Meeting the accessibility challenge

I attended a session at the Educause conference today on accessibility. This has become more of an issue in the US as a number of universities have faced litigation because of their lack of compliance with disability discrimination legislation. The number of cases is, in the overall context of the US education industry, relatively small but the amount of the awards made against institutions has made some university executives nervous and has driven moves towards greater compliance.

Temple University was one such institution. The University Board set a project in motion to review the current level of provision and take the steps necessary to comply with disability discrimination law. The initial analysis showed that Temple were not compliant with many aspects of that legislation – essentially in the same boat as many other institutions. I suspect that this is much the case in the UK too – there is some awareness of the disability legislation but not of what is required in order to comply.

However, Temple’s Board sought to address this, recognising that they needed to tackle to problem on a number of fronts. It was necessary to define the policy for the institution but then follow it through so that considering accessibility started to become business as usual. A broad based committee was established to oversee the project. Led by the CIO, it included representatives from the service departments but also Estates and the institutional counsel. The policy the group established was clear – we will be accessible. Responsibility for accessibility was devolved to the person providing the technology or information – so faculty were responsible for ensuring their materials were accessible and heads of service were responsible to ensuring compliance in their areas. Will became the watch word – where there were items that could not be made accessible, those responsible were challenged to think of another mode of delivery or whether the items were necessary at all.

After the initial audit, Temple instigated departmental liaison officers that were responsible for promoting the accessibility message within the department, ensuring departmental accessibility initiatives were funded and evaluating accessibility during the procurement process. The group established standards for the web services, learning spaces and IT labs with each bearing in mind the principle that accessibility should be standard provision, not the exception. Checklists were prepared to assist faculty in assessing their materials. Once the preparation was complete, the CIO promoted the policy and available support to a wide range of institutional groups through a series of roadshows.

There were some quick wins once the policy began to be implemented. The largest and most used IT labs were upgraded first bringing an instant return. Web accessibility standards were introduced and processes established to ensure compliance. Control panels in smart classrooms were upgraded. However, not everything gave so rapid a return. Although the processes were in place to ensure the web sites were compliant, adoption was slow. The guidelines for instructional materials took over 12 months to complete and a larger group was established to review and amend them as required. The initiative wasn’t cheap – Temple spent over $600k in their move towards compliance.

Not all institutions in the US had followed the same road – some opted to steer clear from even establishing an accessibility policy as they felt that doing so would put them at greater risk of litigation. I suspect the reverse is true – if you have a policy in place and plans to implement it then I believe you are less prone to litigation as you have recognised that you have a problem (in not being compliant) and are taking steps to address it. I wonder how compliant UK institutions are with the Disability Discrimination Act. My gut feel is that there probably aren’t that many. Will it take litigation in the UK to change that?

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