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.Â GOALS along with consortium partner SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools â€“ 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.Â These works have been combined into a single document â€œWeb Accessibility and Accreditation: A Blueprint for Regional Agenciesâ€.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.
In addition to creating resources that institutions can use to assess, plan for, and improve their web accessibility, the staff members of Project GOALS are committed to finding ways to make the most of your institutional accessibility efforts.Â One way that institutions can capitalize on their work is to include digital accessibility as part of reaffirmation efforts with their regional accrediting body.Â The ways this can be done are as varied as the accrediting agencies and their constituent institutions.Â However, GOALS staff has completed an analysis of the Principles, Standards and Criteria of the six regional accreditation commissions that oversee higher education in the United States. We hope this information is helpful as you plan to include web accessibility into your accreditation or reaffirmation efforts.
Regional Accreditation Commissions:
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools – Commission on Higher Education (MSC) – http://www.msche.org/
New England Association of Schools and Colleges – Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC) – http://www.neasc.org
Western Association of Schools and CollegesÂ – Accrediting Commission forÂ Senior Colleges and Universities (WASC) – http://www.wascsenior.org
Web accessibility maps onto the existing requirements for all of the accrediting agencies. So it may be a straightforward proposition that institutional efforts to improve web accessibility can be used to provide either compliance or evidence of continuous quality improvement during reaffirmation. Several broad themes emerged as potential venues for inculcating web accessibility into the accreditation process.Â While not an exhaustive listing, and bearing in mind that each institution will need to adapt the themes to their own situations, we have created a document highlighting several of these themes and providing information on how they relate to web accessibility efforts. The document is Mapping Accessibility onto Existing Accreditation Standards and Criteria.
In addition to the standards, criteria or principles provided by the Regional Accrediting Commission, web accessibility efforts may also serve as one aspect of an institutionâ€™s quality improvement plans.Â While quality enhancement work generally focuses on student outcomes, many of these plans lend themselves quite handily to the inclusion of students with disabilities.Â GOALS staff recently conducted a thematic analysis of the QEPs (Quality Enhancement Plans) for project partner SACSCOCâ€™s constituent institutions over the past two years.Â Â Over 160 QEPs were posted.Â The following is a breakdown of some of the major themes found in these plans.
While some of these themes are an obvious fit (Diversity, Technology, Ethics, Remediation etcâ€¦) many others can also benefit from including digital accessibility as part of the plan.Â For example, when considering the Freshman Experience, you should consider all of your students.Â How can an institution promote literacy if materials are in a format that is inaccessible to a portion of your population?Â If you are hoping to encourage critical thinking and active learning, it is important to make sure that the materials you are using promote learning for all students (e.g., how “active” can learning be if the student must wait for materials or rely on others for help?).Â If you are promoting Teamwork and Collaboration what kind of message does it send when some students are not able to participate due to accessibility issues; and how does this translate to the the professional world where excluding those with disabilities runs afoul of anti-discrimination laws?
Each institution is different and will need to find its own path when including web accessibility in work with their regional accreditation commission.Â However, promoting an environment of inclusiveness is not only the right thing to do, but it can also provide your institution with valuable evidence while building the case for reaffirmation.
On February 7th, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on â€œThe Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunitiesâ€.Â This was one of a series of hearings convened to explore issues that impact employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, and the first of a series on the use of Educational Technology to improve student achievement.
To be honest, I donâ€™t watch many senate hearings (it may have something to do with my tendency to yell at the TV screen and stomp out of the room).Â However, I actually enjoyed watching this one â€“ I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions â€“ in fact, by the end I had become a human bobble-head.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chaired the hearing noting that â€œAccess to curriculum and instructional material is a civil right – one that all students should be able to enjoy equally. Although technological advancements make accessibility readily achievable in modern classrooms the level of accessibility continues to be uneven.â€Â Senator Harkin, a long time advocate for persons with disabilities, also sponsored the bill that mandated that all new televisions include a decoding chip for closed-captioning in the early 90â€™s.
The committee heard from four witnesses: First, Eve Hill of the Department of Justice stressed that accessibility is a fundamental issue of civil rights and discussed the direction that legislation is taking in support of equal access.Â Next Mark Riccobono of the National Federation of the Blind described a world of accessibility that is achievable today pointing out that technology can either level the playing field or segregate an entire population.Â Finally, John Quick from the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus Indiana and Mark Turner, of the Accessible Technology Initiative for California State University in Long Beach shared their stories and strategies for the successful implementation of digital accessibility in both K-12 and Higher Education environments.
Several themes emerged across all of the testimonies â€“ among them were the fact that both technology and curriculum need to be independently accessible, emphasizing that the delivery method and the message need to be designed to best serve the student.Â The committee also stressed the advantages of including accessibility from the beginning of the design process.Â Finally, the importance of getting vendors on board the accessibility bandwagon was discussed by everyone who took the microphone â€“ with many of them Â pointing out the power of numbers to require manufacturers to provide accessible technologies .
It is refreshing to note that this committee has bipartisan support.Â In this heated political climate the fact that both sides are able to agree speaks volumes about the issue.Â I finished watching the hearing filled with optimism – itâ€™s exciting to watch what many of us have been advocating for gaining the momentum necessary to succeed â€¦
In 2008, an Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities was created to assess the availability and state of of accessible materials for students with disabilities in postsecondary education and to make recommendations for improving both the quality and quantity of these materials.Â This 19 member committee was asked to report on best practices in digital accessibility; to identify and support model programs for quality and efficiency while ensuring that they comply with copyright laws; to make recommendations on legal definitions as they relate to postsecondary education and students with disabilities; and help to inform federal legislation as it works to catch up with technology.
The committee published its final report in December 2011.Â The 174 page report identifies a number of barriers confronting postsecondary students with disabilities and noted that the solutions are as varied as the sources of the materials themselves.Â The report provides 18 official recommendations which span a variety of realms including amendments to legislation, directed market solutions, capitalizing on technologies, building capacity and funding demonstration projects.
While many of the findings of the committee are not revelations for those of you who have been working for and advocating digital accessibility all along, having it all laid out in an â€œofficialâ€ comprehensive report is not only nicely validating but also very encouraging.Â Â While the committee admits, it doesnâ€™t have all the answers, the report does open up the discussion to a broader audience and will hopefully pave the way to a fully accessible future.