Politics, Accessibility and Education – oh my!

On February 7th, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on “The Promise of Accessible Technology: Challenges and Opportunities”.  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 don’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).  However, I actually enjoyed watching this one – I found myself nodding vigorously on several occasions – in fact, by the end I had become a human bobble-head.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chaired the hearing noting that “Access 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.”  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 90’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.  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.  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 – 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.  The committee also stressed the advantages of including accessibility from the beginning of the design process.  Finally, the importance of getting vendors on board the accessibility bandwagon was discussed by everyone who took the microphone – with many of them  pointing out the power of numbers to require manufacturers to provide accessible technologies .

It is refreshing to note that this committee has bipartisan support.  In this heated political climate the fact that both sides are able to agree speaks volumes about the issue.  I finished watching the hearing filled with optimism – it’s exciting to watch what many of us have been advocating for gaining the momentum necessary to succeed …

If you have 99 minutes, the hearing is available online and well worth a watch… Watch the full hearing

Incentivizing accessible web content: Cost matters

Many institutions of higher education are striving to incentivize web accessibility in cost-effective ways.  GOALS staff at Utah State University are conducting the first known cost study of web accessibility in postsecondary education by holding focus groups with institutions of higher education around the country.  These focus groups will lead to the development of surveys and other data measures to get at issues of cost for each institution participating in the cost study.   Eventually 12 institutions will volunteer to participate in this ground breaking cost study that will result in case studies describing current costs of activities underway to improve web accessibility for students, faculty and other users.

Below are two interesting strategies we recently heard about during one of our focus groups.  Suffice it to say we are collecting a number of cost efficiencies and fabulous practices.  We’ll  be sure to share more of them in the future.

  1. One strategy being used is to make sure the student workforce can contribute to the institution’s accessibility efforts.  This institution provides free training to any student who wants to learn about web accessibly for any reason.  These students earn a certificate of completion when they successfully demonstrate accessibility knowledge and skills. These certificates happen to be required for a student to be hired for any on-campus web development job. The practice reduces inaccessibility errors of new hires and reduces the need for accessibility to be learned on the job. The certificate is so desirable that students are achieving 100% job placement in web related jobs on-campus.  Similar training is offered to faculty and staff for $150 per class.
  2. Another strategy that has incentivized accessibility comes from an institution who already had a clear policy on web accessibility, along with training systems and supports for staff.  They had struggled with conformance to the policy by faculty and staff.  Their current strategy is that whenever inaccessible content is reported (e.g., a student can’t gain access to needed content and reports this to the Disability Service Office – DSO), the transformation is quickly made by a team within central IT and the DSO and the resulting bill is submitted to the office of the Dean of that particular college.  While the Dean will take needed funds out of the college’s operating budget, it occasions a discussion with the chair of that particular department or unit regarding the charge to the college. The choice to run these charges through the Dean’s office instead of directly to the department or unit has greatly reduced accessibility problems and increased conformance to the policy across the institution. Colleges are learning that if departments within their college put web content up that is not accessible they will be billed for retrofitting or adaptions later.  Colleges and departments are learning the value of creating accessibly from the beginning.

Have you heard of other strategies that use cost or funding efficiencies to incentivize web accessibility?  We’d love to hear about them!

AIMing for Inclusion

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.  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.  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.  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 “official” comprehensive report is not only nicely validating but also very encouraging.   While the committee admits, it doesn’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.

The full report can be found on the ED.gov website.

Will access become an element of top ranked distance education programs?

January 10th the US News and World Report posted the inaugural collection of their Top Online Education Programs.  They noted that the time is right to provide consumers with this information as online education has come of age; more than 6 million students are taking at least one online course according to a Babson survey referenced in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The data US News gathered to determine who would place in their “Honor Rolls” included metrics on student services, student engagement, faculty credentials and admissions selectivity programs across 5 disciplines (e.g., from education to computer information technology).

While this was the first attempt to cluster top online programs, it is of note that none of their initial metrics or methods considered if web content could be accessed by all students, including those with disabilities.  Assuming that online degree-granting entities will work hard to achieve Honor Roll status, this could be a powerful mechanism to assist in needed system-change.  Based on the backlash and substantive feedback going into US News on their process, there will likely be tweaks in the future.  Web accessibility for students with disabilities in online education appears to be consistent with the US News existing criteria of both “Student Engagement and Accreditation” and “Students Services and Technology”.

We at NCDAE hope that you provide your opinions to the US News Online Education staff, we certainly will.

Website blackouts provide some perspective of access

Today much is being said about the decision made by mega sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, WordPress, and Boing Boing to go dark for one day, essentially shutting down their web services; or English versions of their web services. This was a way for their founders to protest two pieces of pending US legislation; the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House. Through the blackout they hope to engage the nation in a broad-based awareness campaign and timely discussion regarding the pending legislation they believe will limit a “free and open internet”

Many are reeling today from the shock of not having immediate access to some of their favorite websites; sites that, for many, are visited on a daily basis. Instead they have to wait for this access, if only for a day. The delay in on-demand access may provide accessibility advocates with an opportunity to show typical users the frustrations that come with inaccessibility. In doing so typical users may connect a personal experience with the struggle to gain access; it is often important in advocacy efforts to help others perceive issues from a personal standpoint.

As we are well aware, it can be typical for users with disabilities to have to wait to obtain access to web content. It is also common that typical users do not understand how irritating this experience can be. Today’s blackout may provide a similar enough experience that those typical users can gain an understanding of the frustrations of inaccessibility. In fact, frustration and irritation are what the organizers of the blackout are counting on.

If the anticipated reverberations of this event are longstanding we should be able to use its impact for some time to come. It should help us provide others with an understanding of the frustration of encountering inaccessible content and the importance of accessibility for all.