The vintage years for accessibility
There are vintage years for wine and there are vintage years for disability rights.
1995 was a vintage year, with the Disability Discrimination Act.
1999 was another with the publication of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) v1.
2010 was next – the Equality Act.
But one thing remained stubbornly immoveable – equality of access to online content. As online resources mushroomed over the subsequent decade, the proportion of inaccessible content also mushroomed. Despite the theoretical right to accessible content, there were some significant issues:
- few students knew what to ask for,
- few teaching staff knew how to create it,
- many content-creation tools had inaccessible or partially accessible outputs,
- few tools were available to help non specialists review the accessibility of created resources,
- the legislation was clear that organisations should make reasonable adjustments, but it was entirely subjective as to what was reasonable to expect.
That is why the true vintage year for disability rights was 2020, the year when the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations came fully into force for websites and digital platforms. For the first time in over 20 years the term “reasonable adjustments” was linked to objective measurable criteria - meeting the 50 checkpoints of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (2.1) at level AA. And for the first time ever, the paradigm shifted. It was no longer a disabled person’s responsibility to identify and report accessibility barriers in the hope that they may be fixed. The legislation required all public sector organisations to create an accessibility statement that flipped the responsibilities. The organisation needed to know what their accessibility successes and failures were, communicate them transparently and explain what they were doing about them.
The urgency and importance of these changes was underlined by the global pandemic. When all teaching is online, unnecessary barriers become quickly apparent.
Who is responsible for what?
For most organisations, the pivot to teaching online was a significant challenge involving a whole organisation focus. Despite the legal imperative for accessible digital content, many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) were at different stages of their accessibility journey.
For some, lockdown meant digital accessibility was put on the backburner. For others, it was the catalyst that made online learning more effective. For disabled learners, the litmus test was how they could negotiate the different layers of the e-learning onion. The e-learning onion is a handy way of showing how accessibility is dependent on the practices of many people. VLE manager may be responsible for site design templates. A course leader may be responsible for page design. An individual lecturer may create the page content and downloadable files like documents or presentations. Library choices may influence whether the e-books and digital journals attached to the course are accessible or not. If any person in this chain lacks the ability to create barrier-free resources, a disabled student will be disadvantaged.
But the good news is that very few people in an organisation need to know the 50 checkpoints of the WCAG guidelines. You only need the appropriate good practices for the media and formats you work in - and in most cases these can be applied easily with modest training requirements. What is more, significant benefits for inclusion is good pedagogical practice - the way learning is scaffolded, and students are engaged with appropriate and varied activities. For many neuro diverse students, the personalisation, interactivity, and collaboration that digital learning allows is as important as the content being technically accessible. It is easy to make a technically compliant online course that is so pedagogically dull as to create barriers for anyone but the most competent and motivated students.
Figure 1 - the onion of accessibility
Whether you emerge from lockdown with accessibility more embedded than ever, or further behind than ever, the important thing is to build on the experiences you developed. Here are some suggestions for how to sustain accessible digital learning:
1. Don’t ditch digital.
Even semi-accessible digital learning is more accessible to most disabled learners than traditional lecture and handouts. When you return to face-to-face teaching, exploit the inclusion benefits of digital content and activities to scaffold, support and engage. If you need bite sized inspiration and training, look at the ETF Enhance programme for free 5-minute training modules.
2. Focus on your sphere of influence.
You don't need to be a disability expert or understand the WCAG guidelines. You just need to know what good accessibility looks like within your role. Do you create handouts? Presentations? Videos? Webpages? Whichever it is, find out what simple practices will minimise barriers. A simple starting point for documents is the SCULPT model.
3. Agitate upwards.
Meeting the technical guidelines will not make you an inclusive organisation. The guidelines are important building blocks but building blocks can build ugly buildings too. Accessibility maturity is about moving beyond standards to ownership (where everyone has the skill and knowledge to create inclusive learning experiences) and partnership (where disabled people are part of the creative synergy driving up standards). This requires whole organisation culture change and will reflect in policies, quality assurance and even job descriptions. The Accessibility Maturity Model for Education and the associated training courses are a good starting point to explore your institution’s accessibility readiness.
4. Talk to others.
Talk to students. Do they know how to benefit? Your efforts will have been wasted if students don't know how to exploit the productivity benefits of accessible content.
Talk to others. Nobody is an expert in all aspects of accessibility, but you don't need to be an expert. Just grow your expertise by talking to others, swapping ideas and tips.
About the Author
Alistair McNaught spent 20 years as a mainstream teacher committed to developing student skills and independent learning. This led to early adoption of e-learning which in turn paved the way for an abiding interest in making teaching and learning content more accessible to more students. Alistair spent 10 years as a senior advisor for TechDis – a national advisory service for technology and disability – followed by 4 years as an accessibility specialist for Jisc before setting up Alistair McNaught Consultancy Ltd. He was one of the earliest members of the Publishers Association Accessibility Action Group and has worked for over ten years to help suppliers, librarians, disabled students and assistive technologists understand one another.