessibility such as screen reader accessibility or keyboard accessibility.
Be sure to keep a lookout for these details and ask for VPATS (voluntary product accessibility template). However, Michael says VPATs aren’t always “completely honest” so use discretion here, as well.
Finally, when speaking directly with the vendor, try to ask specific questions about their product. Rather than, “How is your product accessible?,” you can instead ask, “What about your product is inaccessible?,” and “How do you plan to fix that?” Also be sure to ask if they design to specific standards, like WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
Key Takeaway: The “Accessibility vs. Accommodation” Distinction
Michael wanted to make an important distinction between the concepts accommodation and accessibility in his presentation:
“Our agreement with the NFB requires full accessibility, not accommodation.
We usually say that accessibility is proactive while accommodations are reactive. What that means is that for accessibility to be proactive, we want to make sure that everything is there and ready at the same time that all learners receive it.”
WSU’s accessibility strategy lies in universal design for learning (UDL) practices: “All students, same information, same time.” Meaning, all students must be given the same information at the same time whenever possible.
One example of this concept is showing videos in class with captions instead of requiring students to request a transcript of the video later from the professor or from disability services. If the video is based in an online learning environment, that is also an opportunity to provide the video with closed captions and audio description, so that deaf, blind, hearing, and sighted students can all obtain the same information at the same time.
Sometimes when requesting an accommodation, the student must take extra steps and wait long periods of time in order to receive equal access to the educational material, setting the student back and putting them at an academic disadvantage. A fully accessible campus, like the one WSU is working towards, means never having to worry about accommodations in the first place.
Be sure to check out more of Michael’s presentation, Constantly Improving: Creating an Accessible Campus, for some great tips, ideas, and details about how WSU is ensuring every facet of their campus is accessible going forward:
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