Being on a campus that generally identifies as an open and welcoming space, it can be easy for dominant narratives to paper over cracks in inclusivity. One of the areas that can easily be looked over is accessibility. Broadly speaking, accessibility can be understood to be design specifically for people with disabilities. And at the UW, the provisions made for and gaps left in accessibility efforts make for an interesting case study, especially when it comes to the design of coursework.
Though access to physical materials is a separate and important issue, there’s no denying the fact that most coursework done today is done online. The spread of technology in education has meant that the use of a computer is an inescapable facet of student life today. In light of this, the UW provides several resources and guidelines in the form of an IT Accessibility Policy and IT Accessibility Guidelines. Broadly, the policies follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Level AA founded by Tim-Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
Some of the policies at the granular level are quite enlightening. For instance, a Microsoft Word document must have headings using the built-in heading features so a screen reader can identify them. Similarly, lists should be created using the list tool instead of typing the list out. And alternate text should be provided for images with “just enough text to communicate the idea without burdening the user with unnecessary detail.”
However, it’s this granularity that leads to a level of ignorance among instructors regarding accessibility. Despite the fact that the UW has a massive number of accessibility researchers on board (more than ten between the iSchool,the computer science and engineering department, and the human centered design engineering department alone), the general rarity of accessibility requests from students means that instructors usually learn “on the job” when requests actually come in.
“UW faculty are generally unaware of accessibility needs until a student requests accommodations, and students rarely request accommodations,” Andy Ko, associate professor and program chair of informatics at the iSchool, said. “Once faculty receive such a request, there are actually quite a large number of services to help them develop accommodations, and so they learn quickly.”
Adding to his point, Ko mentioned that he only received his first accessibility request after 10 years this quarter.
So with the nature of requests received, combined with the ignorance among the general populace about accessibility, the university defaults to being reactive to disability design rather than proactive. In general then, a student with a disability has to first register with the Disability Resources of Students (DRS), which then provides individualized accommodations.
On the proactive side, the university also has several progressive accommodations that follow the principle of “universal design.” It’s defined by the National Disability Authority (NDA) of Ireland as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”
A good example of universal design is tactile paving. It’s the textured, yellow, sloping surface you see when stepping off the edge of a curb. It works for people of all abilities, including people without disabilities, people on motorized wheelchairs, blind people with canes, and even bicyclists.
Accessible Technology Services (ATS) at the UW works in this area, and promulgates accessibility all across the campus proactively. However, general ignorance among faculty and the rarity of requests means that the IT Accessibility Guidelines, while encouraged, are followed only to a limited extent. Every quarter, tens of thousands of documents are uploaded to Canvas, most of which are PDFs, a notoriously inaccessible document format.
“Very few of these documents are created with accessibility in mind because people don’t even realize there is a right and wrong way to create PDFs,” said Terrill Thompson, technology accessibility specialist at the ATS. “So our strategy is to do everything we can to educate content authors so they understand how to create accessible content. ”
This is a problem because some students may not feel comfortable acknowledging their disabilities because of cultural attitudes, leading to them falling behind in academic performance.
The trouble doesn’t stop there. Even if the university ensures that all its documentation, websites, and IT resources follow the principles of universal design, the average UW student accesses thousands of resources outside the UW’s jurisdiction as part of their learning experience. For instance, there is a lot of third-party content available through UW libraries, and ATS has to work to ensure that UW procures content accessible to everybody.
“Procurement plays a key role in accessibility,” Thompson said. “One of the biggest issues that everyone faces is that we rely on third-party IT. In many cases the university purchases it.”
He also says that the ATS works with the UW to ensure that any third-party contract has accessibility built into it.
The ATS maintains a plan on its website promising to promote accessibility as part of the faculty’s workflow, create Learning Technology workshops, and incorporate more accessibility content into courses.
On the last point, the iSchool has been working towards building accessibility into its curriculum to ensure that students learn about accessibility from the bottom up. Ko says that multiple classes have begun to teach web accessibility standards, with at least one lecture dedicated to accessibility.
So it’s clear that on the whole, the UW is doing some work to ensure accessibility across campus. The ATS proactively works to ensure course content is accessible, the DTS ensures that individual accommodations are made given the vast kaleidoscope of disability, and several classes are incorporating accessibility into their syllabi, ensuring that students come out aware of the needs of people with disabilities.
On the same coin, much work needs to be done to ensure that gaps in existing content are plugged. But the reach of accessibility goes beyond just people with disabilities. Looking at accessibility through the universal design lens, the case can be made that accessibility is good for all users.
For instance, Gaby De Jongh, IT accessibility specialist for ATS, previously told The Daily that text-to-voice software not only helps the visually impaired, but also foreign language speakers, who can better understand descriptive English through text-to-voice.
So will there ever be a time when the UW can claim to have 100 percent accessible content in courses? It seems quite unlikely, but it can be stated that we are generally headed in the right direction.
Reach columnist Arunabh Satpathy at email@example.com. Twitter: @sarunabh