The following special topic paper originally appeared in the publication Pursuing Regulatory Compliance for Digital Instruction in Response to Covid-19: Policy Playbook, which was published by the Every Learner Everywhere Network and develop and edited by WCET. The Playbook gives background on several regulations, resources to understand them, and recommendations on how to comply.
Today, we are featuring the special topic on Accessibility written by Cyndi Rowland, Director, WebAIM, National Center on Disability and Access to Education, Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. This is the final post in our overview of the Policy Playbook and accompanying special topic papers. We invite you to read the other posts in this series.
Thank you to Cyndi for providing this excellent primer on digital accessibility which suggests a structure for accessibility work, reviews accessibility models, and analyzes recent Office of Civil Rights resolutions.
Van Davis, WCET
It is clear that digital accessibility is here to stay. It is the smart and right thing to do. It is also the law. Moreover, it is clear that retrofitting digital materials as an accommodation or engaging in after-the-fact fixes are problematic. This approach leaves the individual with a disability in a position where they must engage in serial complaining to get access. It also leaves the institution vulnerable to legal complaints because the institution has an affirmative obligation to plan in advance.
Most of us are aware that the COVID-19 crisis underscored our digital vulnerability where accessibility was concerned. It increased institutional pressure to provide programs and services that were all, or mostly, online which simultaneously increased the pressure to have those programs and services accessible. Let’s be honest. For many, accessibility was an afterthought which made the necessary post-hoc fixes challenging, or even impossible. In this internet culture of instant access, we can and must do better to provide programs and services that are accessible to all our students, faculy, and staff. This includes those with disabilities. The best way to make sure you are not running behind the beast of inadequate, intractable, or impossible accessibility fixes is to make sure your digital footprint is ready for all. For most, this system change effort involves a multi-year determination to transform the enterprise and make all elements of the institution’s digital architecture inclusive.
Structure Your Accessibility Work
It should not be a surprise as an administrator if you have been asked to oversee, or launch, accessibility at your institution. If you have, you may benefit from structure to support the work. There are several different models of institutional accessibility that are there to help you. I will briefly describe three of them. There is, of course, a fourth way you could organize your work. You could look to fulfil the minimum legal requirements that were outlined by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) as a consequence of a Resolution Agreement created after a complaint. It is my hope that one of these approaches will resonate with you and provide you the scaffold you need to begin your leadership of the institution’s accessibility journey.
Strategic Models to Consider
The good news is that there are several roadmaps available to leadership. In each instance, these models are based on the concept of continuous improvement over several years. While you will need to make some immediate changes to provide access now, it is vital that your work fits into the larger, more long-term process that must be accomplished by the institution. Ultimately, the work will need to be system-wide if accessibility will be achieved. No matter the model that is used, administrators should ensure that they apply an enterprise-wide approach to both attain–and sustain–accessibility across the institution. Failure to realize and address contributions made by the entire system, will doom long term accessibility efforts.
There are three frameworks for institutional accessibility currently being used in the field that are particularly useful for institutions to consider. They are useful because each was created for an educational ecosystem. Each, addresses change at the level of the enterprise, rather than at the level of a website or a unit (e.g., Department or College). Moreover, each considers elements that are beyond mere accessibility such as communication plans or the culture of the institution. These frameworks are: (1) Indicators for Institutional Web Accessibility, (2) Accessible Technology Initiative, and (3) The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.
The Indicators for Institutional Web Accessibility (NCDAE)
First is a framework called Indicators for Institutional Web Accessibility, (NCDAE 2016), developed by the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) under U.S. Department of Education funding. The NCDAE gathered best practices in web accessibility system reform in higher education then put them into a helpful structure. The document is organized around 4 indicators of recommended practice to achieve system wide web accessibility. They are: (1) Institutional vision and leadership commitment, (2) Planning and implementation, (3) Resources and support, and (4) Assessment. Each indicator contains benchmarks for the specific indicator, and each benchmark contains statements of evidence that can be considered. This provides users with a very basic roadmap they can use or adapt as they work toward institutional web accessibility. This document, along with a Blueprint for Institutions and an online benchmarking and planning tool, have been used by over 200 institutions (see resource section below for this blueprint).
The Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI)
Second, the Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) from the California State University (CSU) system took the NCDAE Indicators framework and built on it (Pruitt, C. personal communication 2010). They did so to make some elements of the NCDAE framework more explicit. The result was an accessibility maturity model they use across all 23 campuses of the CSU system. The benefit of a maturity model is that it requires that you achieve foundational work before you are faced with more sophisticated work. For example, you may attack campus wide procurement across 5 different levels, only attempting the next level as the previous level is achieved. The benefit here may be the ability of a campus to focus effort at a detailed level. The ATI framework contains 25 goals and 150+ success indicators with levels that help each campus identify where they need to put effort. Accessing the full model can be done by contacting ati.calstate.edu (“Accessible technology initiative”, n.d.).
National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (NCAEM)
The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (NCAEM) has worked predominantly in the K-12 space. However, it recently broadened their K-12 quality indicators to work in a higher education context. NCAEM published a resource for higher education that focuses on 7 quality indicators, along with critical components for each indicator (“Higher education critical components” n.d.). Those indicators are:
- a coordinated system for the provision of appropriate high-quality materials and technologies,
- acquisition and provision of appropriate accessible materials and technologies in a timely manner,
- written guidelines related to effective and efficient acquisition, provision, and use of accessible materials and technologies,
- comprehensive learning opportunities and technical assistance that address all aspects of the need, selection, acquisition, and use of accessible materials and technologies,
- systematic data collection process to monitor and evaluate,
- use of the data collected to guide changes that support continuous improvement, and
- allocation of resources sufficient to ensure the delivery and sustainability of quality services.
The intent is that, by following these indicators, an institution’s efforts would result in accessible educational materials and technologies. This approach is much less granular than the ATI or NCDAE, yet may be viewed as putting more focus on delivering accessible instructional materials to students with disabilities.
Selecting a Framework
Because system change is highly individualized work for any institution, it is best to review each framework to see which may be the best match for institutional culture, and working style. The frameworks have been used by both large and small institutions. They have also been used by institutions new, and not-so-new to web accessibility. No matter the framework used, the work is most effective with someone shepherding the institution through their journey. Try to avoid multiple changes in leadership during this endeavor. Also, realize that you will (or should) have the backing of a strong and influential committee to help frame and execute your work overtime (see the resource section below for the NCDAE Study Team recommendations). Reviewing the gestalt of each framework will be an important task as you make your selection. Moreover, you may find that you want to create a hybrid framework of your own, selecting the best that each has to offer as you see areas that are a match to your own unique ecosystem.
A highly decentralized campus would not do well with suggestions that are highly centralized. An institution who has a majority of technical personnel at their disposal may chose a model that just would not work for an institution where most content is created, and loaded, by faculty and staff.
There is a benefit in selecting a framework into which you can grow over time. As such, there are no right or wrong choices for institutions who are just beginning or have already made some actions in this area. The best selection is one that will work with the particulars of your institution.
Selecting OCR as Your Framework
As was mentioned before, another way to consider a structure for your work is to look at the components that have been requested of institutions by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) during resolutions of accessibility disputes. It may be helpful for you to understand the context of an OCR complaint, and the resulting components found in many Resolution Letters. I discuss these in greater detail below.
OCR Resolution Letters
When a complaint is elevated to the level of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), they investigate. Then they offer a resolution for the complaint. This has happened both after a determination of noncompliance is made as well as prior to the conclusion of the investigation; settlement discussions often result in a facilitated resolution between the parties. When the Department of Education resolves the issue (with or without a finding of legal noncompliance) they will often do so through letters that bind the institution to specific work. The work is outlined in a Resolution Agreement Letter. The actions in the Resolution Agreement are then monitored for compliance. When that happens, much is on the line for an institution. An institutional failure to comply with OCR could place federal funding at risk as well as the ability of students to use federal financial assistance at the institution.
While being under the watchful eye of OCR for a civil rights dispute can be viewed as a PR nightmare, advocacy groups also watch closely. Litigation could come to those who do not perform their obligation under the law when called on the carpet to do so. Also, once an institution has been made aware of how inaccessibility issues create civil rights issues, a future litigant could ask for material damages. This is because the institution had knowledge of their illegal action and chose to not perform.
With all of that said, there may be utility in looking at the common components that have been requested by the Department of Education during the OCR dispute process. Certainly there is no harm in structuring your work around what it is that they ask of others. Of course, if you are not under a resolution agreement, you are not going to be monitored by OCR.
At the end of 2017, I wrote a blog on those components that were common in most digital accessibility OCR resolution letters for WCET Frontiers (Rowland, 2017). In it I shared a content analysis on OCR resolution letters addressing web accessibility. The actions that each institution needed to perform were the result of complaints made primarily because students did not have equivalent access to their instructional materials (e.g., curriculum, labs, texts, library holdings, assessments) and institutional processes (e.g., registration, housing, financial aid, employment). There is a decided focus on making the entire system accessible, and not merely the few pages where a complaint had been lodged.
Content Analysis Results
Based on the content analysis of 2017 institutions were required to:
- Designate a person to coordinate IT accessibility,
- Define a policy specific to IT accessibility,
- Provide a public link to an accessibility page and describe the process for submitting complaints and feedback,
- Develop a plan for new content (i.e., what will you do differently to make sure inaccessibility does not result in the future),
- Develop a corrective action plan (i.e., what will you do with your current inaccessible digital footprint),
- Define a process for evaluating accessibility as part of procurement,
- Perform a technology audit on accessibility,
- Specifically seek out feedback from those with disabilities,
- Provide training to individuals consistent with their role as they create digital materials or web pages.
New Case Processing Manual from OCR
In Spring of 2018, OCR unveiled their new Case Processing Manual which changed several complaint mechanisms, likely resulting in fewer overall complaints. OCR also dismissed other complaints that were in the pipeline consistent with their new process manual. Constituents in the advocacy community took the DeVos Education Administration to court, and in November of 2018 the Department of Education amended the Case Processing Manual (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2018) to eliminate the offending provision. They then reopened all complaints that had previously been closed, as directed investigations.
The new manual resulted in changes to many resolution letters. These letters are public and can be accessed in an Ed.gov portal (Office for Civil Rights, n.d.) Just as there had been a consistency in the previous resolution letters, there are now fairly predictable components across new letters in which institutions are asked to comply.
Below are descriptions of the five elements that comprise most higher education resolution agreements with OCR. A careful reader will probably note that they ask for nearly the same components as before, but they have grouped them differently, which provides a different structure:
- Online content and functionality. Institutions are asked to develop and take substantial steps to implement a strategy to enact an accessible web (content and functionality). Of course, the language is much more nuanced. It stresses that the institution should ensure equal opportunity for those with disabilities to participate in “programs and services” that are online. They mention that both existing and new content need to be addressed. While they do not require a coordinator be appointed as they had in the past, any system wide effort would certainly want to do this. They do mention that a standard needs to be identified during this step (e.g., the Web Content Accessibility Standard 2.1 AA from the Worldwide Web Consortium) that fleshes out that all material that is published, developed, procured, or used should meet the identified standards. They also mention here a provision that allows an institution to provide equally effective alternate access (EEAA) if direct access is not possible (which is quite rare). When EEAA is used, that means that the institution knows that they have a technology that is not accessible. During the brief period where they seek a solution, the EEAA allows them to use their plan for a modification or accommodation such that if a student with a disability needed to use that specific technology, the student would receive the educational benefits in an “equally effective” manner. Failing to have an EEAA plan at the ready could contribute to a discrimination complaint since it is the affirmative obligation of an institution to plan in advance of the needs of students with disabilities. EEAA is one strategy many institutions are using while they bridge the old inaccessible content to the new accessible content they will soon have. This becomes important especially for large procurements where an institution may be in a contract for another 2 years before they can require accessibility of a platform they currently use (e.g., their LMS, registration, employment, or financial systems). In this section, OCR provides examples of what a strategy might look like. Fundamentally, EEAA is a way to set priorities for the work of the institution. For example, an institution might determine that it should begin with the accessibility of templates or its most frequently used pages. Finally, OCR states that this work shouldn’t take more than 12 months.
- Accessible alert process. Within a month, an institution should create an accessible way for users to notify the institution that they are having problems with the accessibility of online content. Of course, an institution should remember that they should not wait to make content accessible. A notification provides ongoing feedback.
- Undue burden and fundamental alteration. In this provision, institutions are notified that if any of this work fundamentally alters the nature of a program or service, or if it is considered an undue burden, they can contact OCR (in writing) to get a determination establishing if a waiver may be possible for some of the work. In my experience this almost never happens and should not be considered for any but the most extreme circumstances.
- Technical assistance. OCR wants each institution to know that to the extent practical, they can provide technical assistance if desired by the institution. They do provide a reminder that the timelines covered under this agreement cannot be altered by the availability of technical assistance.
- Reporting Provision. The institution is given a date by which they must submit a report on how they have responded to each of the elements in the agreement. It is typically about a year.
While inaccessible digital content has been around since the inception of the internet, and programs have been available to help higher education since the mid 90’s, the era of COVID-19 has revealed an even greater vulnerability. With so many online (students, faculties, and staff), it should not surprise us that inaccessible content and technologies would bubble to the top. This phenomenon is discriminatory and it needs to stop. Now it is time for all of higher education to act.
It is important to remember that actions you take to avoid federal nondiscrimination laws will necessarily be the floor of your efforts. Strive to engage in best practice, inclusive practice. Strive to the spirit, not just the letter of the law. Doing so will help all your students achieve their very best. Doing so will help your institutional reputation and student outcomes which we all know are our currency.
Reviewing frameworks will help you structure what will be a multi-year system change effort. This step is important. You will find that those described above are more similar than dissimilar. To select the one that will be best for you will require that you pay careful attention to the ways in which they harmonize with the culture of your institution. Don’t be afraid to create a hybrid approach. Make sure you do not do this alone. While you may be given the leadership for the change initiative, it will be a committee that together will help shape the institution and make lasting change.
It is hoped that by providing several models for system-wide web accessibility, an administrator can locate one that will be a good match for the culture, size, and uniqueness of the institution. In so doing, set forth on a path to transform the digital footprint to one that can be accessed by all.
Suggested Resources and References
- California State University Office of the Chancellor (n.d.). Accessible Technology Initiative Web Accessibility Evaluation. (link)
- National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (n.d.). Higher Education Critical Components of the Quality Indicators for the Provision of Accessible Educational Materials and Accessible Technologies. (link)
- NCDAE (2012). The Institution’s Web Accessibility Study Team. (link)
- NCDAE (2013). GOALS Blueprint for Institutional Web Accessibility. (link)
- NCDAE (2016). Indicators for Institutional Web Accessibility. (link)
- Office for Civil Rights (n.d.). Office for Civil Rights Recent Resolution Search. (link)
- Rowland, C. (2017). Steps you can take now to address accessibility at your institution. WCET Frontiers. (link)
- U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2018). Case Processing Manual. (link)