Accessibility: Making a Plan to Do What’s Right (and Required)
As of 2017, the last full year we have data for, there were 5,567 Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigations dealing with accessibility in K–20 institutions (Department of Education, 2019, p. Z-22). In 2018, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III Lawsuits in federal courts were projected to hit almost 10,000 (Vu, Launey, Ryan, & Fitz, 2018). These numbers have been increasing each year—almost exponentially for ADA lawsuits. I’ve been working with digital accessibility issues since 2007. Until recently, much of what I’ve warned about in meetings and conversations was ignored, making me feel like Cassandra from Greek myth. But in the past few years, teachers and administrators have begun to ask what we need to do, and some institutions are preparing to act. The University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) is one of those institutions, so I am offering our lessons to help others move forward.
Why do we need to make content accessible? A simple answer is that making our teaching materials, marketing materials, and our forms usable by anyone who comes across them online is the right thing to do. Of course, doing what’s right can get overtaken by everything else vying for our time, including advising, meetings, grading, and family. At which point the law steps in to remind us that yes, what’s right is also compulsory. So what are the laws?
Four main federal laws govern accessibility within education. The first is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically section 504, which prohibits programs that receive federal funds from discriminating against people with disabilities. In 1986, Section 508 was added with guidelines for making information technology accessible; however, these guidelines only became binding in 1998. In 1990, the ADA was signed; it extended the guidelines of accessibility guaranteed under the 1973 law to private industry. In 1999, technology experts around the world devised their own accessibility guidelines, which became known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These were revised in 2008 as WCAG 2.0. In 2010, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was passed and applied to making commercial videos accessible for those with hearing disabilities. Finally, Section 508 was refreshed in 2017 to account for all the changes to digital technology since 1998. On the whole, Section 508 points to WCAG as the guidelines to meet.
At this point, from a software standpoint, the what is easy: most major software packages used in higher education have built-in accessibility features that meet WCAG standards. Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have a built-in, easy-to-use accessibility checker that highlights and helps users fix most accessibility issues—provided that they actually use it. Adobe Acrobat also has built-in wizards and checkers, though these are less user-friendly and take more time to learn than Microsoft’s. Unless someone has access to the newest version and enough licenses for the entire community, these becomes problematic to use. Concerning video, YouTube is a cheap and easy way to caption videos and produce transcripts. Auto checkers are wonderful, but they will always require a final check by a human. Of course, the laws also cover websites and procurement of software and technology. This could relate to classroom response systems, publisher software that mimics a learning management system (LMS), or the newest app used in the classroom.
At UIS this work began more than five years ago, when the executive director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service and the associate vice chancellor for online learning leveraged the IT department to begin making our website accessible. This was a multiyear project and remains a struggle as the site’s many users continue to upload inaccessible content, such as PDFs inaccessible to screen readers, or forget to add alternative text to images. The executive director and vice chancellor also began the process of hiring a campus accessibility specialist, which took some time. I came to UIS in this capacity in late 2017. Since then I have met with deans, department chairs, and faculty to discuss accessibility and train them on how to make materials accessible.
One concern faculty had was having the time amid all their other commitments to make files accessible. So, in early 2018 our executive director managed to secure funding for student workers to remediate faculty files. I was able to hire and train four student workers for this task. These students mostly work on Word docs, PowerPoints, PDFs, and videos. They were able to complete 919 files for 42 classes in their first semester and 890 files for 50 classes in their second. This totaled 4,471.25 minutes of videos, 7,544 PowerPoint slides, 10,177 PDF pages, and 2,701 Word pages. We paid four students about $11,000 for those two semesters of work. Each student worked about 20 hours per week each semester. Had we contracted with a commercial entity, based on local pricing, that would have been about $66,000. The work of student workers reduced this cost by 82 percent.
Over the past year or so, I’ve conducted many workshops and given many presentations on how to make materials accessible. In these workshops and presentations, I mention the success of my student workers, and I am often asked whether this approach could work at another school. The short answer is yes.
For institutions that have moved beyond why and what and onto how, here are my suggestions:
- Develop a school-wide policy. Ours was officially adopted in March 2018. Federal laws remain in place; you may even have a state law requiring accessibility as well. But if you were under an Office of Civil Rights investigation, they would first ask for and then look at your policy, which is another reason to have a policy.
- Decide who will oversee accessibility. This team or committee should certainly include an administrator who has authority to act as well as someone in IT, a library representative, faculty, and staff. When selecting faculty or staff, look for those with some technology knowledge and those with institutional cultural capital. Even better is someone with both.
- Conduct an audit of all things digital, and come up with a plan or a timeline or both. For an audit, figure out where all your digital files are. Files in your LMS, videos in your streaming service, web pages, publicly facing documents, and faculty files on the computers they use for class are a sampling. Some institutions may plan to start with the area with the least files and others with the same type of file; others still may focus on a specific area—web pages or the LMS, for example. An overall plan will include these as stages and say who is responsible for doing the work. A timeline will take all the planned activities, determine how long each stage will take, and specify a date by which the area, files, or work will be done.
- Train, train, and train. This will not be a one-time training. Some people may want to hear about the laws first, and some may want only to learn how to do something. Because only so much can be learned from each training session, people may attend the same workshop several times. Some people will be resistant, and new people will join the organization, so training will take a long time.
- Create support to help with materials. It takes less than a semester to train a student worker to make materials accessible. Use student workers; they will learn great skills and can focus on the task without distraction. If you support the faculty and train them on how to make new content accessible, they will be thrilled that you’re helping them play catch-up.
- Accept that accessibility will take time and money and lead to a culture change. UIS covers my salary, student compensation, and minor costs for computers and a few specialized software licenses. There are about 4,500 colleges and universities and 16,000 school districts in the US. With a little over 5,000 OCR investigations each year, there is a one in four chance of your school being investigated. The costs of overtime and complying with the laws on a forced timeline far exceed the costs of systematically complying with the laws on your own timeline.
- Continue to think about areas of need. Although we are currently continuing training and working on faculty files, we will tackle website PDFs this year. We will also look at faculty use of inaccessible publisher software. Last year we worked with the library, and they now make all course reserves, which are scanned PDFs, accessible. For schools with limited licenses of Adobe Acrobat, decreasing overall use of PDFs and centralizing PDF remediation in one place is a good idea. I have worked with schools that centralized this work in the library, the president’s office, or the office in charge of online learning.
I predict that within a few years our student workers will work primarily on PDFs and videos. Most files we have received were Word and PowerPoint, which faculty and staff creators can easily fix. Videos and PDFs are a bit more time-consuming. I would also venture that within the next few years there will be more accessible software programs and more software with accessibility features built in. When I began in this area in 2007, there was no automated way to check Microsoft or Adobe files, and all facets of captioning were done by hand. At present I am not aware of a video player for a learning management system that meets all accessibility requirements, including audio descriptions.
Using students to remediate files at UIS has been very successful. I’ve heard only a few concerns, which come down to two questions. The first: Can students, who aren’t experts in a field work on the content in my field? Yes, most remediation is structural, not content based. With several thousand files worked on, we’ve had to ask for faculty assistance on fewer than 30 files. The second: What if I take the time to train a student and they leave the next semester? I usually hear this from two-year institutions. In our first semester I was able to train four students to remediate the four main file types; by the end of the semester they needed only minimal oversight. Two of those students left the next semester, and I trained two more. With three to four busy weeks for me of training, a student working 20 hours per week can remediate the four main file types for the rest of a semester. Certainly their work improves each term, and the more semesters they stay, the less time I spend on training. If students stay for a few semesters, they can help train other student workers.
Department of Education. (2019). Office of Civil Rights fiscal year 2020 budget request. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget20/justifications/z-ocr.pdf
Vu, M. N., Launey, K. M., Ryan S., & Fitz, K. (2018, July 17). Website access and other ADA Title III lawsuits hit record numbers. Retrieved from https://www.adatitleiii.com/2018/07/website-access-and-other-ada-title-iii-lawsuits-hit-record-numbers/
Vance S. Martin, PhD, is the campus accessibility specialist in the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois Springfield.