The University of Kent has been leading the way in designing systems and ways of presenting content to make it easily accessible to as many learners as possible.
I worked with Alistair McNaught, one of Jisc's accessibility and inclusion subject specialists, to put Jisc's sector-level guidance into practice in a living, breathing university and worked strategically to embed recommendations into normal university processes.
Here's how we did it – and how your university could too – in my top ten tips for taking a strategic approach to improving access to information for everyone.
1. Scan the horizon
Get a sense of the best practices across the sector.
The real value of our relationship has been the constant liaison, shared ideas and learning that has enabled us to seek (and achieve) far more than just the dissemination of information. Something fundamental has occurred where accessibility considerations have now permeated to nearly all key sections of the university.
With Jisc’s help, we have explored our institutional culture and adapted our approaches to achieve scalable and lasting change.
2. Build a case
Identify risks and opportunities, recognise potential efficiencies and savings.
Branding this work as the OPERA project (Opportunity, Productivity, Engagement, Reducing barriers, Achievement) was significant.
It became a university-wide accessibility project supported by advice and guidance from Jisc with a prime focus on improving opportunities for everyone. This enhanced buy-in while still having disproportionate benefits for students with disabilities.
3. Find a sponsor
Get buy-in from a senior manager with the vision and authority to ‘grease the wheels’.
I found a strong ally in our head of student services at Kent who championed the work at high levels within the institution and helped bring together a steering group.
4. Listen and learn
Find out where good practice already exists and identify pockets of expertise in different roles and departments.
Relationship building has been key – liaising with different people across every part of the university from student services to e-learning teams, procurement, libraries and academics.
Optimising accessibility isn't necessarily a great deal of work for individual departments if it is done as a whole. If everyone does their little bit, the institutional impacts can be huge.
5. Build allies
Explore synergies where you can add value to another’s work and they can add value to yours.
There were a number of projects across the university – from lecture capture and Student Success projects – that fitted really well with what I was trying to achieve and it made sense to work together.
It’s great when other people see the value accessibility brings to their own processes.
6. Assemble a team
Bring together people who can represent different views, influence different areas and share responsibilities/actions.
The OPERA steering group has been very important in representing different interests and opportunities. It has also allowed us to weave together accessibility practices so they integrate into existing systems, policies and practices.
7. Seek critique and invite improvements
Many people find change difficult and threatening...
It is crucial to listen respectfully to people who are finding change difficult. I found that asking for their opinion about how to improve practices and make things better for everyone worked well.
Expect to be misunderstood from time to time but recognise that it’s rarely personal. By being open to difficult conversations and aware of conflicts of interest it is easier to make the compromises that are sometimes necessary to move forward.
8. Be realistic
Better to make a small change soon that benefits people straight away than spend years negotiating bigger changes that thousands miss out on in the meantime.
Quite early on we incorporated Sensus Access into our processes for information delivery to enable everyone at Kent to have access to accessible file conversion technology (which gave far greater independence to people who prefer materials in alternative formats). As we explored new assistive technologies we decided to make them available to everyone through our productivity tools pages.
9. Be strategic - get the quick wins done quickly
Publicise them and monitor their impacts. Use this intelligence to keep momentum with the deeper and slower changes
Being inclusive is about offering services that work well for everyone. Kent Inclusive Practices (KIPs) offer guidance on simple but powerful mainstream adjustments to learning and teaching delivery at Kent and are informed by analysis of our most frequently requested Inclusive Learning Plan (ILP) adjustments.
Embedding these adjustments will improve the learning environment for all students, reduce the need for retrospective adjustments and lessen the reliance upon Inclusive Learning Plans (ILPs). KIPs reinforce the measures for inclusive design that the university has also incorporated into module and programme design processes.
10. Be public
Move from private adjustments for individuals to public entitlements for all – the things any student (disabled or not) should be able to expect of a 21st century institution.
Identifying a few accessibility entitlements (eg all documents should be online and accessible) can give focus and momentum to other agendas (digital capability, bring your own device, sustainability etc).
Ben Watson is the accessible information adviser at the University of Kent. Having recently moved into the sphere of inclusive information design, he is currently undertaking a project in partnership with Jisc researching and developing approaches to accessible information and technology provision at the University of Kent.