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Steps to improve your institution’s digital accessibility

In pushing teaching and learning online at an unprecedented scale, COVID-19 is challenging higher (HE) and further education (FE) providers, but also presents opportunities - particularly when it comes to digital accessibility.

“The pandemic has brought the need for change into focus,”

comments Ben Watson, accessible information adviser at the University of Kent.

Marking Global Accessibility Awareness Day on 21 May 2020, Watson notes:

“The sudden move online has forced universities and colleges to address digital accessibility more quickly than they may have otherwise.”

Drew McConnell, information manager at the University of Glasgow, agrees.

“The move online caused by coronavirus means people are thinking about digital delivery and asking the right questions. Delivery, broadly, has to be much more slick than it was before, much more professionally produced.

We have an opportunity, while we’re addressing that, to include accessibility requirements for the benefit of all.”

But leaders in HE and FE face both the unforeseen challenges COVID-19 has thrown out, and some anticipated ones too. The recently-introduced digital accessibility regulations fall into the latter category.

Since September 2019, these have required that any newly-created or substantively reviewed websites and digital resources of publicly-funded organisations carry compliant accessibility statements.

Incoming regulations

However, research gathered over the past year1 shows that, in the UK, only 30.8% of universities – 41 institutions - and just 2.9% in FE – 11 colleges and sixth forms – currently have statements in place.

Phase two of the regulations will come into force in four months’ time, requiring all college websites and related systems – both new and old - to be fully compliant by 23 September 2020.

Geena Vabulas, policy manager in assistive technology at Policy Connect, comments:

“In terms of meeting digital accessibility regulations, what we’ve seen so far is patchy. Some universities are leading the way – but some are better-placed to make the adjustments than others, and overall, for colleges, it’s a lot harder to meet expectations and deadlines.”

Jisc subject specialist, Rohan Slaughter, explains the difficulties:

“While the will to improve accessibility and input assistive technology is great, IT, web and digital teams – particularly in the FE sector - are working at maximum capacity during the pandemic, and both they and over-stretched college leaders have had to respond at speed.

They’re delivering as much remote learning as possible to diverse learners, some of whom have little or no access to wifi or appropriate digital devices. And, in the rapid move from colleges to home, some students with additional support needs may not have access to the assistive technology they normally use.”  

Steps forward

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), which provides both FE and HE courses, has long since embedded accessibility in its learning and teaching strategy – partly because many of its learners live in remote and rural areas. As disability support coordinator, Mark Ross, explains:

“Our set-up requires us to be forward-thinking, because we’re spread out geographically and have a diverse community. The use of technology has always been integral to teaching, learning and student support, so we were well-equipped to respond to COVID-19 and support students in an online setting going forward.

We always work proactively to support learners with accessible content – but as every UHI student at the moment is an online student, the silver lining to this situation might be that it strengthens the case to make teaching and learning at UK institutions more accessible.”

Thankfully, technology continues to improve, and many people working within colleges and universities report a wealth of helpful resources to help them implement regulations and make changes.

Coleg Gwent webmaster, Daryl Cook, says such resources, combined with support from management, enabled his institution to achieve regulatory compliance. He says:

“Knowing that the regulations needed to be in place while we were already in the process of developing a new website certainly helped – although having a Welsh/English bilingual website required additional problem-solving. Welsh terms can be longer and cause issues with layout.”

There are positives for all, says Jisc subject specialist Kellie Mote:

“The benefits of meeting the accessibility regulations won’t just support learners with additional needs; producing accessible content improves the student experience for everyone.

Accessible content is simply well-designed content. It’s understandable, flexible and robust, meaning it can be used in different contexts and across different technologies.”

McConnell adds:

“We’re trying to move away from the idea of standards we have to meet - and a checklist we have to get through - towards the principle of inclusivity by design that’s built-in right at the start, so accessibility is automatically a key consideration in any content creation.” 

Better for everyone

Lecture capture, for example, is essential for students with specific support needs  and is also helpful for students working off-site, enabling them to take lessons at a time that suits them.

Similarly, captioning video files or using speech-to-text translations helps deaf and hard-of-hearing learners and also supports students who are studying in a noisy environment – such as those completing assignments at home while their children are off school.

Rohan Slaughter says:

“Given the disruption to normal routines we’re all currently experiencing, the relevance and usefulness of improved accessibility and well-placed assistive technology is clear.” 

Ben Watson agrees:

“These are good things for people with disabilities, but they actually make content, teaching and learning better for everybody. Ethically, digital accessibility is so important – but there’s a business case too.

If you design content to be accessible out of the box, you’re future-proofing it. It’s a joined-up, relevant approach that helps mainstream the idea of accessibility. It’s not ‘other’, it’s universally helpful and it makes everything we do that little bit richer.”

Beyond compliance: supporting all staff and students

Key steps for institutions at the start of their accessibility journey.

Audit your digital estate

The most important thing that colleges and universities can do is to audit their ‘digital estate’, identifying what improvements are needed to meet the accessibility regulations. 

Write an accessibility statement

Write a compliant accessibility statement that is both useful to disabled students and meets the new requirements. It may be helpful to consult the Government Digital Service's ample accessibility statement.

Make a plan

Make a plan to start making things better. 

It’s crucial that colleges and universities do this as there's limited grounds to claim that meeting the regulations ’is too much for an organisation to reasonably cope with’. 

Get help!

Our monthly accessibility drop-in clinics can support this work, and ASPIRE provide free resources to help librarians source accessible content.

The Digital Accessibility Working Group has a digital accessibility toolkit, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology has published an accessible virtual learning environments report, and the Government Digital Service has developed a resource pack that can be used by organisations and departments to host internal learning sessions amongst colleagues.

Our next accessibility drop-in clinic takes place on Wednesday 3 June at 14.30.  Details of  all our support can be found on our information page dedicated to helping you in meeting the accessibility regulations. GDS is running online activities on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, 21 May 2020. 

Footnotes