Making real progress in digital accessibility in higher education

We were delighted to see the University of Colorado at Boulder recently announce the appointment of a Chief Digital Accessibility Officer, and also announce recruitment for an IT Accessibility Manager. The TPGi UX team has been working with CU-Boulder for the past few months to help them create a roadmap and strategy towards a culture and practice of excellence in digital accessibility, and we’re really excited to see their thoughtfulness, enthusiasm and determination in taking such a progressive approach, documented on their Accessible Technology web site.

Equal access to education, for people with disabilities is a fundamental human right. We know that technology has a huge opportunity to widen access to learning and enrich the learning experience; and, yet, we also know that it can inadvertently introduce new barriers.

But implementing a workable and effective accessibility strategy in higher education has a number of complex challenges, including the unique mix of organizational, academic, financial and legal drivers that can make it difficult to create a coherent and sustainable campus-wide policy. The tension between academic standards, desire for innovation and excellence, and perceived restrictions that accessibility requirements might bring has always been close to the surface—most recently in discussions over the need for and predicted implications of the draft TEACH Act (see comments from Educause and from NCDAE/WebAIM as examples of different views).

Here in the TPGi UX team, many years of experience working in higher education have given us insight into some of the practical challenges that committed and enthusiastic advocates of digital accessibility who work in a university can’t address on their own. It’s also given us a passion to help higher education institutions come together to assess their current state, identify challenges and opportunities, and chart a route to a culture and practice of digital accessibility.

We need to recognize these challenges that exist and are not easy to overcome, particularly where institutionalized practices or limitations of existing technology make digital accessibility hard to deliver effectively. We also need to identify and harness the enthusiasm, skills, and power that exists in copious quantities in every higher education institution that can help to make sure that accessibility is an influencing factor in creating, procuring and using technology in all aspects of a university’s operation.

We’re on the cusp of a new era of inclusive, technology-enhanced learning experiences, and TPGi is really excited to be part of it. That’s why we have such a strong commitment to work with educational organisations to help them deliver the highest quality and most inclusive online learning experiences.

Update, 9 June 2015

We recently heard the good news that the Department of Justice has closed their inquiry into CU-Boulder’s digital accessibility practice, which is validation of the efforts the university has made to improve their capacity and strategy for delivering an accessible and inclusive online campus. We know that CU-Boulder will be the first to recognise that progress will be gradual, and that not everything can be fixed immediately. However the value of a clear strategy, strong leadership, a shared responsibility, and staff with enthusiasm, knowledge and skills, will give the university a terrific platform to build a sustainable approach to digital accessibility, and we congratulate CU-Boulder on their efforts.

Categories: Development

About David Sloan

David Sloan is a Principal Accessibility Engineer and Strategy and Research Lead at TPGi. He joined the company in 2013, after nearly 14 years as an accessibility researcher, consultant and instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland.