Accessibility according to the institution
Electronic accessibility has strong legal implications for educational institutions, the most notable legislation we are required to comply with in the U.S. being the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and state and local laws. These laws guarantee equal access to educational opportunity, so students with disabilities are speaking up and demanding that educational institutions provide them with accessible technologies. These laws are enforced with authority by the Offices for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education, and public sector institutions are being held accountable through official complaints and lawsuits.
Framing the discussion
Due to this legal black cloud of OCR Complaints, professionals in higher education might be tempted to view accessibility as a checklist of 1) what you need to do keep from getting an OCR Complaint or 2) what you need to do to resolve an existing OCR Complaint. That OCR checklist includes critical items, such as captioning videos, making websites and documents accessible, procuring accessible hardware and software, etc. The checklist is helpful, but the peril to seeing accessibility only in terms of this list is that we may fail to reap the full benefits that embracing accessibility brings to the culture of our campuses, benefits that I believe are deeply tied to innovation and opportunity. And with that checklist way of thinking, people invariably start thinking short cuts, with excuses like “There’s no time right now,” or “We don’t have funding for that,” or “I don’t have a student with a disability in my class,” or worst yet, “If I just quit providing my course content electronically, then none of this pertains to me, right?”
So it’s helpful if we shift our approach to accessibility away from the purely legal compliance checklist way of thinking and instead frame our thinking around civil rights. When we look at accessibility as a civil right, resistance from the campus community goes down and we start asking some very different questions. “How can we make sure that all individuals on our campus have full access to an education that is empowering and transformative? “How could our campus environment be a more socially just place for everyone to work and learn?” When we start asking deeper questions, then we are better able to embrace the spirit of accessibility and the principles of universal design for learning where diversity and the diverse learning needs of all learners are respected and in play.
Developing a policy
For the University of Montana and many other educational institutions, defining an accessibility policy is a major first response to the legal and social realities. In 2012, the University of Montana formed an Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Task Force that began writing our Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Policy. This policy now provides campus with clear guidance and direction. Writing the policy helped us solidify our thinking and allowed all stakeholders on campus to speak up about what we thought were both important and lofty ideals, but also what we thought was reasonable and do-able. I think we managed to include both “lofty” and “reasonable” within the reach of our policy and raise the bar for our campus, emphasizing throughout that accessibility is a “shared campus responsibility,” not just the business of IT or of the Office of Disability Services for Students.
Educating the campus community
Educating the entire campus community about accessibility is another important step in the accessibility journey and our general message has been that if you design your content to be accessible to students with disabilities, your content will provide a better learning experience for all students. Training is really key to building deeper awareness in your organization and that takes ongoing time and effort. Our larger cross-campus team has worked to provide trainings on many different topics and in a variety of formats – some trainings are face-to-face, some are online, and then there are just-in-time resources for everyone’s access.
At first, there was a tendency to see accessibility as a new initiative so in our trainings, we tied accessibility to things that were already in place, like our institution’s mission and vision statements. For UM, our core values center around leadership, engagement, diversity, and sustainability and we wanted people to understand that accessibility is deeply tied to each of these values. Connecting accessibility to fundamental principles that already exists on your campus is key. Accessibility is never a new topic.
Developing strong partnerships, both internally across campus and externally beyond campus, is another important step in the accessibility journey. For UMOnline, networking with other institutions around the nation accelerated our adoption processes and helped us learn from the efforts of others. We also established working collaborations with key vendors, such as Blackboard and its products Blackboard Collaborate and Moodlerooms. These types of collaborations allow educators, assistive technology users, and instructional designers out in the field to test with product developers and improve both the accessibility and the usability of key systems.
As a result of this type of vendor/client collaboration, the University of Montana and Moodlerooms worked together in 2013 to create the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group, an international group formed to improve the accessibility of the larger open source learning management system, Moodle. This collaboration continues and now includes individuals and universities around the world in ongoing accessibility efforts.
Building an accessibility initiative can seem like a daunting task, so it’s important not to be paralyzed by the overall goal. There will always be new technologies and new challenges, but it’s important to get started. Embracing accessibility can create many exciting opportunities for your institution and it’s well worth the effort.
*Marlene Zentz serves as Senior Instructional Designer and Accessiblity Specialist for UMOnline at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.
*Photos by: AFP Tommy Martino
 CAST. About Universal Design For Learning. From: http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.V-qkFJN97BJ
 University Of Montana. ETA Implementation plan. From: http://www.umt.edu/accessibility/implementation/default.php
 Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group. From: http://collaborate.athenpro.org/group/moodle/