July 18, 2024

‘Forget the rhetoric’:12 steps towards digital accessibility

Author: vix.reeve@jisc.ac.uk
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The latest wave of accessibility regulations came in on 23 September, yet many universities and colleges are still on a journey towards compliance. 

Here, Drew McConnell and David Anderson from the University of Glasgow, and Olive Oliver from Hertford Regional College, share their tips for a smooth, successful transition.

1. Recognise that accessible content is better for all

Olive Oliver

“Compliance with these regulations doesn’t only support people with disabilities,”

explains Olive Oliver, associate director at Hertfordshire Region College (HRC),

“it makes content more accessible for everybody.”

Drew McConnell

Drew McConnell, information officer at the University of Glasgow, notes:

“Digital accessibility is about inclusion. It’s about considering the structure of your content, the use of colour, meaningful links, headers on tables, alternative text on images.”

2. Don’t see compliance as a box-checking exercise

“Think about what the regulations mean and highlight best practice so you can embed accessibility in the structure of your institution,”

Drew advises.

“We did our best to talk about a change in attitude towards accessibility, rather than about technical compliance.”

David Anderson

David Anderson, Glasgow’s director of business relationship management and chair of the university’s Digital Accessibility Working Group, goes further:

“In improving content and improving accessibility, compliance with the legislation was almost a happy accident.”

3. Management buy-in is key

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful in making our content more accessible is that the changes were taken very seriously at the highest levels of the university,”

says Drew.

At HRC, Olive led the charge herself.

“I sit on SLT and report directly to the principal. I was able to show them that this needs to be rolled out across the college.”

4. Consider your approach

Different institutions have different structures and needs. Glasgow set up two working groups, David explains:

“There’s a technical view on what technology can do to ensure we’re meeting the regulations, and an academic approach, ensuring that pedagogy fits with the requirements. We kept those conversations separate initially, then brought them together later. That enabled us to improve the service offering.”

5. Recognise that this is a long-term project

David notes that Glasgow’s journey started before the pandemic and is still ongoing.

“It has been an iterative approach, from identifying the systems that were required, to working through what the regulations mean and how to implement them.”

6. See the bigger picture

While there is an understandable focus on student-facing digital content, providing accessible material is the overarching aim. David says:

“Our external relations and social media teams have embraced digital accessibility. As a matter of course, all updates to the university’s social platforms have closed captions or image tags, and they have produced guidance for staff and students using social media channels. This requires time and effort, but the benefits are undeniable”.

7. Assign responsibility

Olive notes:

“It’s also incorrect to see this work as an extension to the disabilities and SEN remit. It’s actually a wider matter for the whole college, so the main person responsible for overseeing and implementing the regulations needs to be in a position to escalate it up the chain of command.”

Drew says institutions will need to continually monitor their accessibility statements.

“Someone will need to oversee that, so there needs to be ownership.”

8. Start with what you have

What can your university or college achieve with the systems already in place? The University of Glasgow uses Moodle. Drew says:

“This year, we implemented Blackboard Ally on our VLE, it’s helped enormously. It allows the lecturer or teacher to check the accessibility of the documentation. It tells them how to fix things – so it’s taken a lot of the difficulty out of this. It also tells them why they need to make these changes, so there’s an educational component.”

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Staff at HRC use Microsoft.

“There are accessibility tools on there, so we’re working with what they know, giving them templates to make their lives easier and make content more accessible,”

says Olive. In Word and Teams, for example,

“there’s accessibility built in. We’re using what we’ve already got; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”

She also tried out new software.

“I used WAVE to find out what we needed to address on our website.”

9. Seize the moment

COVID restrictions led to a change in approach to tech.

“In lockdown, our staff had to get online – and 99% of them did an excellent job,”

Olive notes.

“This is the time to support them as they take the next step forward – so we’re giving them PowerPoint templates and guidance on accessibility criteria. They’ve gone through so much change recently, and that’s given them confidence.”

10. Make accessibility ‘business as usual’

Digital accessibility should be prioritised as much as physical accessibility, says David. Therefore, at Glasgow,

“with any new software purchase or platform, it has to be accessible before we proceed.”

Additionally,

“over the last eight months, support for academic staff has been almost entirely digital. As we move into a more blended future, the requirement for support, training and upskilling to produce digital content will be key. We need to embed accessibility within that in day-to-day practice.”

11. Take your staff with you

Drew acknowledges that this work may be viewed as an extra burden.

“Academics have tremendous workloads. If we’re adding to that, we need to win hearts and minds. That’s why our language hasn’t been around compliance, it’s been about inclusion.”

David highlights practical support:

“We held briefing sessions for staff, along with online guidance.” And when the university pivoted to online in March, “we made sure that digital accessibility was part of that process, not an aside.

Olive says:

“The next stage for us is to ask staff to consider their approach to content. That’s where the big learning curve is going to be, and where we need to support staff with the skillset and resources to create content differently. Making that change may take time, and we are beginning to embed it within staff CPD and with one-to-ones with our e-learning technicians.”

12. Put students at the heart of change

“This is a great opportunity to make content more exciting,”

Olive concludes.

“Going forward, we want staff and leaders to see the benefits of making their content not just more accessible but more engaging for all.”

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