Ensuring that digital content is accessible: a guide to current best practices for higher education campus staff
The pen is mightier than the sword, but the computer is mightier than both.—Michael Cowling
This guide provides background information on why both newly introduced and well established digital content delivery systems can often pose problems for people with disabilities. There is a plethora of online sources of guidance on how to make such systems accessible. However, despite the widespread availability of such guidance, institutionalization of the concept of consistently authoring accessible content for everyone is rarely practiced in Higher Education institutions . This guide provides step-by-step advice on how to set up and implement a program whereby accessible content is the norm, rather than implemented purely on an as-needed basis, such as providing accommodations for individual students with disabilities.
This article was developed as part of
The Accessibility Switchboard Project
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
June 2018, Version 1.0
Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0
Note: Technical guidance on how to make individual elements of digital content accessible is linked to within this guide, but it is not the focus of this guide. This guide contains advice on how to institutionalize the practice of making digital content accessible. For advice on institutionalizing accessibility programs in general, see our companion guide, Starting an accessibility program: A guide for Higher Education Institutions
Introduction and Background
The problem with introducing brand-new technologies
Ever since the pen was taken over by the computer, education has been relying on digital content. Digital content, once a rarity in the classroom is now moving towards ubiquity:
“The classroom I sat in every day had no computers, but once a week we would all queue up and march down to the computer room to spend an hour using them. [..] Now, 30 years later, my son is attending prep at a school that boasts a 1-to-1 computer policy. Every student in the school is expected to have a computer, and in later classes every student is equipped with an Apple iPad.”
—Michael Cowling, The pen is mightier than the sword, but the computer is mightier than both, theconversation.com, 2015.
In the early 1990s, if you were a blind student, you would have to attach a device to a PC to have the computer talk. By the late 1990s almost all PCs had integrated sound cards, and you no longer had to buy a device, but you still had to buy speech output software. Later on, in the 2000s, free screen reading software was available for use with any PC. Thus, all computers had sound, and free software was available to make computers accessible to blind users.
Then, in the mid 2000s, a new wave of devices were introduced, designed just for reading text. Collectively known as ‘e-Readers’, such devices had several advantages over PCs, but their main advantage was that the screen quality closely resembled paper/print quality, enabling more effective visual reading than on a traditional computer monitor. They had one significant drawback though: no sound capabilities. When universities started to adopt e-Readers as a primary means for students to get access to textbooks and other digital content, blind students were left out. Essentially a computer that you could hold in your lap, e-Readers may have been a mighty leap forward in screen design, but they were useless for blind persons.
This particular story of technology evolution (or to some, devolution) has a lot more layers of complexity, but it serves to illustrate a very common occurrence: brand new technologies—and especially disruptive technologies—are very seldom designed with accessibility in mind from the get-go. In the case of e-Readers, higher education institutions and the makers of the devices ended up in the courts as the result of the experience of exclusion for blind students.
The problem with using established technologies
The problem of brand new technologies not being accessible has been prevalent and persistent. But what of existing, well-established technologies? Once mainstream technologies are ensconced in the marketplace, they typically get worked on by third parties—or sometimes the technology manufacturers themselves—to make them accessible to people with disabilities. Such has been the experience with computers, websites, telephones, ATMs, ticket machines, and cable TV boxes. After some initial period of time (months or years), the technological means to make something accessible is achieved and rolled out. In the next wave of innovation we might reasonably expect, based on prior experience, that when the day comes that the first truly self-driving car goes on sale, it won’t have an interface that blind people can use, and the paperwork for buying the car won’t be accessible either. There will be a lag-time and we would expect that blind consumers will initially have to wait in order to own and operate self-driving cars.
For most technologies applicable to higher education and digital content, the lag-time has long since gone by. With almost all established digital content delivery systems, accessibility solutions have been engineered and applied. The application is by no means universal, but for any type of content delivery mechanism technological accessibility fixes are available to be procured and implemented at a reasonable (if not zero) cost. However, just because a technological solution for accessibility is implemented in any given institution, this does not automatically mean that all content created and delivered via that technology will be accessible. What we see in practice is often a big gap between the technological solution’s implementation and it’s use in everyday practice to create content. So, while the technological means and accompanying technical guidance for developers and content authors (for websites, office documents, and e-Reader content) has existed for years, a large number of higher education institutions have gotten into legal trouble by not requiring and/or ensuring that new digital content is formatted according to the available guidance.
Digital Accessibility; and Universal Design for Learning
This guide is for organization-wide implementation initiatives to make digital content accessible on a regular basis. First though, we need to provide some definitions on what constitutes ‘accessible digital content’:
- Digital Accessibility is about making content that works for people with disabilities using technologies as-is, or in conjunction with assistive technologies (devices and/or software) commonly used by people with disabilities;
- Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is about providing content and delivery in flexible ways to meet the needs of diverse audiences.
The terms are not synonymous, although the practices are mutually supportive. UDL meets the needs of a large range of people, a subset of whom include people with disabilities. (A more detailed explanation of the above definitions is provided by the University of Cincinnati.)
Note: For our purposes in this guide the term ‘accessible’ is used to encompass the principles of both digital accessibility and UDL.
“The UDL Guidelines are a tool used in the implementation of Universal Design for Learning, a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.”—udlguidelines.cast.org
Designing for individuals in the margins—through the application of accessibility design principles— also provides inclusive opportunities for all individuals/learners. There is an advantage to going beyond the subset of students who self-identify and have “approved” disabilities. One-size-fits-all learning is steadily being replaced: it used to be that you had one choice of sitting in a classroom to attend a lecture; now you can sit at home and take a course that’s being delivered from the other side of the World. New research shows that there is no single optimum way to learn, and that taking account of differences can have wider benefits for all:
Guidance for making content accessible (Good news and bad news)
Guidance for accessibility has overlap with regular best practices on professional writing, technical writing, editing, etc. As such, we can regard accessibility as just one facet of creating easy to use content for everyone. This is good news for authors. For accessibility program administrators, the other good news is that sound guidance is already available for each type of digital content. There are a number of resources that have collected and published such guidance, including:
- Concise resources for getting started with making accessible content, in the form of NCDAE’s ‘Cheat-sheets’
- CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Guidelines and UDL on Campus guidance.
- The ‘Create Accessible Digital Products’ guides and checklists from the General Services Administration.
There are many other sources of guidance available from higher education institutions, state and local government agencies, and elsewhere. This brings us to the bad news, which is that wading through the available guidance—to assess how useful each option will be to your institution—can take a very long time. Furthermore, while there is no definitive agreement in the accessibility field as to what constitutes the ‘best’ guidance, there is a need to make a definitive institutional decision as to which guide you will follow / implement in your own program (more on this in Step 2, below).
It isn’t an impossible journey
When you start out looking at digital accessibility across a campus, you quickly realize that there are lot of players (stakeholders), including:
- University wide communications, publishing, and website development
- Authors (professors, educators)
- Books and other external content
- 3rd party software (e.g., examinations, online content delivery services, etc.)
The perceived ‘grand scale’ of the situation can seem daunting. For individuals working in institutions where the only previous digital content accessibility solutions were applied sporadically and/or in piecemeal fashion—such as providing accommodations to individual students on a case-by-case basis—the idea of implementing a new program whereby all authors are responsible for making accessible content as part of their regular work may appear at first extremely difficult to achieve. This guide provides an outline for taking things one step at a time, and in such a way that the bulk of the work involved is shared out among staff and faculty in the whole institution.
“It is relatively easy to sell the general idea of UD [Universal Design];
the biggest challenge is to put UD principles into practice.”
—Sheryl E. Burgstahler, ‘Universal Design in Higher Education’ (2nd Ed., 2015), p.287
Step-by-Step: Ensuring that digital content is accessible: a guide to current best practices for higher education campus staff
Step 1. Get everyone on the same page: You’re NOT creating your own new accessibility guidance
The first step to undertake is actually to reign in anyone (accessibility program team members, consultants, or other stakeholders) who expresses a desire to create an institution-wide set of accessibility standards from scratch. This is a very bad idea that must be discouraged. Those who have gone through the process of creating consensus-based guidance will tell you that the process is arduous and time-consuming. When you finish, you will have something that will be uniquely similar to all the other sources of guidance. While you may have your institution’s stamp on it, the time can be better spent elsewhere, and the frustration that would be associated with the process would be detrimental.
Note: If someone on your team still insists they want to make new institution-wide guidance, have them justify the time and resources that will be needed to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Even if they just want to take existing public-domain guidance and ‘re-brand’ it with the institution’s logo and ‘corporate font’, this sort of exercise is also detrimental, because every time there is an update to existing guidance you’ll have to update your re-branded versions too.
Step 2. Pick one source for guidance, and one guide for each type of content
As indicated earlier in this guide, if you search the web you’ll find a plethora of guidance. Although there isn’t an industry-standard best practice (or standard) for authoring accessible digital content, it is advisable to make an internal pick of the main source of guidance, and provide your staff with one guide which is supported for each type of digital content.
If you let individual authors (/groups /teams / departments) pick their own sources of guidance and checklists, then:
- You won’t have consistency
- The accessibility program will have difficulty providing support to lots of different processes
- A statement of authority will be absent (without such a statement from the institution, authors will be hesitant to proceed for fear of making the wrong choice of guidance and checklists)
- Maintaining and updating multiple sets of guidance is more time consuming and prone to error.
- Even with single online sources of information you may find multiple links to different ways to author and test accessibility for a certain type of digital content. This can be very confusing for authors. If you do pick one online source, provide your authors with clear specifications of which particular guides are the ones you have standardized on.
- Give stakeholders a vote when you need to, but picking one implementation method and sticking to it can make the management transition much easier.
Step 3. Preparation for implementation
For implementation across an institution, there are often diverse authoring practices to consider (e.g., Department A uses Approach X, as does Departments B, and C; but Departments E and F use Approach Y and sometimes Approach Z). Instead of fighting battles on what authoring approach is best or desirable, one way to tackle the diversity in authoring approaches is to think in terms of ‘Quality Indicators’. That is, regardless or the approach used, does the resulting output meet the collective needs of the institution’s customers (staff, students, visitors). Others have created guidance along these lines, based on their collective experience:
The Higher Education Critical Components of the Quality Indicators for the Provision of Accessible Educational Materials & Accessible Technologies are a checklist-style collection of advice on component and sub-components of an institution-wide program. This resource, produced by the National Center on Educational Materials, can be used to assist with the planning, implementation, evaluation and coordination of systems for producing accessible digital content.
Another necessary preparation activity is introducing stakeholders to the practical concepts and realities that they now have to produce accessible content. The prevailing advice of experts in the accessibility field is that the idea of one person (or one group, or one team) doing the tasks to make content accessible has become archaic. Instead, the prevailing wisdom and advice is that each content author (or group, or team) should create their own content, and in the process of doing so ensure that their own content is accessible. A model of operation such as this can have accessibility experts providing support to others who are making accessible content, but the primary goal is to have accessibility generally treated as a shared responsibility and accountability. (For more on this topic, see our article
How can I distribute the responsibility and accountability for accessibility?.)
Case study: Target's preparation of programmers
Target had to actively address the trade-off between programmer creativity, and consistency of accessibility elements in their digital content: "The act of developing code is a naturally creative endeavor, and coders like to tinker, tweak, and "improve." As many accessibility professionals will attest, one programmer’s "code improvement" can mean AT compatibility problems that can take a long time to diagnose and fix. For the accessibility team, this means there must be a consistent message with the users of the pattern library to not "reinvent the wheel." Instead, coders are encouraged, if they have thoughts and suggestions to improve the pattern elements, to bring them to the attention of the wider teams (including accessibility) for considerations as updates to library elements. This has meant that developers (coders) are bringing up accessibility improvements much sooner than they would have previously in their system development cycles. Accessibility is now described as a "great collaboration vehicle," so much so that accessibility is also described as the de facto "epicenter of the design system."
In making preparations for implementation, obtaining buy-in from other departments, especially if they have not previously been tasked with making content accessible, can be made even more difficult if you encounter ‘resistance to change’. Furthermore, once you have passed any initial resistance the journey from current practice to future practice is where things often fall apart. (For more on these topics, see our articles:
How can I overcome resistance to change in an organization-wide accessibility project?; and
How can I ease the accessibility journey from organizational policy to practical implementation?)
Note: This is not a binary proposal. It is not that the various departments have to make content accessible OR an accessibility program has to. It can be that departments do their regular accessibility work and that the accessibility program staff are available to help with complicated content, and understanding new issues, etc.
Step 4. Implementation: Ensure that training and resources are available
If there is an online (internet or intranet) page that provides guidance for authoring in general—logos, corporate fonts and color palettes, templates, etc.—then each of your chosen guides for creating accessible digital content should reside there. The responsibility for maintaining such a list of resource should be the owner of general content authoring guidance.
In addition to providing a central resource page, any individuals or teams who provide training on document authoring must be trained to also deliver training on how to make accessible content. Again, the responsibility for providing accessibility training should rest on the shoulders of the document authoring trainers. If those trainers need assistance in the beginning with learning what and how to teach accessibility, the long-term pedagogical practice should be that the accessibility program office staff are not directly training staff on accessibility.
- If there isn’t a training department, one should be made. This is easier said than done, but even so it shouldn’t be the job of the accessibility program to be the sole source of guidance on authoring (in general) for the institution.
- Single-step incremental learning programs are typically easier and more likely to produce long-term change (e.g., concepts first, then tools, then use in practice).
Step 5. Monitor the implementation progress of departments
No program will have a successful implementation if it is not regularly monitored and updated accordingly. Conducting spot-checks and proactively seeking feedback on progress, issues, problems and solutions will be needed in order for a truly organization-wide effort to meet the needs of all end users of digital content, including those users who have disabilities.
The Indicators for Institutional Web Accessibility is a document that provides “institutional indicators, benchmarks, and evidence helpful for planning and evaluation purposes”. Produced by the National Center on Disability Access to Education, this resource can be useful as a means of tracking and monitoring progress in implementation plans for digital accessibility.
Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice (2nd Ed., 2015) is an edited book by Sheryl E. Burgstahler. The book contains sections on the design of instruction, physical spaces, and technology. The final section covers the ‘promotion and institutionalization’ across the whole higher education institution. The book combines analysis of prior research, commentary on best practices, and case studies.
The NFB Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access to Education, Public Information, and Commerce (CENA) is a collection of resources from NFB and its partners on technology accessibility..
About this article
This article is published as part of The Accessibility Switchboard Project, an initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with support from the members of the Accessibility Switchboard Project Community Of Practice, and from the Maryland Department of Disabilities.
The Accessibility Switchboard. Ensuring that digital content is accessible: a guide to current best practices for higher education campus staff. June 2018 (Updated November 2019), Version 1.1. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: https://accessibilityswitchboard.org/
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‘A Scholar Sharpening his Quill.’ Gerrit Dou (circa 1630-1635). Public Domain.