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Why mobile apps must be accessible and inclusive

New guidelines can support universities and colleges as they design fully accessible mobile phone apps that benefit all students.

Universities and colleges have come a long way in their journey towards delivering accessible content.

Following a period of transition, institutions have worked hard to meet the required accessibility regulations for website materials. The next step for all public sector organisations is to deliver on their legal duty to ensure mobile apps are accessible - and that challenge looms large.

Consideration and support

Mobile apps come within scope of public sector accessibility regulations from 21 June this year. The implications of this new requirement need careful consideration, says Chris Heathcote, product manager for the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO, Government Digital Service) - which is why he’s leading a live clinic on 12 May, which has been jointly organised by Jisc and CDDO.

Heathcote hopes to support institutions as they bring in guidelines for creating accessible apps. He explains:

"Just as institutions test their websites across many browsers, they should test mobile apps with different accessibility settings to check they function correctly.”

Piers Wilkinson, student voice commissioner on the Disabled Students’ Commission, agrees: “I use the accessibility functions on my mobile, so I know from experience that, when an app meets the new guidelines, it enables mobile operating systems to work as intended. If apps are not compliant, it can require Herculean effort on my part to utilise in-built functions to adequately support my usage and understanding.”

Partially accessible apps aren’t much better, says Wilkinson:

“They often cause anxiety. You end up in a cycle of ‘is it me or the app or the phone?’. It would make a huge difference if designers could support app developers to understand how accessibility functions work, and enable developers to test their app before launching. The onus shouldn’t be on disabled people to figure these things out or complain.”

Taking responsibility

Many universities and colleges have staff who are already familiar with the steps involved in auditing their digital estate for accessibility and making a plan to fix problems.

Heathcote says additional support is available too.

"We’ve published a guide on how to carry out basic accessibility checks, on top of using automated tools such as Ally or Axe.”

It is anticipated that the approach to auditing mobile apps will involve more manual testing, rather than automated tools, and this will require teams to keep their skills sharp.

Wilkinson adds that accessibility should be an integral part of any software procurement process, to ensure that both institutions and staff are confident in using automated tools.

"Including accessibility standards in conversations with software developers is an incredibly important step. It can support uptake of inclusive design and reduce adjustment support for disabled staff and students.”

Within each university or college, Bethany Winkler, student experience manager at Edinburgh College, says responsibility for accessibility compliance should sit with a member of the senior leadership team:

“Whether you work in further education (FE) or higher education (HE), gaining support from above can be difficult. I recommend writing a paper as this means concerns about accessibility are more likely to be heard and considered. Also, the accessibility community is a great support for anyone working in the tertiary education sector, providing guidance and recommendations on all aspects of accessibility compliance. That can be a really good starting point if you do not know what your next step should be.”

Embedding accessibility training

Without the required support – and sometimes even with it - the truth is, accessibility is often an afterthought. It should be ‘built in’ to all students’ learning experiences, says Megan Hector, policy and research manager at Policy Connect:

“There should be an expectation that staff make all their work and resources accessible, and it would be really positive if teaching courses included training on how to do this, for people working at any level of the education system.”

Students could benefit from greater awareness too, Hector adds: “What if part of studying in further or higher education was about learning how to make your essays and presentations accessible? This is a valuable skill to carry through to the world of work.”

Wilkinson agrees:

“We need to embed the skills of creating accessible materials right through education. This is the answer to building a sustainable future for inclusion - and the education sector would be remiss if it failed to deliver such skills development for graduate employment.”

Culture change

Culture change is needed, Wilkinson adds, to build inclusive systems that work for all learners.

“We need to break the culture that silos adjustments into disability services and support,”

he says.

“Many of the adjustments commonly seen on personal learning support plans for disabled students are just good pedagogical techniques for inclusive learning, from providing lecture slides ahead of lectures to glossaries of key terms. Similarly, a disabled student and an international student may both face a language barrier that could be overcome with the same pedagogical change, yet one has to seek support for disability services and the other the international office."

Wilkinson goes on to recommend that universities and colleges pivot away from a diagnostic focus for support towards a barrier-based conversation, explaining,

“knowing my diagnosis as a wheelchair user is unnecessary when the conversation is essentially that I need step-free access."

The power of artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) developments can further support personalised teaching systems, says Kellie Mote, Jisc’s subject specialist in accessibility and assistive technology.

“AI underpins speech recognition technology. I think we will see software becoming more accurate, and that it will be able to recognise more diverse speech patterns over time.”

AI presents other opportunities to remove barriers, Mote adds:

“For example, Jisc recently supported a knowledge exchange project with researchers from the Open University to share experiences using an AI-powered virtual assistant as an alternative to form-filling. Working with educators across the country, the project explored potential benefits, and enabled participants to reflect on what is needed to get these tools working effectively. We know that administrative burden is a particular barrier for disabled students, so using AI to remove this obstacle is an example of using tech for good.”

Seeking to develop a portfolio of tested, trusted AI tools to recommend to universities and colleges, Jisc’s new national centre for AI in tertiary education will support the use of ethical AI for teaching and learning.

Looking to the future

There’s much to be positive about as universities and colleges continue to improve the accessibility of their digital materials. As Winkler concludes:

“A positive byproduct of the pandemic is that online learning has incorporated some reasonable adjustments, such as recorded lectures. It has also highlighted a number of digital inequalities, which have required a response at a national level. I hope the insights gained during the past 12 months will result in institutions’ greater and continued awareness of the gaps that exist within accessibility, thus demonstrating a strong need for inclusive design, sector-wide".

This article has been developed to address audience questions following a panel debate ‘What’s next for accessibility and inclusion? Getting it right for students’, that took place at Jisc’s Digifest event on 11 March 2021. Registration for the Jisc/GDS live clinic on 12 May, sharing guidelines for creating accessible apps, is now open. The next public sector accessibility regulations deadline is 23 June 2021.