STUDENTS Q&A: How do I advocate for myself when my school has digital accessibility problems?
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
How do I advocate for myself when my school has digital accessibility problems?
The problems you’re experiencing may not have been brought to anyone’s attention yet. Use available resources to bring the issues to the attention of those responsible and accountable for fixing them.
If the problems are known to your institution, and progress toward a solution is either slow or non-existent, then consider elevating your issue to a complaint, or further.
In-Depth answer: How do I advocate for myself when my school has digital accessibility problems?
Note: This Q&A article broadly defines ‘digital accessibility’ as technology systems and content provided by schools for students that relates to the delivery and undertaking of their education. This definition comprises (but is not limited to) such systems and content as:
- online course material
- class delivery systems
- online course registration systems
- email and other communications
- electronic books
- electronic copies of presentation and other lecture materials
- instructional videos
- submission of reports and other coursework assignments
- electronic examination platforms
This article does not provide information on what constitutes ‘digital accessibility’ as that information is available elsewhere on the web. Instead, this article provides advice on steps that you can take, as a student, to let others know about difficulties that you are experiencing, and how various parties can help to resolve accessibility problems with digital systems and digital content.
A variable finish line
The following advice starts with the least difficult and works toward increasingly difficult and time-consuming strategies for finding a resolution to difficulties. You may reach the finish line (resolution to your problems) at the first, second, or last strategy. The sooner the finish arrives the sooner you can get back to your studies.
So, what’s the problem?
Until you let someone else know, no one else will know that you have a problem. There are choices you have for every accessibility problem in life. You might choose to try a work-around solution, even though it might take you longer to do or provide a lower quality experience compared to nondisabled students. You might choose to ignore the problem, and just go without, which isn’t really fair when it comes to your education. Or, you might choose to make the problem known so that those responsible for fixing problems do so, resolving the problem for you and any other students who experience similar accessibility problems. This article contains advice for undertaking the latter option. After all, there is an available solution to every problem. At the outset, other people involved may not know of the existence of the problem, let alone what the solutions might possibly be, but that doesn’t mean the solution doesn’t exist.
The first thing to do in self-advocacy is to be able to articulate just what the problem is. If you’ve ever been in the situation of trying to describe your disability and the difficulties you experience interacting with the world, you may know that it can be hard for some nondisabled listeners to comprehend. Disability is outside of a lot of peoples’ day-to-day experience, and so they may miss pieces of key information, or they may jump to conclusions without really understanding the problems. Recognizing this, we created a guide for people with disabilities as consumers of digital systems who need to document their difficulties interacting with technologies. In order to more effectively communicate problems to nondisabled individuals, we find that it helps to have different aspects of the problem described and documented in lay-person terms before reaching out to a potential source of help. The pointers from our consumer-focused guide can also be applied to education-related situations (i.e., you as a student are a paying consumer of education services). The guide, ‘Documenting a day in your life: demonstrating the level of accessibility of the technologies you interact with, and those you cannot interact with’ provides step-by-step advice on:
- Self-diagnosing the problem;
- Documenting what other (nondisabled) people can do;
- Documenting your disability in functional terms;
- Describing the problem; and
- Contacting help.
For this last item, contacting help, there are additional considerations in higher education settings, and these considerations are addressed below.
Is there an accessibility ‘program’?
If you are a student with a disability who has been through the high school system, some of the aspects of resolving accessibility problems in the higher education setting will be familiar, even if the processes differ from your prior experience. The next step after articulating the problem is to find the people who are going to help solve it.
Many larger schools will have an accessibility program office, assisting students and staff to tackle accessibility problems. The program might go under different names, but the purpose is the same: Disabled Students Office; Office of Disability Accommodations; Student Disability Resource Center, etc. These offices typically advertise their services around campus, and are introduced in orientation when starting a course of study. (Note that in order to use these services, temporary disabilities also fall under their remit. If you have broken your wrist and you cannot write or type as efficiently as last week, you should be able to find help at the accessibility program office.)
If there isn’t such an office at your school, that doesn’t mean that there is nobody who is responsible for getting accessibility problems fixed. In this case, first find the people responsible for student services in general, and have them identify who the support person is (or should be). While you might be the first person with your particular disability to enroll at this school, it is highly unlikely that you are the only person with any type of disability who has ever enrolled at your school. Just because the enrollment numbers of people with disabilities are disproportionately low at a given institution of learning—when compared to the number of people with disabilities in the general population—there is usually no absolution of responsibility on the part of the institution if there is a low incidence of accessibility problems through low enrollment of students who have disabilities. (Note: Local, regional or national laws may come into play in an institution’s need to take responsibility. See below.)
Who’s actually responsible?
There are different models of operation of accessibility program offices. Some may operate as a central resource where they offer services. For example, the office staff remediate electronic documents to make them accessible for blind and low vision students. Alternatively, they may operate as a hub of expertise, providing assistance to the various faculty/departments to conduct their own accessibility work. In this example, the History Department is responsible for delivering accessible content, and the staff in that department must make their electronic documents accessible. The history faculty can call on the expertise in the centralized accessibility program office to assist when they are trying to solve any of their own difficult remediation problems. Hybrid program setups may also exist, and the way each accessibility program office evolves differs from school to school. Regardless of how the accessibility program is established, the actual declarations of who should be responsible for fixing accessibility problems should be articulated in the policies that are used to govern the operations of the school. Those who work in the accessibility program office should be able to help you to find the individual staff members, wherever they work, who are responsible for seeing to it that accessibility problems affecting you are resolved.
If there is slow or no progress
Sometimes problems can be persistent. What if the staff you encounter says that this should be someone else’s problem to deal with? What if the lecturer protests that he already has a blind student in his class, and that he couldn’t possibly take on a deaf student in addition? What if the Information Technology support office refuses to load an assistive technology onto a school system so that a blind student can attend a particular class, because they protest that they have no funding or resources to conduct a thorough computer security review? What if this…? What if that…? What if the other…?
In every situation, a resolution to a problem will either be the responsibility of the staff member involved (as documented in policy), or their supervisors and managers (as documented in policy), or their departmental managers and leaders (as documented in policy). But, most people at work don’t spend their days reviewing policies, because they are too busy with other things. In situations where staff are protesting and trying to shift the assignment of responsibility, it is important to get the staff who are charged with allocating responsibilities to agree on exactly who is the responsible party for your case.
It can be difficult to make progress if the responsible staff member doesn’t know (or want to find out) what the solution is, or if they feel it is too expensive or too hard for them to implement. The staff member may resort to asking you to find a workaround, or to just do without. They may even ask for you to find the solution and tell them what it is, and for you to implement it. In such cases the staff member is likely attempting to come up with excuses because they work in a culture that tolerates excuses. If this is the case, the accessibility issue is not the problem; it’s the organizational culture that allows for inaction that needs fixing. (Note: You may already have in mind a solution based on your own past experience. You can offer that information, but it is not your task to implement that solution on the school’s behalf.)
A resource for articulating your digital accessibility problems to providers…
Contacting Organizations about Inaccessible Websites is a brief guide from the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI). Guidance is given in terms of identifying key contacts, describing the problem, and follow-up activities.
If the problem remains unresolved to the point where your studies are consistently being negatively impacted, it may be that there are ineffective policies in place in the accessibility program office operations. This finding may serve as the impetus for revamping an accessibility program office (see related sections of the Switchboard, below). Such a process may take a lot of time, and during that time your studies may continue to be negatively impacted. In such situations, you may not be able to wait, and it may also be necessary for you as an individual student, to elevate your issue as either:
- A formal complaint against the school;
- Contacting an appropriate consumer disability organization for sources of additional advocacy advice and support; or
- As a last resort, consider a legal action.
Most experts in the accessibility field would concur that legal actions should be considered as the last resort option, due to the investment of time and energy involved from both parties. As a student, depending on where you live, certain non-discriminatory rights that you have may be legally established. Knowing these rights and the obligations of yourself and of the school can help you make a start. However, entering into a legal action should only be considered once the prior steps have been attempted.
In the vast majority of cases, staff want to be inclusive and accommodating. This is, after all, implicit in the nature of education. The causes of push-back are usually attributable to misunderstandings and lack of knowledge from people who do not have to deal with accessibility problems on a regular basis. With the technological solutions to most digital accessibility problems readily available, there should not be any justifiable excuse for excluding students with disabilities in higher education.
A resource for blind and low vision students in Higher Education…
The Self-Advocacy in Higher Education Toolkit is a website from the National Federation of the Blind. The site is designed for blind students seeking to better understand their rights, the higher education accommodation request process, mitigating access barriers on campus, and ultimately to succeed at their schools in their chosen area(s) of study.
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 Project. STUDENTS Q&A: How do I advocate for myself when my school has digital accessibility problems?. June 2018, Version 1.0. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: https://accessibilityswitchboard.org/
Note: A previous version of this article was published on the Accessibility Switchboard project website, under the title ‘Higher Education Accessibility’
Feedback, additions and updates
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