accessibility all hands

Roll up your sleeves! Why accessibility in higher ed needs all hands on-deck

Fundamentally, delivering an accessible platform is not about checking a box and saying, "It's done." Why accessibility is never-ending and needs IT and vendor input.

The accessibility of learning content is undergoing a dramatic change right now.

This change is being built upon existing standards that key parts of the industry are implementing, as well as new standards. All the changes that are happening are, for the first time, enabling the ability for institutions, instructors and learners to adopt and access accessible content, that is the exact same content, at the same time, on the same platforms as any other user.

Vendors must ensure that the content they provide is available where and when users need it, and that the platform and the content are created in a way that they will work together to ensure accessibility.

You cannot measure accessibility by just looking at one part of the ecosystem. For example, the software displaying the text needs to understand the markup that is inside the content, and how those two things together will work with the assistive technology (such as a screen reader) being used by the learner.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have emerged as the benchmark for creating this common platform for accessibility. The WCAG technical standard’s 12 guidelines, that fall under four principles, provide testable success criteria.

Published and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is also an ISO standard (ISO/IEC 40500:2012). The international success and adoption of this standard has increased the expectation of what every company should do.

With the prevalent use of web technologies everywhere today, it would be unthinkable to consider a part of a learning ecosystem that did not work with the internet. In the US, the recently announced refresh of the Federal Government Accessibility Standards (Section 508) has brought the specifics about the WCAG standard to the forefront, and the WCAG standard now defines the requirements that must be used.

The same adoption of WCAG has happened in the U.K., the European Union and around the world.

(Next page: New accessibility standards for publishing; why teamwork is essential)

New Standards

Similarly, the publishing world recently released the Accessibility 1.0 specification for EPUB that also uses the WCAG standard and adds book-specific requirements (such as page numbers that correspond to the printed version). This EPUB file standard is quickly becoming a requirement as the prevailing distribution method for textbooks and other learning materials continue to move to digital.

These and many other efforts are bringing adoption of a common standard for evaluating accessibility to the marketplace. This, in turn, will let us create the needed transparency regarding actual capabilities and allow for effective evaluation and comparison.

With greater transparency of each part of a system involved in teaching and learning — and common frameworks to use to compare them — we can all make more informed decisions about how a platform intersects with the content being used, the device it is being viewed on, the installed operating system and any enabled assistive technology.

In other words, users want enough information to know that it works. Yes, it’s a lot of moving parts and none of us can do this alone; however, the real-world test is not how each of the parts conform to a standard, but how all the parts work together to provide a highly functional system for users.

Working Together for Improved Solutions

As we all work to improve our solutions, we will continue to find other gaps that must be filled. We might find these gaps in functionality, the standards, the laws, or even the testing process.

Participants–especially from the edtech community–disability services offices, and instructional technologies must be involved in identifying and filling these gaps. We all need to roll up our sleeves and participate in working groups, test creation, and community discussions about the best ways to partner, fill these gaps and ensure transparency around every facet of the problem.

Fundamentally, delivering an accessible platform is not about checking a box and saying, “It’s done.” Operating systems and software are updated regularly, assistive technology continually releases new versions and an application’s capabilities will advance. Longevity, or a sustained marketplace presence is required, as is the perspective that accessibility is a non-negotiable requirement.

Providing accessibility is a never-ending journey and vendors must understand the commitment it requires. It must be at the core of their operation and development processes.

They will never solve the problems at hand if they are trying to fix things afterward or in later releases. Vendors must design in accessibility from the start, commit to the journey, and ensure it is a fundamental part of their DNA.

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