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Prioritising accessibility could boost sustainability at your institution today

As sustainability continues to be an increasing priority for education leaders, we take a look at how making learning more accessible for all can help institutions make sustainable gains.

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Accessibility and sustainability are both important issues for Jisc members and are often thought of independently as priorities in their own right when developing environmental social governance (ESG) strategy and goals.

They are rarely considered together, and there can be tensions - but mostly the two goals are complementary.

The user experience perspective

When thinking about digital teaching and learning, there are some clear advantages for both sustainability and accessibility when user experience (UX) is prioritised at the start.

Knowing for whom you are developing content and making sure it fits their needs may seem like an obvious point, but it can be easy to overlook if you are developing new content, or if deadlines are looming.

Tom Davey, senior user experience designer at Jisc said:

“Prioritising UX is so important for those developing online content. It allows us to focus on the people accessing our content every day, and how they use and gain value from the products and services we develop.

“It is particularly important from an accessibility perspective to consider that barriers to accessing content don’t lie with the individual but with the context in which they are trying to access.

“A strong focus on creating products and services that fit the needs of your audience is not just good for the individual. It can also help institutions reduce their digital carbon footprint and make positive sustainable change.”

Discounting UX can make it harder for those with accessibility needs to interact with your work. This could lead to numerous changes, updates and do-overs, all of which increase the digital carbon footprint of a piece of work (not to mention the extra time and effort needed from the developer), compared with something that is done right first time.

Making user-focused design decisions

Focusing from the start on how your audience will access and digest content will help you make decisions about how you want your products and services to look and operate.

Are all those images/videos the only way to deliver your content? And if so, can the files be compressed in a lossless way? Making web pages simpler is great for both accessibility and sustainability and can also improve web performance.

Is this colour palette appropriate for your audience? We know that certain bright and garish colours make it harder for people with visual impairments to digest content, and darker colours can have a lower carbon footprint depending on the display being used, so combining these two aspects could be a win-win for accessibility and sustainability.

Kellie Mote, accessibility subject specialist at Jisc said:

“Used well, images and videos can be helpful in supporting written content and facilitating navigation, but too much visual clutter can be confusing and make it harder for readers to get to the essential information.

“Consider whether you really need to share an hour-long video. Depending on the purpose and content, a shorter edited version, a summary handout or blog, or podcast with transcript could be more accessible and sustainable.

“Highly visual, interactive software can often look exciting and engaging, but it rarely meets accessibility standards. These tools are difficult for many users to control and perceive, and in some cases can even trigger migraines. From a sustainability perspective, these tools often use far more energy than collecting input through the chat box or a shared document.”

The benefits of decluttering

Managing content can be just as important as developing it from both an accessibility and sustainability perspective. It is important for everyone to be aware of what they are saving and sharing, and the potential impact this can have on usability, sustainability and even cost.

Cal Innes, sustainability subject specialist at Jisc said:

“Many of us are in the habit of looking at a piece of content, saying ‘that might come in handy later’ and clicking ‘save to cloud’ without giving it another thought.

“Although it’s easy to think the cloud just exists somewhere above us, the information saved there is maintained by largescale storage facilities, or data centres, that are estimated to account for 1-1.5% of global energy consumption.

“Filling up your cloud storage doesn’t just have a negative impact on your digital carbon footprint (and the cost of your storage plan). It’s also poor practice when it comes to accessibility.

“Excessive amounts of content can increase confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed for those with accessibility needs as it makes it much harder to find what they’re after. Older content is also more likely to have accessibility problems.

“Getting into the habit of purging your device and cloud storage of any unnecessary information and ensuring what you’re left with has short meaningful file names are both great steps towards improving both accessibility and sustainability.”

How can you improve accessibility and sustainability today?

  1. A user-first approach – conduct a business analysis before developing content to make sure what is being created is needed by and works for your users. By encouraging all content creators to approach work with a user-first mindset, it is easier to ensure accessibility and sustainability remain priorities throughout.
  2. Content optimisation - only saving what you need and committing to regular clear-outs to remove unnecessary information will improve both accessibility and sustainability - and could even save money on cloud storage and equipment costs in the long run.
  3. What gets measured gets managed – measuring the digital carbon footprint of the content you create can build a better understanding of what is actually needed and help you move towards net zero. There are some great digital carbon measurement tools out there; we recommend the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) streamlined energy and carbon reporting (SECR) tool, which is free to use for EAUC members.
  4. Efficiency through simplicity (keep it simple) – remember, the simpler your content, the easier it is for users to digest and interact with, and generally the smaller the digital carbon footprint.

More information

You can access the recording of the associated accessibility and sustainability clinic on our YouTube channel.

Join Jisc’s accessibility and assistive technology community of practice to help improve digital accessibility in teaching and learning.

Sign up to Jisc’s digital sustainability mailing list to receive updates and join the discussion around digital sustainability in tertiary education and research.

Register for one of Jisc’s vision for sustainable change workshops for support in developing and achieving your sustainability goals.

Join us at Digifest 2024 and visit our community hub to find out how you can get involved in one of the many Jisc communities of practice.