Practice Makes Progress: Digital accessibility and moving toward a more inclusive campus

A quotation by Nate Evans, the author of this blog post. He says, "... there isn't a playbook for 'how to do accessibility' at an institution like MSU, or any other college or university for that matter." Quote used to showcase the ambiguous notion of accessibility and the perceived lack of guidance.

by Nate Evans

The Impossible: No Playbook

At this university, a dedicated group of faculty, curriculum and learning designers, software developers, communicators, and administrators achieved the impossible for the second year in a row. And they will do it again next year. Just a heads up: they may be looking for your help.

I am talking about MSU’s second annual digital accessibility self-assessment, which happens annually at MSU, and requires each college and department on campus to assess how they are doing to improve their local culture, digital content, training, and their buying habits in respect to digital accessibility for persons with disabilities.

chalkboard image of strategy and ideas: a lightbulb at the center, with lines out to idea bubbles

The thing is, there isn’t a playbook for “how to do accessibility” at an institution like MSU, or any other college or university for that matter. In the absence of clear legislation, the web accessibility environment has been largely defined by lawsuits and settlement agreements over the past few years. Often this creates confusion with faculty, staff, and administrators about what to focus on. It also creates frustration, since the “requirements” may seem ambiguous.

Not only is there no playbook for institutions in the digital accessibility space, but there aren’t always clear targets for success. Perhaps a better way to say it is, it’s incredibly difficult for everyone to determine whether or not they have hit the target.

For example, when you create your syllabus, how do you know it is accessible?

From a technical perspective the World Wide Web Consortium’s WCAG 2.0 AA is the de-facto technical standard for compliance, but these days, many software and service providers don’t provide clear ways for us to evaluate whether our content aligns with these standards.

This is a real problem, especially when you are trying to aim for a target.

Solution: Make the Playbook

A couple of years ago, the Digital Content and Accessibility team began a project to start to address these challenges.  Our goal was to identify ways to track and measure digital accessibility progress and improvement over time. In the absence of a playbook, we asked each of our colleges and departments to write their own, based on their local goals, mission, vision and priorities.

During the project we developed methods for reporting and for converting these new data points into useful information in a way that would allow colleges and departments to track their digital accessibility progress, measure their improvement, and create better experiences for their students. The emphasis was on practice and progress, not on something that seemed like a moving target.

My talented friend and colleague, and now the Digital Information Accessibility Coordinator at the University of Michigan, Phil Deaton, identified five key benchmark areas in his time here at MSU. While colleges and departments should determine their focus and priorities, these benchmarks were intended to provide a framework to focus their efforts in order to improve digital experiences for students, faculty and staff.

These benchmarks serve as tools for colleges and departments in the absence of clear guidance:

  • Culture: MSU recognizes the rights of individuals with disabilities, and is committed to providing equal access to the University mission.
  • Training: MSU is committed to making training available on creating and providing accessible digital content and services with reasonable accommodation in mind. These resources are designed to provide employees with tools and new skills to make their content more accessible.
  • Web: MSU seeks to provide accessible digital experiences. Websites are oftentimes the way that individuals gain access to University programs, services, and activities.
  • Courses: MSU seeks to proactively implement universally designed, accessible digital experiences (such as captioned videos), and to understand their obligations related to the Disability and Reasonable Accommodation policy.
  • Procurement: Those at MSU involved in purchasing Electronic Information Technology (EIT) for the university should consider the accessibility of such products or services. Units should understand the impact that EIT purchasing and decision-making has on individuals with disabilities in and outside the university, and should partner with University Services when purchasing digital content when possible.        

MSU was founded with a land-grant mission to expand opportunity based on merit, to find practical application of research and innovation, and lift public service as a key value. Digital access is fundamental to achieving this mission, and a pathway to make MSU a more inclusive community.

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