A post by Ros Walker, University of Stirling
This blog post has been based on ‘Accessible Virtual Learning Environments: Making the most of new regulations’ (All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPGAT), Sep 2018), with supplementary information and comments.
Monday 24th 2018 September saw new UK legislation called ‘The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations. This is legislation that has a direct impact on the work of learning technologists, as Universities now have to do two things:
- Meet an accessibility requirement
- Publish an accessibility statement on their websites and apps
What exactly is digital accessibility? ‘Digital accessibility is the ability of a website, mobile application or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a wide range of users, including those users who have visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities.’ (whatis.com) Those who find digital technologies hard to access may use ‘assistive software’ to help them. However, it is important that digital resources are presented in a way that enables this software to work and ‘poor digital design can make those assistive tools less effective and hinder the user’s ability to interact with digital content.‘ (whatis.com)
The Equality Act (2010) already protects disabled students from discrimination. The latest legislation originates from the EU Web Accessibility Directive (2016/2102) and makes explicit the need for digital materials from public bodies (which does include Universities) to be accessible.
This short video on Digital Accessibility from Huddersfield University explains why it is important and the implication it has for the VLE.
The video, Reimagining Accessibility (30mins) by Microsoft, gives a detailed overview of how digital accessibility can be approached.
What do we need to do?
Firstly, note that there are slightly different regulations for schools, colleges and universities. You will need to look at the areas in which your organisation needs/wants to comply with the legislation. There is an ‘opt-out’ (if something is a ‘disproportionate burden’) but you would need to be certain that this was not impacting negatively on your students.
Some of the work will need to be done at a senior level, but learning technologists are well-placed to advise on the implementation of certain strategies. (For example, could you have an organisational word template that meets accessibility criteria? How could you go about captioning your lectures? Do you have suitable screen-readers installed on all your computers?) Senior staff will need to lead on the Accessibility Statement but the requirement to meet accessibility needs is the responsibility of everyone at the university.
Your place of work may want to consider working groups to examine some of the needs and implementation, look at changes to make and consider training. There may be a need to have accessibility specialists and for a general raising of awareness. One of the biggest challenges will be ensuring that content in the VLE is accessible. With so many contributors, it only takes one inaccessible file to make a module inaccessible. Training will be a key component of this. Staff are often simply not aware of the type of software that students may be using (such as screen-readers or software for making accessible versions).
Making things accessible digitally is not hard – but you do need to understand what you have to look out for when preparing new materials. The resources below may help:
Checklist for Digital Accessibility (Doc, Huddersfield University)
Digital Accessibility Guidelines (online resources, Huddersfield University)
Birkbeck for All (online resources, Birkbeck, University of London)
Design for accessibility posters (online resources, UK Home Office on GitHub)
One of the best ways to make sure something is accessible is to make it ‘born accessible’ – get it right from the start. This is always easier and cheaper than making adjustments later.
There also needs to be a procedure for addressing non-accessible content – a way for it to be reported and then a workflow to sort out the issue – not just for that student or staff member, but so that it does not occur again. This work would largely need to be addressed jointly by service providers within the institution such as disability services, web development and IT.
Finally, it is always a good idea to model good practice yourself. Can you learn and follow the guidelines in your own documentation and communications? This is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to set a good example.
Suggestions for further study:
Digital Accessibility – FutureLearn MOOC (starts 8 October 2018) – could you have a study group based around this course?
Accessible Virtual Learning Environments: Making the most of new regulations’ (APPGAT, Sep 2018)
Getting started with accessibility and inclusion (JISC) – JISC offers a wide range of advice and also has an accessibility consultancy service.
Ros Walker is a Learning Technologist, who has recently moved to Stirling University. For the last two years, she has had a focus on digital accessibility and has worked to make staff more aware of the needs that some people have and how these can be accommodated. Ros was 2nd in the individual category in Learning Technologist of the Year (2018). @roswalker
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