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NCDAE= The National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Enhancing the lives of people with disabilities
by promoting web accessibility in education

Steps You Can Take Now to Address Accessibility at Your Institution

Note: WCET and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), in conjunction with the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE is a partner with WebAIM), jointly offer this blog on a topic of national interest to education communities.

In recent years, education entities have seen a rise in complaints coming from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) specifically on the accessibility of web and digital materials. I recently heard of one advocate who has initiated almost 1,500 complaint letters into OCR.  The momentum is not likely to decrease, even as the current administration shifts some funding away from these offices.  The advocacy groups, and the attorneys, are still out there working to strengthen accessibility for their constituents. As a team of technical assistance providers on this issue, both WebAIM and NCDAE see a fair number of districts, boards of education, colleges, and universities who need to respond to complaints or to a formal resolution letter from OCR about the inaccessibility of their web content. When this happens, they are under the gun to make fixes, and make them fast.

About a year and a half ago, a colleague from the California Community Colleges Online shared a unique activity he had performed with OCR complaint and resolution letters.  He engaged in a content analysis on letters he had seen come out of the California regional office in San Francisco.  He shared 6 components that were common across these letters at the time (Sean Keegan, personal communication, 2016).

As WebAIM and NCDAE have performed technical assistance on this topic with several entities across K-20 we took a similar tactic.  Performing a content analysis on complaint letters or resolution letters yielded a common set of action items that should be shared more broadly. While our list contains 9 items, and not 6, we recognize that regional offices write letters unique to their region. We have shared this list in the past via presentations, panels, and webinars. Yet the opportunity to host a joint blog with WCET and OLC is a perfect opportunity to get the message out broadly to education communities seeking focus on their accessibility efforts.

Below are the 9 items we routinely see in letters from OCR:

  1. Designate a person to coordinate IT accessibility.  Accessibility across the organization is a complex process with many moving parts. As such it is vital to have an individual who, as part of their role, is responsible to coordinate accessibility activities and engage in continuous improvement on behalf of the enterprise. They can coordinate and document committee meetings, identify and track issues, locate needed resources, recommend budgets, and oversee the process.  They can also provide annual reporting. Moreover, this is the person who can speak to broad issues of how much progress has been made, and where you continue to be most vulnerable.
  2. Define a policy specific to IT accessibility.  Organizational policy is critical to sustained progress in accessibility. Far too long, local champions made headway without placing the work inside of a policy realm.  When those individuals left the organization, the work often fell to the wayside.  Inculcating a specific policy enables work, and budgets to be aligned with that policy. Finally, it is also a manifestation of accessibility as a priority and a value across the enterprise. You can read more about typical elements of a policy on the NCDAE site
  3. Provide a public link to an accessibility page and describe the process for submitting complaints and feedback. Having a place to communicate your commitment to, and work toward, accessibility is important for the community that needs access.  Yet, you have to remember that your journey towards accessibility will take years.  Because of this, it is vital that users with disabilities have a place they can go to submit feedback or a complaint.  This enables you to make a rapid (i.e., within a day or less) fix for them.  It is vital that where you link the accessibility and feedback page is itself accessible; of course, the accessibility and feedback page must be accessible as well. Some letters require this notice or link be placed on every page rather than in one place. When this happens, organizations choose to put it in their footer. If you go this route, be careful that the template itself is accessible and individuals would be able to get to the footer to use the intended link.
  4. Develop a Plan for New Content. This is essentially your implementation plan.  Drawing a line in the sand, what is your specific plan for the future to make sure your content is accessible? This should be in contrast to what is happening now.  This is a complex endeavor and is often done in conjunction with policy development.  NCDAE has resources helpful in writing an implementation plan and many others, including University of Montana publicly share their strategy.
  5. Develop a Corrective Action Plan. OCR has been quite clear that they don’t just want to know what you are going to do to assure that no new inaccessible content is added to your site, but what are you going to do about the inaccessible content you have right now? There are many ways organizations are addressing the need for a Corrective Action Plan.  Some plan to fix it all on a specific timeline and include this in their implementation plan (above, in item 4).  Some identify what will be fixed and what will be placed as an archival element in a separate part of the website. Everything but the archive is then fixed on a specific timeline.  If you do this, know that archival documents cannot be edited or updated in any way.  If they are, you must make them accessible and they lose their archival designation.  Also, you need to have a process in place to address any accessibility requests about your archival content; these requests must be addressed in a timely way (i.e., rule of thumb, under a day is best but more than 3 days could create trouble). Finally, some have constituted a rapid response team to address any request for accessibility of existing content within a day during the period where they transition to new accessible content.  These individuals are given an administrative blessing to drop whatever they are doing to address accessibility requests that come in. They are also given whatever resources they need to get the job done. It seems like the IT equivalent of a SWAT or SEAL team who could be deployed at a moment’s notice. A good solution only if you can truly constitute your staff and their assignments in such a fashion.
  6. Define a process for evaluating accessibility as part of procurement. Educational organizations procure many things that are used online. Some of these are purchased (e.g., the LMS of the organization), but some procurement is free and simply pulled in for use (e.g., Google Docs for collaborative work), or developed internally (e.g., open education resources for online chemistry lab activities), or even selected but the low dollar amount puts them below a purchasing threshold for review (e.g., a $50 history curriculum put out by a professional organization). Making sure accessibility is part of any organizational plan to procure, develop, use, or maintain is vital.  The first rule when you want to get yourself out of a hole is to “just stop digging”.  Continuing to bring inaccessible items into your enterprise for which you have accessibility responsibility creates vulnerability you do not need.  It also shifts the responsibility away from the vendor or creator.  At the end of the day we all want accessible products we can select to use.  NCDAE has an article on the criticality of accessibility in procurementPEATWorks publishes some great resources on procurement as well. Making sure you have accessibility requirements in all RFPs and all contract language will be critical as you turn this around.
  7. Perform a technology audit on accessibility. Certainly, if you want to know where your efforts are taking you, you must first understand where you are now.  Performing an audit will give you a sense of how localized or widespread issues of accessibility are for you, and the types of issues you will need to prepare to address.  Moreover, the data can be helpful as you create your implementation plans (e.g., you may choose to first fix highly visited public or student-facing pages or large courses). It can also be helpful as you look at how you will fix some issues (e.g. if 5 errors appear in your web template, fixing those will positively affect thousands of pages simultaneously).  Audits are typically performed on an annual basis yet some large organizations perform them in smaller units across the enterprise throughout the year with a larger sweep once a year. Be aware, however, that NO automated tool can fully identify accessibility issues.  Not all errors can be programmatically determined with today’s heuristics.  WebAIM and NCDAE share a recommendation that you should consider a blend of human-evaluation along with broader automated samples.  The first should give you issues of depth, the second should help you understand issues of breadth. Both are useful.
  8. Specifically seek out feedback from those with disabilities.  While you have a mechanism for collecting complaints and fielding issues as they come along (i.e., See item 3 above), solicit user feedback.  This shows that you are being both proactive as well as appropriately reactive.  Make sure to do this across those with different types of disabilities. Find individuals that experience different types of access issues. They will most likely be persons with (1) vision problems including those who are blind, have low vision, or are color blind, (2) hearing problems including those who are deaf or have poor hearing, (3) fine motor problems such that they have a difficult (or impossible time) using a mouse or keyboard, (4) cognitive or learning disabilities, (5) multiple disabilities, such as someone who is deaf-blind, or someone who has cerebral palsy and is deaf, and finally, (6) while you may have individuals with photoepilepsy, you would not want to test blinking or marquee elements on these individuals, as it could cause a seizure.
  9. Provide training to individuals consistent with their role as they create digital materials or web pages. Today, training is required well beyond web developers. That is because, quite simply, web content is being created by many.  For example, a faculty member who creates a PowerPoint presentation and uploads it into the LMS has created web content. This must be accessible.  The staff member who creates a PDF on employment and links it to the HR website has created web content. This must be accessible.  In both instances these individuals need to understand their obligation, and be given appropriate training and support to fulfill their new role.  Of course, those individuals who have technical jobs are most likely developing or creating web designs, applications, or content as well.  Finally, others may require training too. This would need to be consistent with their role and your overall plans for accessibility (e.g., procurement staff, contract staff).

The OCR letters we have seen require the organization to initially complete the issues above in about 18 months once approved. However, if you were to make a decision now to address these common OCR requests, you would create greater control and flexibility over the process. It is worth it in the long run to take this important matter into your own hands as soon as possible.

Cyndi Rowland, Ph.D., Executive Director,
WebAIM; National Center on Disability and Access to Education
Utah State University

House Bill Proposes Barriers to ADA Enforcement

People with disabilities would face new barriers in lodging ADA complaints under a bill that is currently making its way through Congress. H.R. 620, The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (ADA-ERA) proposes increased education about promoting access, restrictions on civil action, and development of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. The middle element has me on alert. Currently, owners and operators have a responsibility to conform to ADA standards. When these are violated, an individual can file a complaint. ADA-ERA would shift the responsibility to the victim, who would first need to serve owners or operators with written notice about a barrier. If the owners or operators failed to fix the issue, or provide a written description outlining improvements that will be made, the individual could then file a complaint. Under ADA-ERA, the aggrieved person’s notice must specify: (1) the address of the property, (2) the specific ADA sections alleged to have been violated, (3) whether a request for assistance in removing an architectural barrier was made, and (4) whether the barrier was permanent or temporary.

This bill is not entirely new. It was introduced into the House of Representatives in January of this year, and promptly put into committee.  The fact that it passed out of committee this September may be why there are renewed conversations about its impact. While the bill does not specifically call out electronic and information technologies, I think most of us agree that as go barriers in the built environment, so go those in the digital one.  ADA-ERA can now go to the full House for a vote. The Senate would have until January 3, 2019 to pass it.

This is a needless barrier imposed on American citizens who seek nothing but access and equity. The passage of the current ADA-ERA would disincentivize owners or operators to design accessibly, since they could wait for a written complaint before complying. I personally would hate to see this version pass. It’s time to engage our members of Congress as our conscience dictates.

Should TEACH Act language appear in the Higher Education Act? NCDAE and WebAIM weigh in

NCDAE and WebAIM joined together on this position statement

Since their inception, both WebAIM and the National Center on Disability and Access to Education have worked together with higher education on the issue of web accessibility.  We believe that while accessibility is not easy to do it must be accomplished if individuals with disabilities are to participate fully in civil society.

Recently, important conversations of digital accessibility have emerged in U.S. higher education.  They were prompted by the inclusion of language from the bipartisian Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act into the proposed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act; known as the Higher Education Affordability Act (HEAA), see Section 931. As a result, position statements made by the American Council on Education and EDUCAUSE, along with a legal analysis provided for 6 education associations against the inclusion of TEACH language into HEAA, ignited a firestorm. This debate has been seen in news articles, commentary, blogs from groups, blogs from individuals, podcasts, and alternative position statements.

Both the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) and WebAIM would like to share our thoughts on this complex subject. Nobody at NCDAE or WebAIM is offering a legal opinion; rather, our thoughts come from working with institutions of higher education on matters of accessibility for 15 years.

TEACH Act, a primer (Or skip to What’s the controversy?)

Note: This TEACH Act should not be confused with a previous piece of legislation using the same acronym that deals with the use of copyrighted materials in distance education.

The current Technology, Education, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act had it’s origins in the previous Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which established the Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) Commission. The AIM Commission detailed recommendations to Congress and to the Secretary of Education in December of 2011.  One such recommendation influenced the creation of the TEACH Act. This proposal was introduced to the House by Representative Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) in November of 2013 and introduced to the Senate by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).  The bill had extraordinary bipartisan support, including 52 cosponsors of the bill across party lines. It was referred to committee February of 2014 and has yet to move out for a vote.

Because of the AIM Commission Recommendations, authors of the TEACH Act were able to respond to some issues plaguing accessibility in higher education. One issue is the fact that accessibility guidelines are not unified as campuses try to make content accessible (i.e., some conforming to Section 508, others to State guidelines or standards, others to differing versions of WCAG, and others who blend accessibility guidelines uniquely for their campus). This creates enormous headaches for vendors and for campuses seeking conformance to their own guidelines in a purchasing context; if you cannot purchase digital materials that follow your own technical standard it will be nearly impossible to reach your accessibility goals. Another issue is the enormous liability perceived by many in higher education for anyone who acknowledges that they need to work on digital accessibility.

The TEACH Act proposal provides a mechanism for unified accessibility guidelines to be created in harmony with national and international standards.  It authorizes the Access Board to be responsible for the work to establish and keep guidelines current (i.e., initial guidelines to be completed in 18 months, as well as reviews to be completed every 3 years). Those institutions that wish to embrace TEACH guidelines can do so, yet there is nothing in the Act that would compel them to do so. Since institutions are not required to conform to TEACH, they can continue to use their own set of guidelines if they wish. However, for those that choose to become a TEACH Act institution, they must implement the guidelines into every aspect of the campus digital architecture.

The voluntary nature of embracing TEACH comes from this language:

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require an institution of higher education to use electronic instructional materials or related information technologies that conform to the accessibility guidelines described in section 2 if the institution of higher education provides such materials or technologies, or an accommodation or modification, that would allow covered blind individuals and covered individuals with a disability to receive the educational benefits of such materials or technologies–

(1) in an equally effective and equally integrated manner as non-disabled or non-blind students; and

(2) with substantially equivalent ease of use of such materials or technologies.

Thus, an institution has the choice to embrace TEACH Act guidelines or to continue to do that which they are doing now to assure conformance to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  One incentive for an institution to embrace the TEACH Act is the Safe-Harbor provision of the Act.  It protects those institutions that embrace TEACH by considering that they in fact conform to the non-discrimination provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and also the Americans and Disabilities Act where digital access is concerned.

So, in summary, the TEACH Act proposes to establish clarity of guidelines, provide market-driven solutions to challenges in accessibility, provide legal protections for those institutions who embrace TEACH, all the while being entirely voluntary for the higher education community.

What’s the controversy?

Those opposed to TEACH in HEAA generally cite at least one of 5 issues:

  1. This program exerts increased federal regulation that will overburden higher education
  2. This program will result in the demise of technology innovation on our nation’s campuses
  3. There is not a reason for TEACH Act provisions since we have existing laws that are sufficient to address the issues
  4. The language of TEACH Act creates a different legal standard for institutions who choose to not embrace the guidelines
  5. The Access Board is ill equipped to do the work

Federal Regulation

First and foremost, many in higher education shiver at the thought that increasing issues of compliance are put into reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act. Opponents to adding accessibility regulation into the HEAA indicate it is becoming a junkyard of federal oversight, where items are simply tossed in because they can be. Proponents to regulation being included for digital access indicate that this is a proper use of Federal oversight. The thinking is that if those in higher education did not want to be regulated on this issue, they have had nearly 20 years to get in front of it in a way that regulation is not needed. This is especially important considering the topic; that failure to provide access to electronic materials violates protections against discrimination for persons with disabilities and is an issue of civil rights. Also, proponents of TEACH language appearing in the latest HEAA draft indicate that it would make sense that something that came from the previous reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (i.e., the work of the AIM Commission) would return to inform a subsequent reauthorization of the Act.

Demise of technology innovation

Opponents to the addition of TEACH language in the HEAA indicate that when an institution chooses to adopt TEACH guidelines, this will be the end of technology innovation in higher education; that is because institutional technologies would need to conform to the guidelines. One example that has been seen in posts is the use of 3-D technologies in biology textbooks. Opponents indicate that the campus would be unable to use this innovation. Proponents see it differently. While they concede that in the short term some technologies would not be used as developed, they believe innovation overall is enhanced as entrepreneurs, visionaries, and vendors solve problems. This could drive greater technology innovation than ever before. The market-driven approach to innovation could not be created whatsoever if there were not a large playing field (i.e., a large swath of higher education entities) as potential new customers for these innovations that address electronic access. Proponents cite the rich innovations that have already been developed by individuals or groups whose focus is to address accessibility.  They express confidence that technology innovation will continue to enrich higher education in ways we can’t yet know. It is important to note that the language of the proposal allows for accommodations or modification as long as they are “equally effective . . . equally integrated . . .[and have] substantially equivalent ease of use”.

Existing laws are sufficient

Opponents to this action indicate that we have existing laws that are sufficient for today’s needs (i.e., Sections 504 and ADA).  They do not see a reason to create additional burdens for any institution. In cases where discrimination may be present, opponents to adding TEACH language into HEAA indicate that we have processes in place to address it (i.e., through OCR complaints, and the courts). Proponents consider the failure of higher education to become accessible over time to be one reason this action is needed now.  They cite the uptick in litigation and the failure of judgments to broadly influence the higher education system as another reason something new is needed. It is true that many institutions wait until they receive requests, or worse, until there is a formal complaint lodged before action is taken.  This creates an untenable position for individuals with disabilities who are always put in a position to have to request or complain, and usually put in a position to wait for that which they need. This creates lags in their educational experiences that affect outcomes.

Creates a different legal standard

If an institution chooses not to embrace TEACH guidelines, they must then provide materials and technologies (or accommodations and modifications), in an “equally effective and equally integrated manner as non-disabled or non-blind students; and with substantially equivalent ease of use of such materials or technologies.”  The current legal standard of Sections 504 and the ADA reference the use of reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aides and services that result in “effective communication” provided in a “timely” manner.  Opponents to adding TEACH language into HEAA believe that this could fundamentally shift the legal standard. We could not find an opinion from proponents on this specific point so it is not known if they agree or not.  There is discussion, however, that important differences in the language used in TEACH are the result of the need for institutions to be proactive, rather than reactive in their approach to accessibility.

The Access Board is ill equipped

Those opposed to adding TEACH language into the reauthorized HEAA cite that they are uncomfortable that the Access Board was named as the responsible federal agency.  They do not have confidence that the Access Board could complete the work as envisioned in TEACH; to create initial standards within 18 months and engage in cycles of review each 3 years. There is a reason for this concern—A refresh of Section 508 standards began in 2006 and has not yet been completed. Proponents feel they are the best equipped to address harmonization of the guidelines, and feel that if the Access Board is given resources to perform a statutory duty on a specific schedule, that they could accomplish the task.

Our position

Let us begin by stating that those in higher education want the very best outcomes for all their students. This is why they have gone into the field.  While we have read some harsh criticisms of individuals in the postsecondary community, NCDAE AND WebAIM respect the challenging work that goes into enterprise-wide web accessibility, and we acknowledge that this is often times a bumpy journey.

With that said, we have also heard many reasons why institutions choose not to tackle accessibility in a proactive manner.  Sometimes it is due to competing institutional priorities and shrinking budgets.  Other times accessibility is put off because there is a lack of accessible products.  (Moreover we have heard vendors remark that accessibility is not part of their development cycle because it’s not a feature request from their customers.) We have also heard institutional administrators quietly craft a strategy of waiting until there is a complaint sufficient to take action on accessibility writ large.  Taken together, there is a broad segment of the higher education community who has decided, consciously or not, to leave the important work of accessibility as an after-the-fact accommodation of a student’s request.  The model of post-hoc accommodations in the digital world could never be the long-term solution, it creates a false sense of protection for institutions that are under increasing legal peril, and it continues to plague those with disabilities today.

It is our opinion that the HEAA is an appropriate vehicle to place a regulatory issue of this importance. It would elevate the urgency to make intentional decisions on accessibility for each institution.  And, let us not forget, it is voluntary.

Market driven approaches were a brilliant strategy that helped the federal government as it implemented it’s own procurement policies under Section 508. If the lack of accessible products at the time, or the fear that it would stifle all innovation had been the reason not to move forward, we would not be where we are now; we currently have many accessible products and the attention of federal vendors. Bringing together a single harmonized standard that vendors would use in higher education would likewise create important innovation and product delivery. All journeys begin with a single step. We believe that innovation will not suffer, rather it will be enhanced as new energies go into thoughts about access for all.

We cannot comment on whether or not the TEACH language provides a different legal standard. While the spirit of it does not seem to do so, legal eyes are the best to weigh in on the issue.

While placing this work into the hands of the Access Board worries some, it is our belief that given appropriate resources and statutory authority, they are the best fit for the work.  We do think that 18 months to promulgate the guidelines may be too aggressive. It is more likely that the committee they will appoint would complete draft guidelines in 18 months, and then the work to promulgate rule would take another 18-24 months (or more if the Section 508 work is a peek into a typical process).

Finally, we see a gaping hole in the language inserted into the HEAA. When the ADA was passed into law, massive changes reverberated throughout our society not unlike that which will happen in higher education if this goes into effect.  The establishment of transition planning was a brilliant idea that should be considered here.  At the time, if you were a business trying to conform to the ADA and you were sticking to reasonable timelines of your own posted transition plan, you were held harmless for that period.  Some institutions of higher education may need the option of creating a transition period as they adopt the TEACH guidelines.  Of course all other existing laws would be in force (i.e., Section 504 and ADA), but the slow and arduous work will have begun; the work to ensure that accessibility of digital materials is in place for all in higher education.

Need a little motivation to kick off the year?

As another school year begins, those of us in the accessibility arena face a new year filled with opportunities and challenges. Can we get support at administrative levels? Will this be the year to finally get policy documents on web accessibility passed by the Academic Senate? Are faculties going to take advantage of training opportunities designed for them? How can we integrate web accessibility supports into existing campus-wide technology supports? Is it possible to get a system in place to monitor all our efforts so we know if we are making a difference? How can we get campus-wide web accessibility efforts a budget?

Each of these is a heavy lift. Yet, one theme present across these challenges is the issue of motivation, for administrators, key staff, faculties, and students. I have long thought that our motivation “personality” lies somewhere between being a cheerleader and a taxman. We know we cannot do this work alone, and as such we need to be cognizant of how we contribute to the motivation of individuals across specific groups. If we are to be successful this year, no matter our specific effort, we need to consider the role of motivation.

I was fortunate to participate in the day-long Accessibility Sprint, a meeting of accessibility personnel in higher education just prior to the AHEAD conference this summer. Participants spent a large part of the day in smaller working groups. Since I had been spending a lot of time thinking about the challenges of motivating others, I joined that group. We had amazing discussions on this issue. Each member brought ideas and concerns straight from their experiences to the discussion. As one of our group’s action items, we decided that we would co-author a series of short resources on motivation in higher education, and that we would post them to the NCDAE site.

This month we present motivation ideas for faculty and staff. In October we will offer ideas for technologists and procurement specialists. Then in December, we will finish the series with resources that cover motivating students and those in administration. Each resource is the product of the collective thinking of the group, and as such we all share credit if we provided you with a good idea, and we all warrant your criticism if we failed to do so. Of course, I would hope that if you have ideas we have missed, that you would present them here, so that others can use your ideas, experiences, or your cautionary advice.

The alphabetical listing of members of the 2014 Summer Accessibility Sprint cluster on Motivating Others in Higher Education include:

  • Joshua Hori, Student Disability Center Analyst, University of California Davis
  • Marc Montaser, IT Consultant, Cal State University Fullerton
  • Cyndi Rowland, Director, WebAIM and the National Center on Disability and Access to Education
  • Janet Sedgley, Accessible Technology Services Manager, University of Montana
  • Thad Selmants, Assistive Technology Specialist, Sierra College
  • Laurie Vasquez, Assistive Technologies Specialist, Santa Barbara City College

GOALS ‘Cheatsheets’ Update—Now with (Two) Videos!

Over the last few years, the GOALS project has developed a number of single-page resources on popular topics like creating content in Microsoft Office or captioning files in YouTube. Although we know these resources do not replace more comprehensive articles or training (which is why we named them “cheatsheets”), response to them has been very favorable and they have been used to fill a number of roles at several higher ed institutions. For example, they have been used as just-in-time resources for people who may not have the time or interest to seek out more information, as handouts in trainings, or as a refresher for people who have learned about these principles in the past.

We are happy to announce some new additions to this suite of resources. First, in June we added cheatsheets for MS Word 2013 and PowerPoint 2013 for Windows. Second, we have created video companions for two of our resources—Acrobat XI (published in May), and Captioning in YouTube (released today). While we probably do not have the resources to develop videos for all of our cheatsheets, we hope these videos will be useful. We may even create additional videos in the future.

We are committed to keeping these cheatsheets up to date, and plan on creating more resources  into the future. If you have ideas for additional cheatsheets or videos, or any recommendations at all, please let us know in the comments below.

Will this be the year?

The end of February the field heard that the Access Board submitted a proposed rule to update the Section 508 technical standard. Many of us in the field have been waiting for this and other actions on the accessibility front for some time.  As we head into the CSUN Technology and Disability Conference, it got me thinking; “will this be the year”? We know that the battle for digital equity will be won in part with an equal measure of awareness of the problem and regulation to support it.

Right now in the U.S., there are a number of regulations just on the horizon that could positively affect digital accessibility; the field has been waiting a very long time for these legislative gems. They would bring with them both opportunities for broad awareness, and include the rule of law. These include (1) a refresh to the Section 508 standards, (2) the clarification of ADA with respect to web accessibility, and (3) other pieces of legislation where accessibility language could have a large, positive, impact.  Each is briefly described below:

Section 508 refresh

How many of us would have imagined that the Section 508 refresh would have taken so long? The process began with the Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC) established in 2006. I was thrilled when NCDAE was invited to be a member of TEITAC and represent education entities in this process. The recommendations from that group were given to the Access Board in April of 2008; yes, that would be nearly 6 years ago.

Just a few weeks ago (February 23rd), the Access Board submitted their report to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who has 90 days to clear it, or take issue with its contents. Once it clears the OMB hurdle, it will be posted for public comment and replies to comments under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) process for another prescribed period of time; this is typically another 90 days.

That means that it is possible that the earliest we would see the refresh is in about six to 8 months; which would mean the new standards could be out IN 2014. Although it is more likely that it will take longer.  Sadly, it also means that the time from the beginning of the refresh to rule would be at least a decade – or more if not finalized this year.  It feels that over the past 5 or so years, we have been hearing rumors that the refreshed standards will be out for comment in (today’s date + 4 months).  Chasing the rainbow for that pot-‘O-gold has been a tiring process for many.

ADA clarification

Another highly anticipated action by the federal government is their intent to clarify the “Accessibility of Web Information and Services Provided by Entities Covered by the ADA”.  The Department of Justice began this process in 2010 through an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM).  They sought public comment on their desire to revise ADA regulation to “…establish specific requirements for State and local governments and public accommodations to make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities”. This would both codify the expectation of accessibility for covered entities engaged in covered services, and also provide the standard by which this could be accomplished (hmmmm, might it be the Section 508 standards?). The hope is that the ADA clarification would end confusion, and reduce litigation on the issue of web accessibility.

The ANPRM comment period was closed in January of 2011. After quite a long silence, and an extended period of speculation by many of us –yes, WebAIM/NCDAE included–, the field was energized by hearing that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) would be published in July of 2013.  July came and went, as did the newly published dates of November 2013, and December 2013. After this time, the DOJ went silent on when we might see the NPRM.  Of course once it is published there will be a period of public comment, typically 60 days, and another period, typically 30 days, for reply comments. Then the Department will be in a position to deliver the report and order, which effectively promulgates the new rule. So could this also happen in 2014?  The math is certainly aligned, but the reality is anyone’s guess.

Other legislation

There are other pieces of legislation that are new or in the midst of a reauthorization. One example is the newly proposed Technology, Equality, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education (TEACH) Act. The field owes Wisconsin representative Tom Petri a great debt for introducing the bill (H.R. 3505). It would strengthen and clarify requirements for digital materials to be accessible to students with disabilities. Sadly, only about 11% of bills ever leave the committee to which it was assigned (House Education & the Workforce Committee), so it may never make it to a vote of Congress.  No matter the result of this Act, it may show the beginning of legislative attempts to solve a major problem in higher education today.

Another is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) itself.  Congress has begun this work, and there is speculation that accessibility may be included. This is because feedback is going into both the House and Senate Committees (e.g., some provided by NCDAE).  Both the House “Education & the Workforce Committee” and Senate “Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee” have scheduled hearings on reauthorizing HEA and have already included hearings around some disability issues. Many disability communities are holding discussions on what should be included, and deciding the best ways to advocate during the process.  The HEA also includes regulation surrounding the accreditation communities; could this be the time the accreditors get involved in a substantive way?

If you would like to add your opinions to either the Teach Act or the HEA reauthorization, please contact members of those Congressional Committees. Of course it is more powerful if you live in the district of the committee member (i.e., either from the House or Senate).  Could this be the year that legislative language is put in place to help postsecondary accessibility efforts?  Might it forever clarify that after-the-fact accommodations should not be the frontline approach in providing access to all students?   We will wait and see.

No matter the exact timeline, those in the field are on pins and needles.  A cluster of potent high-profile federal regulation could just be the ticket. Will this be the year?  We will all stay tuned, crossing fingers and toes.

Announcing the GOALS Email Discussion List

As the number of institutions participating in the GOALS project continues to increase, we have steadily been building resources. We now feel that this is a good time to launch an email discussion list. This list will be a place for GOALS project participants and other interested parties to share questions, experiences, and recommendations on system-level web accessibility implementation efforts (e.g., policy creation, supporting faculty and staff, etc.).

While we don’t anticipate issues, we appreciate your patience if there are any snags. There may be a flurry of activity (or inactivity) as we get things going, but we expect the list to stabilize in a couple weeks. Please contact us if you have any questions or identify a problem.

We hope you will subscribe and share your experiences.

Subscribe to the email discussion list

Institutional Guidelines on Captioning

Many would argue that the single most difficult issue of institutional web accessibility is captioning.  The issue presents a challenge, in part because there are so many people linking audio and video materials without regard to the need to have captions present. The ways in which institutions engage their faculties and staffs on this tough issue shows the maturity of the institution’s journey toward full web accessibility.

This past month, members of the Educause ITACCESS list had an interesting discussion on a topic I had not seen addressed before.  The thread began with a simple question, asking if anyone had captioning guidelines they would be willing to share. They were not talking about policy documents indicating THAT captioning needs to happen, nor were they talking about guidelines surrounding HOW to caption, but rather how others communicate to faculty and staff the expectations of WHAT to caption on their campuses. Implicit in the discussion was the notion that institutions need to have guidance they share with faculty and staff to help them understand their role.  In a way this guidance communicates the line in the sand for the institution on the captioning of digital materials.

As I read through this discussion and saw the rich resources being shared with one another, I was once again struck by the fabulous work that is happening across the country.  We all benefit from seeing how others proceed with tricky topics. As I digested the comments contained in this thread, I thought it might be a good idea to provide a summary of thoughts and a couple of resources to the work that others have done. If your campus does not have a guidance document for faculty and staff on the specific topic of captioning, now might be a great time to start drafting one for stakeholder feedback. This post represents content both extracted from the Educause ITACCESS thread and other material I uncovered as I looked around for myself.

The issue

Without specific guidance, faculty and staff will probably not understand their role and responsibility to caption. It is not enough to simply have a statement in policy that “all materials with audio content will be captioned”.  This does little to help them understand exactly what they are to do, and in what conditions they are expected to do it. Moreover, some interpret that “all materials” is actually limited to “all materials” they produce, and are not inclusive of those items secured through others (e.g., linking to others’ audio or video materials). Many institutions are producing guidance documents that walk faculty and staff through the issue of captioning, as well as their role in the process.

Remind me, why are we doing this?

You may benefit from reminding others of the important civil rights that are at play for students and community members who have disabilities.  Of course after-the-fact accommodations are no longer passing the giggle test and many are feeling the sting of legal challenges when digital materials are not available to their students and staff.

If your institution has tied accessibility to the Section 508 or WCAG 2.0 guidelines, you may also want to include this in the guidance document. Currently, the Section 508 standard states; “All training and information video and multimedia productions which support the agency’s mission, regardless of format, that contain speech or other audio information necessary for the comprehension of the content, shall be open or closed captions”. The WCAG 2.0 Principal that all content must be “Perceivable” would come into play, as the audio component would be lost to anyone who lacks the ability to hear, or hear well (More specific information on WCAG 2.0 and captioning can be found by going to Guideline 1.2, or by viewing a WebAIM resource on this Guideline in WCAG 2.0)

When do you have to do it?

There are 3 categories of audio or video recommendations that I found. Each had slightly different requirements for faculties or staffs:

  1. Real time meetings or online courses in real time. Here the recommendations are mainly to contact the Disability Resource Office well ahead of the need to set up a real time captioning service if there is an individual who needs it, or if it will be archived online for more than one term.  There is also the important guidance to set it up and test it in the same environment before it will be used.
  2. Audio or video materials that faculty or staff produce and upload onto the institutional web (this includes courses). The prevailing wisdom is that if the faculty produce it themselves, they should also take responsibility for captioning; whether they do it themselves or not. Considering how easily this can be done in YouTube with a transcript and the synch captions feature, it is probably not too high a bar for someone who has the sophistication of producing the video in the first place.  Of course it requires that a transcript is available or produced.
  3. Audio or video materials that faculty or staff find for use (e.g., link or upload materials from other sources). On this point there seem to be differences across institutions around what faculty and staff members should do.  The section below details these differences.

Differences of context

The ways to deal with the captioning of outside content depends a great deal on context.  The following are some bits of guidance I collected across resources.  There were some definite trends.  Here is what I saw being shared with faculties and staffs:

  1. They have a responsibility to search for an already captioned version of the media item they would like to use (See resources provided for searching for captions).
  2. They must consider if they have any current user who requires captions.
    1. If yes, the media element must be captioned before it is placed onto the web without question.   They are instructed to see the Disability Resource Center immediately.
    2. If they are teaching a course and do not have any registered student who needs captioned material, they have 2 options here:
      1. If they will use the material for only the current term, they can use it.  (I did not see anywhere that faculties are required to fill out and submit a form stating exactly this?  It would certainly help communicate a good faith effort on the part of the institution if challenged at a later date.)
      2. If they plan to use this media element for more than one term, the resource must eventually be captioned. However, they are allowed to post the item now as long as they also submit the materials for captioning. I assume that this work is then put into a queue and produced over the term so that the next time it is needed, it is captioned.
  3. If faculty or staff are putting content up on the public side of the institution’s web (i.e., not behind the login of a course for which a student will be a registered user), it must be captioned, as it is a reasonable expectation to assume that some future user would need captioning.

Captioning methods

There were differences across institutional expectation of faculty who are working to get material captioned, if that source material is not theirs. Here are the three top trends:

  1. The institution outsources the entire captioning work. Faculties and staffs need only provide the desired link or media and it will be returned in a captioned form. It is unclear to me if this goes through a central institutional process or if the faculty or staff member contacts the approved vendor themself.
  2. The institution completes all captions internally. As above, a faculty or staff member’s responsibility is to provide the campus entity with the link or the uncaptioned media that would be uploaded. Once complete, captioned work is returned.
  3. The faculty or staff members are required to submit both a transcript and the media for synching. So this would mean that the individual submitting it for synching, is the one to create or secure the transcript.

Resources to share

Below are two resources offered by the Educause ITACCESS members during this thread. If readers of this resource blog have others to share, please do so.  It will help others who are working on this tough issue.

Beloit College
Using Video in Your Course

To ensure equivalent access for students with hearing impairments, all videos must be captioned. Many  already come captioned, but it must be “turned on” when you show it to the class. If captioning does not exist,  contact the IT office well in advance in order to get it captioned before you use it. IT contracts an outside  company for this service and will need 3 weeks between the request of the item to be transcribed and when it is needed. Please contact IT Support if you would like to request this service.

Portland Community College

Resource: Audio and Video Accessibility

GOALS Blueprint for Web Accessibility and Accreditation

In 2010, Project GOALS (Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-Study) received a FIPSE grant which, in part, focused on aligning institutional web accessibility with regional accreditation.  GOALS along with consortium partner SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – Commission on Colleges) worked to identify ways in which web accessibility is, or could be, expressed in regional accreditation materials.

The result of this work is a set of materials that can be used by regional accreditors to introduce web accessibility into their documents and processes, assist review committees in assessing institutional web accessibility and aid them in providing support for their constituents.  These works have been combined into a single document “Web Accessibility and Accreditation: A Blueprint for Regional Agencies”.  This document is available online and in print.

The blueprint is introduced by Dr. Belle Wheelan the President of SACSCOC and is divided into three main sections:

The first section provides information on how to incorporate web accessibility into Accreditation Agency documents.  It includes information on mapping existing agency requirements to accessibility and provides examples of diversity statements, position statements on web accessibility and language that can be included in resource materials.

The second section introduces materials that agencies and their constituent institutions can use to support web accessibility efforts during reaffirmation.  This includes an analysis of the SACSCOC Quality Enhancement Plans with suggestions on how quality improvement work can include accessibility; a Best Practices for Web Accessibility document; templates and examples to help institutions frame evidence of web accessibility work; information about the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning Tool; and other GOALS resources.

The final section outlines resources specifically created to assist review teams and accreditation staff.  Assessing the quality of institutional web accessibility for an accreditation portfolio can be a complex issue. It can be especially challenging when those reviewing materials for quality are not familiar with the topic. To assist agencies as they review portfolios that include work on web accessibility, GOALS offers information to educate accreditors on the importance of web accessibility and how it can be used during reaffirmation along with a reviewer guidance document that provides specific advice on evaluating the quality of evidence provided in institutional portfolios.

View the Accreditation Blueprint

Voices from the Field: How Local IT Support Can Help Faculty

Last month we profiled the experience of a faculty member in the midst of changing her professional practices to include accessibility. This month, we are sharing the experiences of the IT support staff for the same department. Below he shares thoughts about working across a dozen faculty members to help them learn to create accessible materials for their online courses and the online elements for their campus-based courses.


 

By Karl Smith

The Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation at Utah State University recently began the process of making all of its course materials accessible.  I was happy to learn of this initiative as I believe not only should my department be compliant with accessibility standards, but that it has a responsibility to set an example in this regard.

While we do have some specific needs for current students which must be met, we also wanted to educate our entire faculty on best practices, and raise the quality of their teaching in general. As the department Technology Specialist, I have tried to offer my knowledge and assistance wherever I can.

As the IT support person, I get called whenever someone tries to do something unfamiliar with technology.  And while there are plenty of direct answers to questions regarding accessibility tweaks (most covered by materials developed by GOALS) I’ve also found myself giving the following answers with relative frequency.

“All students should have substantively the same experience”

It’s amazing how quickly people can lose sight of the big picture, and probably not too surprising that they lose track of this one.  When you’re teaching someone to make a Word document or PowerPoint presentation accessible the big picture isn’t really relevant; you’re teaching them features of Word or PowerPoint.  But once that faculty member takes those lessons back to their office and starts tweaking their own course materials, they seem to lose track of “Why?”,  and an hour or two later I inevitably get a call.  After they try to explain how they’re jumping backward through hoops mangling their document, “Why?” is ultimately the question I have to ask them.  And generally, it’s because they’ve lost sight of this one simple principle.

Designing accessible materials does not mean you can’t teach your class the same way you always have.  You can still communicate with students in the same ways.  You can still teach as you always have.  But a bit of design breadth when creating course materials makes those materials usable by students in multiple ways.  A Word document with proper heading structure looks the same when printed, but is also navigable by screen readers, or even parse-able by document restructuring tools (like something that may make a website out of it).  The goal is not to change the look of your documents, nor do you need to make multiple versions of your materials for students with various disabilities.  The goal is to make your normal documents and methods more broadly accessible, so all students have as similar an experience as possible.

“We’re doing this over 3 years”

Cyndi Rowland has consulted with us several times during this process, and one of her early pieces of advice was not to rework everything at the same time.  It’s painful, it’s frustrating, and people don’t have the time to DO it.  Rather, make the commitment that everything developed from this moment forward will be developed accessibly.  This way, no one has that annoyance of reworking something, and in a few years the vast majority of your materials will have converted naturally.  You should probably also pick a completion date, and as that date approaches you may have to deliberately rework documents that won’t be replaced naturally.  But that will be a LOT less frustrating.

We really liked Cyndi’s advice, and the department has committed to a 3-year turnover schedule.  Of course, there are some materials that need to be reworked more aggressively for students currently in our programs who have disabilities.  But in general, this is our plan.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to learn these techniques and processes without a document to practice on.  So the first document any faculty member works on will generally be a rework of materials they already developed.  And this seems to set up an internal “I need to rework all my existing materials” expectation which was not intended.

“The Disability Resource Center is not always the answer.  But it’s a good resource!”

Okay, this might take a bit of history.  As recognition of the needs of people with disabilities has evolved through the past several decades, many institutions developed some form of central disability services office.  Frequently on campuses, this is called a Disability Resource Center (DRC).  As these were primarily developed in an age where wheelchair ramps or other physical accessibility issues were the most recognized problems; these services focused on accommodating the needs of a person with a disability in the moment.

More recently, especially with developing focus on e-learning, this accommodation model is proving insufficient to the needs of students.  When an entire campus tries to meet their accessible course material needs through the DRC, the DRC tends to have insufficient resources.  As this problem grows, the principle of “similar experience” become difficult to maintain, and sometimes impossible.  When this breaks completely, students have begun bringing lawsuits against institutions, which they are increasingly winning.  Laws are changing to help define the needs of persons with disabilities; but this is an evolving area.

What I have found is faculty often expect the past accommodation model to be sufficient.  I explain the problems with the current model, and how faculty can better meet the needs of their students.  But this is not to disparage the local DRC!  Disability Resource Centers also recognize these problems, and are working to develop solutions.   This may be anything from centralizing efforts to make PDFs accessible to captioning services for videos to converting your handouts into braille.

The particular things I’ve needed to point out to faculty are:

  •  “If you ask the DRC to rework a document as you are developing your course materials, it only has to be done once.  If materials are reworked for each student as you teach the course, the work will be repeated every time you have a student with a disability.  Simple conservation of labor makes submitting the document up front a better solution.”
  • “Having the DRC rework a document takes time.  If documents are submitted as needed by a student, this prevents that student from having materials in a timely manner, preventing them from taking part in class discussions and possibly holding up exams.  Not only does this violate the principle of similar experiences, it makes more work for you.”

Contact your DRC, and find out what resources they have.  As an educator, you can take advantage of their capabilities as you develop course materials.  They’ll appreciate that you are being proactive, and saving them both repetitive work, and being pressured by students who need documents immediately.

“Yes, you can still do ______”

After the first workshop with faculty, and thus after we had explained the difficulties with poor visual contrast, I saw a sudden push among some faculty to make all their PowerPoint’s black on white.  Some were going for pure Arial.  While it was good to see the awareness and concern, it was also saddening that our faculty felt their creativity needed to be stifled.  Some quite colorful slides were “cleansed” –   backgrounds were stripped and aesthetics ransacked.  This is not necessary.  Try to watch for faculty who are gutting their course materials.  Make sure they understand, they CAN do that neat thing they want.  They CAN be creative.  They just need to be conscious of a few things when doing so.  Honestly, some of these “how can I do this” conversations have been challenging, fun, and strangely enlightening.  Sometimes I’ve had to reach for outside ideas and assistance.  But I’ve yet to find something that cannot be done.

“Alt text is very, VERY subjective.  What did you intend to convey with this graphic/chart?”

This usually comes up during workshops, as every document that can include charts or images now has a tool to add ALT text to said chart or image.  Unfortunately, there is not always one right answer for what should go in that field, or even if anything should.  And now that programs like PowerPoint or Acrobat include an “Accessibility Checker,” I always try to stress it can only check for the presence of ALT text, and cannot evaluate its quality or need.

There are various rules for how ALT text is structured (no “picture of” for example).  But when explaining how to decide what content to put in the field, I usually ask why the image or chart is there to begin with.  A chart may only be included so the viewer can tell that a trend line increases over time, so “Chart showing increase in X over Y time” may be appropriate.  Or you may intend the viewer to get a few specific details, so you need to specify those details.  If you wanted really complex data analysis, it’s likely better to incorporate a navigable table in some way.  But in some contexts, even a complex chart may be decorative.

We had one discussion during a workshop about a graphic which the faculty member had included simply to amuse their students.  It was only tenuously related to the topic, and was just included to lighten the mood.  Different faculty thought it should be removed, left but not tagged, or tagged in detail with an attempt to describe the joke.  Any of these options could have been right; and I think the discussion helped them see how difficult it is to create rules regarding ALT text.

Ultimately, you need to help your faculty see this process as beneficial.  Not only will their efforts help their students with disabilities engage equitably in their classes, it may also help them to reflect on the purpose and message of their materials, improving the quality of learning for everyone.  If your faculty can embrace rather than resent accessibility initiatives, they can do some amazing things which will reach more students than ever before.