Mar 09 2021

Improving Accessibility for Students and Faculty with Disabilities

Here’s a look at different approaches higher ed IT teams can take to improve accessibility.

In spring 2020, the emergency pivot to remote learning significantly increased the number of roadblocks for students with disabilities. A year later, many higher education institutions are still struggling to achieve universal design.

A growing share of online coursework now contains PDFs, a file format that is difficult for higher education IT departments to make accessible. Meanwhile, unexpected hurdles seem to emerge each day. PBS reports that most COVID-19 vaccine information and registration websites are not accessible for people with visual impairments, creating challenges for IT leaders as they support campus reopening plans.

While it may not always be possible to achieve 100 percent accessibility, here are some approaches higher education IT teams can take — even with limited resources — to improve learning experiences for students with disabilities.

Changing a Mindset: Consider Tech Accessibility First

Ensuring that digital materials are accessible is still an afterthought at some colleges and universities. “Accommodations are reactive rather than proactive,” says Mark Newmiller, director of the Disability Resource Office at North Carolina State University. Many higher education institutions and their IT departments have yet to adopt a mindset that prioritizes accessibility from the outset.

However, it is much easier for IT leaders to address accessibility early on, as they research new technologies for their staff and students, than to address problems after the technologies have been purchased and distributed. “A lot of times, you can’t fix issues with technology,” Newmiller says. “IT departments need to be aware of accessibility issues. The most important advice I can give is setting students up for success rather than just getting the software out there.”

With that said, workarounds do exist for certain technologies. For example, many live video programs have automated closed captions that are not very accurate. To fix this problem, IT can find a more advanced automatic speech recognition plug-in. “Identify the weakness, but also the workaround,” Newmiller says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Resolve remote learning struggles for students with vision and hearing loss.

Empower Professors and Students to Use Accessibility Features

Accessibility features are often not intuitive, and educators may not be aware of most of them. IT departments can greatly improve the experiences of students with disabilities by regularly providing training for educators on how to run accessible courses.

Providing proactive training instead of simply planning to troubleshoot along the way can save IT teams a lot of time down the road. For example, Newmiller’s office created a list of accessibility pointers and workshops to send to instructors preparing course content, including information on preparing screen reader-friendly course material for blind students, activating closed captioning for deaf students and making sure content on learning management systems is accessible. This saved them a lot of time on remediation.

Cate Weir, director of the Think College National Coordinating Center, also recommends simplifying the language in trainings. “Some of the stuff we really benefited from, that IT departments could do, is we shared plain-language explanations on how to interact with technology,” she says. “Very simple language. Maybe some pictures that show people how to download Zoom. How to get it on your computer and what things look like once you’re there.”

When students and faculty know what to expect from their technologies, fewer disruptions are likely to occur.

Crowdsource Best Practices for Accessibility

At the start of the pandemic, Weir’s organization created a Facebook group to help college programs for students with intellectual disabilities across the United States transition to remote learning. A wealth of tips and resources were crowdsourced this way. Weir recommends that more IT departments take a similar approach in the future. “Set up a Facebook group, or something like that, where people can share strategies with each other,” she says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn about COVID-19 special education teaching strategies.

EDUCAUSE also created an IT Accessibility Community Group listserv where higher education IT employees can help each other develop best practices for accessibility. It is led by Michael Cyr, director of enterprise architecture and service management the University of Maine System, and Kyle Shachmut, assistant director of Digital Accessibility Services at Harvard University. The group offers free trainings on topics that community members request.

While collaboration between departments is still met with resistance at some universities, NCSU’s Newmiller emphasizes that finding a way to work together is key. His office holds monthly meetings with the university’s IT department. “IT departments don’t necessarily know what the issues are, but they can find out by teaming up with their disability services offices,” he says.

“The more voices you can have at that planning table, the better,” he says.

Yana Tikhonova/Getty Images

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