Web Accessibility and Accreditation: A Blueprint for Regional Agencies

This document is available to be printed as a PDF file.

Introduction

Sensitive is not usually a word ascribed to accreditors; however, since working with Project GOALS, I have become much more sensitive to the need to provide access to documents in a format that will allow individuals with disabilities the opportunity to find information easily. Having worked in higher education for 40 years and now working with institutions of higher education who enroll students with a variety of learning styles and who are required to ensure that they have access to support materials, official institutional documents, etc., accreditors also have a responsibility to assist institutions in ensuring information in all forms is accessible to all.

Project GOALS, a FIPSE funded grant program, has developed guidelines and templates for accreditors and institutions to use to ensure that all documents, especially those in electronic format, are available to individuals with visual and auditory disabilities. Having the responsibility to comply with federal laws in these matters is one thing, but knowing how to respond adequately to these requirements is another. The materials from Project GOALS have gone a long way in taking the guess work out of how to comply. The materials are easy to understand and implement and I highly recommend that you consider their use within your own organization.

Dr. Belle Wheelan—President, SACSCOC

The Need for Web Accessibility

“Technology poses the greatest promise for those with disabilities, as long as it is ready for them when they come, and not an additional barrier to their achievement.”

The Internet is as integral to today’s higher education as teachers and textbooks. Students, faculty, and staff alike must have access to institutional web content for essential activities such as registration, applying for financial aid, completing assignments, employment, testing, and delivering or augmenting courses. However, if websites that provide necessary information or services are not accessible, those with disabilities may not be able to independently complete their daily tasks or compete with their peers in academia and beyond. Technology poses the greatest promise for those with disabilities, as long as it is ready for them when they come, and not an additional barrier to their achievement.

While advocates for web accessibility have been actively promoting the need for web accessibility since the early 90’s, web content in education remains largely inaccessible. This continuing inequity has resulted in a growing number of lawsuits and complaints. Furthermore, legislation is starting to catch up with technology making accessibility an issue that can no longer be ignored.

Providing an inclusive and supportive environment for teaching and learning is a critical part of postsecondary education and a central tenet of the accreditation philosophy. Therefore, accreditors may want to consider how they can support and encourage institutions to ensure that digital materials and institutional web content is accessible to all.

About the Blueprint

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 was a set of materials that can be used by regional accreditors to inculcate web accessibility into their documents and processes, assist review committees in assessing institutional web accessibility, and aid them in providing support for their constituents.

“Project GOALS worked to identify ways in which web accessibility is, or could be, expressed in regional accreditation materials.”

This blueprint contains examples of language and materials that were developed for SACSCOC. While not all of the materials were adopted by the commission, they present options and examples that can be used by other accreditors when looking at their own documents and processes. Whenever possible, these materials have been revised to be non-agency specific — please feel free to use and adapt them as you see fit.

Incorporating Web Accessibility into Accreditation Documents

This document has been developed to serve as a blueprint that can be used by regional accreditation commissions that wish to incorporate web accessibility into their systems or provide support for their constituent institutions.

Mapping Accessibility onto Existing Accreditation Standards and Criteria

Our first step in the process was to review the Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement published by SACSCOC. This evaluation was extended to include the published standards and criteria of all the regional accreditors. Several themes, common to all agencies, emerged that were conducive to web accessibility. Essentially, we found that the foundation for web accessibility is already present in the existing guidelines of all the regional accreditation agencies. This means accreditors do not need to make significant changes to indicate the importance of web accessibility in their resource materials. Furthermore, institutions engaging in system-wide web accessibility can use this information as a guide to help leverage their work on accessibility as they prepare for the reaffirmation process.

To see themes that support web accessibility present in the standards and criteria across all regional accreditation bodies view the Mapping Document.

Other Agency Documentation

Next, the GOALS team reviewed the resources and publications available on the SACSCOC website. Several resources and publications were identified as potential venues for the inclusion of web accessibility. A number of opportunities for stand-alone documents specifically devoted to web accessibility were also identified. These resources have analog documents across most agencies, so a similar review of resources will help identify potential opportunities for the agency to use language that specifies inclusion of web accessibility overtly, or through example.

Diversity Statement

“Specifically including those with disabilities in your diversity statement sets the stage for inclusion elsewhere.”

A diversity statement reinforces an agency’s commitment to equality and fairness for all. Specifically including those with disabilities in your diversity statement sets the stage for inclusion elsewhere.

View sample language for a diversity statement

Position Statement on Web Accessibility

A position statement on web accessibility can be added to an agency’s documentation at any time. As a stand-alone document, it allows the agency to alert their constituents about web accessibility without having to wait until core documents are revised.

View a sample Position Statement

Changes to Standards, Principles, and Criteria

The statutes and guidelines required for reaffirmation are the agency’s cannon. While adding web accessibility as a specific regulation would be ideal, we recognize the difficulty in making substantive changes to this core document. However, as discussed in the mapping document, the basis for web accessibility already exists across a number of areas within each document. Full inclusion can be endorsed by adding and emphasizing “for all students” in strategic areas such as technology and student services, or by making it clear in the introduction that each standard is intended for everyone, including traditionally underrepresented groups and persons with disabilities.

Statements for Resource Documents and Clarification Materials

A review of agency documentation will likely reveal a wide range of potential areas where accessibility language may be added. Resource documents and clarification materials are ideal locales. The amount of available space and the focus of the document will impact what language is used. GOALS has provided some sample language to get you started. Samples of one sentence, one paragraph, and half page statements are provided.

View Sample Statements

Supporting Web Accessibility Efforts as Part of Reaffirmation

Once web accessibility has been incorporated into agency documents, you will need to provide support and guidance for your constituent institutions to help them understand and engage in web accessibility work during reaffirmation. This was the next series of steps as GOALS worked to support SACSCOC efforts.

Institutional efforts on web accessibility can (and should) be reflected in reaffirmation portfolios. To this end, GOALS has developed materials designed specifically to assist institutions in presenting evidence of accessibility work during reaffirmation.

An Analysis of SACSCOC Quality Enhancement Plans

A quality improvement plan is a universal aspect in the accreditation process. GOALS staff conducted a thematic analysis of 160 Quality Enhancement Plans (QEP’s) for project partner SACSCOC’s constituent institutions over a two year period. After analysis, staff found these plans can serve as an additional point of congruence with web accessibility work. While quality improvement work generally focuses on student outcomes, the inclusion of all students (including students with disabilities) can serve as one component in a wide range of different plans (e.g., focus on diversity, student learning outcomes, technology use, the freshman experience).

View the blog post Accredibility: Using Your Web Accessibility Efforts As Evidence During Reaffirmation for additional information

Best Practices for Institution-Wide Web Accessibility

“Web accessibility is a complex proposition. Therefore, GOALS has established a set of Best Practice guidelines outlining the items necessary to achieve institutional web accessibility.”

Staff from GOALS created a Best Practices document to focus institutional efforts. Web accessibility is a complex proposition. Therefore, GOALS has established a set of Best Practice guidelines outlining the items necessary to achieve institutional web accessibility. These guidelines consist of four Indicators, each focusing on an essential aspect of institution-wide web accessibility. These Indicators are comprised of several Benchmarks. The strength of each Benchmark lies in the institutional evidence for that specific benchmark. This document can serve as a roadmap for institutions to engage in web accessibility work.

View the Best Practice Document

Templates for Institutional Web Accessibility Activities (and Examples for a Reaffirmation Portfolio)

“Institutions who wish to document their web accessibility efforts as part of continuous improvement or reaffirmation may benefit from a framework that can be used to organize and present evidence of web accessibility efforts.”

There is no universal format for institutions to present evidence during reaffirmation. Institutions who wish to document their web accessibility efforts as part of continuous improvement or reaffirmation may benefit from a framework that can be used to organize and present evidence of web accessibility efforts.

A GOALS template can be used in conjunction with the Best Practices Document to help provide a structure for reaffirmation reports or quality improvement outlines. Examples of different ways the template can be used are also provided.

View the Template and Examples

Other Resources for Institutions

GOALS staff created a variety of web accessibility resources for institutions along with an online Benchmarking and Planning Tool. Your agency could use these same resources to assist your constituents as they develop an institutional self-study schema or to support them as they plan for, implement, and assess web accessibility across their institution.

View the resources available at ncdae.org/GOALS.

Assisting 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, Project GOALS created a set of resources accreditors can use to help inform their reviewers.

Educating Accreditors about Web Accessibility

An initial resource for reviewers is an article written about the need for web accessibility in higher education. It provides important context for its inclusion in the reaffirmation process. Since web accessibility is an issue that is likely unfamiliar to many in the accreditation field, it is important they understand how it relates to reaffirmation. This is necessary if review teams are expected to evaluate accessibility efforts.

“Since web accessibility is an issue that is likely unfamiliar to many in the accreditation field, it is important they understand how it relates to reaffirmation.”

View the article Accreditation and Web Accessibility: Why Should Accreditors Care?

Reviewer Guidance Document

Project GOALS also created a set of resources to be used by review teams and institutions to help them determine the quality of evidence related to web accessibility.

Getting Started

The guidance documents start with a Guide to Using GOALS Materials to Evaluate Web Accessibility Evidence during an Accreditation Review. This document is an overview of the resource materials created for accreditation staff and offers guidance on how to use them.

View the Guide to Using GOALS Materials to Evaluate Web Accessibility Evidence During an Accreditation Review

Navigating the Guidance Document

To assist reviewers in finding the applicable evaluation support within the Guideline document, GOALS presents an Evidence Evaluation Matrix. The matrix lists common areas or aspects of accessibility with links to the appropriate sections of the Guidance Document that relate to the evidence at hand.

View the Evidence Evaluation Matrix

Guidelines for Evaluating Web Accessibility Evidence

The Guidelines for Evaluating Institutional Evidence of Web Accessibility is the core resource intended to assist review teams in evaluating web accessibility evidence.. These guidelines are based on (and follow the structure of) the Best Practices document described above. For each benchmark found in the indicators of best practice, this resource lists potential evidence, and guidelines for determining the quality of that evidence. It guides reviewers on those things that would support, or call into question, institutional statements of effort.

View the Guidelines for Evaluating Institutional Evidence of Web Accessibility

Conclusion

“As awareness grows and legislation shifts toward mandating digital rights, accreditors are in an exceptional position to provide support and guidance to their constituent institutions.”

The basis for inclusion of web accessibility already exists in the spirit and substance of the accreditation philosophy. Accessibility efforts help institutions better serve their students, faculty, and staff and speak directly to the mission statements and values of both the institution and the accreditors. Furthermore, institutional accessibility efforts can serve as value-added evidence of quality, diversity, and institutional values that may be used in the reaffirmation process.

As awareness grows and legislation shifts toward mandating digital rights, accreditors are in an exceptional position to provide support and guidance to their constituent institutions. This blueprint can assist accreditors in integrating web accessibility into the words and actions of their agencies. Project GOALS has resources for both the institution and accreditation agencies and would like to help.

If you would like more information, contact us.