Reactive to Proactive Web Accessibility in Higher Education

March 24, 2015 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: June 3, 2019

3Play Media recently hosted the webinar, “The Long Road from Reactive to Proactive: Developing an Accessibility Strategy.” A recording of the full event is embedded below. Read on for highlights and key take-aways from the speaker.


Proactive vs. Reactive Web Accessibility Strategy

At the top of the webinar, an audience poll revealed startling results. Of the digital learning experts and education technologists listening, only 6% considered their university’s web accessibility policy to be proactive. A quarter confessed that their institution’s policy was purely reactive in nature.

Do you currently have a reactive or proactive accessibility policy? Results: 26% reactive, 6% proactive, 60% some of both, 8% not sure

Korey Singleton, the Assistive Technology Initiative (ATI) Manager at George Mason University (GMU), knows the cost of a reactive policy. He shares an anecdote of a student who needed captioning for online video, but the administration didn’t learn of that until several weeks into the course. Red tape caused more delays, and ultimately they had to pay twice as much for a captioning solution since they weren’t prepared.

Korey details the 2-year journey of reforming his university’s web accessibility policy from reactive to proactive. It starts with GMU’s Assistive Technology Initiative, a coalition assembled to design and execute a comprehensive tech accessibility across different departments, the library, and IT. Their services include providing Braille or large-print text, audio descriptions, and transcription and captioning of lectures or class materials.

Accessibility Trends in Higher Education and e-Learning

Korey identifies 4 factors that motivate colleges and universities to adopt a proactive web accessibility strategy:

  1. More students with disabilities entering institutes of higher education
  2. Increasing use of online video and multimedia for educational programs
  3. Growth in distance learning courses offered by universities and colleges
  4. Recent law suits against higher ed institutions for insufficient accommodation of individuals with vision or hearing loss

On that last point, Korey emphasizes that digital inclusion for all students is paramount, even if there are only a handful of students with disabilities at a given institution. He reminds us, “It only takes one student to file a lawsuit. And I think in many cases, our university as well, you’re subject to risk by not doing the things you need to do to ensure equivalent access.”

Common Concerns in Accessible Digital Education

It only takes one student to file a lawsuit.

Korey Singleton
Assistive Technology Initiative Manager at George Mason University

The ATI assembled a list of the most common issues in making higher ed and e-learning accessible. Concerns include:

  • Video captioning of lectures and course materials
  • Accessibility of PDFs, Word docs, or PowerPoint presentations
  • Alternative textbooks, such as Braille or e-readers
  • Inaccessible LMS applications
  • Library resources that lack captioning and transcription
  • Poor accessibility of library search engine

Who Should Be On Your College or University’s Tech Accessibility Committee?

GMU’s Information Technology Accessibility Working Group (ITAG) works together to address web accessibility on campus. Korey recommends including the following on your institution’s committee:

  • Library staff
  • IT staff
  • Student Affairs staff
  • Academic departments or offices that create a lot of video or audio content
  • Campus television channel staff, if applicable
  • Legal counsel
  • Reps from office of compliance, diversity, & ethics
  • High-level administrators who make LMS or multimedia platform purchasing decisions
  • Accessibility expert

Your Roadmap to Web Accessibility

About 12 minutes into the webinar, Korey outlines a checklist of steps that higher ed institutions should take to build a proactive accessibility policy. It covers everything from setting up a process to respond to complaints, to reserving funds in case of a law suit.

Web Accessibility Roadmap: establish electronic information technology (EIT) accessibility policy; update EIT grievance process; update procedures for procurement; establish EIT Accessibility training; establish Accessibility web portal; hire EIT accessibility staff; establish process for monitoring EIT issues; EIT accessibility audit; institution-specific resolutions (i.e., monetary compensation, dept-specific applications or websites, non-discrimination policies)

What E-learning Technology Needs to Be Accessible?

If we’re not covering these technologies, we are at risk.

A great way to anticipate your tech accessibility needs is to examine the case law from past higher ed disability settlements. In fact, Korey lifted text directly from the rulings to incorporate into GMU’s policy, such as the Penn State settlement’s definition of accessibility:

“Are individuals able to independently acquirethe same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services within the same time frame as individuals without disabilities?”

The settlement even lists specific technology that must be made accessible to students. Which includes, but isn’t limited to, websites, all digital content, search engines, databases, LMSs, eBooks, classroom multimedia, and office equipment. To put it plainly, “If we’re not covering these technologies, we are at risk.”

For more valuable guidance on forming a proactive web accessibility policy, watch the full recording and presentation slides here.

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