Tackling web accessibility: 5 tips for colleges and universities

With hybrid and online learning formats getting more attention than ever before, accessibility needs are coming to the forefront.
By: | October 23, 2020
Getty Images: SladicGetty Images: Sladic

Accessibility has been a challenge in higher ed long before COVID-19 changed education delivery for millions of students. As learning increasingly moved digital, higher education focused on how best to leverage technology for learning, and accessibility – the characteristic that offers learners of diverse abilities the opportunity to interact with their materials and engage in their learning experience – wasn’t the focus it should have been. In recent years, companies and institutions have made great strides to correct that and make accessibility a core part of the learning experience, however, the abrupt shift to distance learning made it apparent that there is still room for improvement.

Fernando Bleichmar, Cengage

Fernando Bleichmar, Cengage

With 19 percent of undergraduates in 2015–16 reporting having a disability, online learning has brought a renewed attention and a spike in requests to institutions and vendors to ensure equitable learning experiences for all students. As the understanding of the variety of learners’ capabilities, needs, and aspirations expands, so does the need for accessible web pages, web applications, images, products and platforms.

In my role overseeing the higher education business at Cengage, my team and I have invested substantially in accessibility with the goal that all products are designed with inclusivity and accessibility as a priority from the beginning. But it is not just about the monetary investment. I’ve worked with colleagues to establish an Accessibility Executive Committee to drive and prioritize initiatives, including developing accessibility guidelines for product development. The committee works with teams across the company to identify, plan and implement initiatives. To help evaluate our work and remediate any issues, we work with Perkins Access, a division of Perkins School for the Blind, to ensure our products are meeting the needs of students.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience and from working directly with institutions to support their accessibility programs. As institutions encounter accessibility challenges as learning moves online or to hybrid formats, here are a few tips for addressing those needs:

  1. Accessibility is not just a technology issue. Institutions should involve leaders from across the organization to drive accessibility efforts. At Cengage, a diverse group supports accessibility needs, including product and learning designers, editorial, creative, technology, faculty and of course, the users themselves, students.
  2. Build accessibility at the foundational level. In order for institutions to understand the complexities of creating truly accessible materials they should leverage their culture of learning to drive initiatives internally. For example, creating working groups to leverage knowledge, developing “micro-lessons” to break down complex needs (easily shareable across an L&D platform), and holding hack-a-thons to find the accessibility opportunities on your platforms. These are tactics we use at Cengage, and our Learning Center of Excellence works across all of our businesses to apply accessibility lessons learned to new and existing products.
  3. Accessibility is a long process; tackle the easiest fixes first. It’s hard not to want to do everything at once and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a great starting place and can be applied to reduce barriers and maximize learning opportunities. But institutions can make important progress by starting with easy fixes that will go a long way for end users, such as improving color contrast issues, adding captions to videos, alt text for images, and ensuring font readability and document accessibility across digital and print materials.
  4. Partners have an important role to play. While institutions need to lead the work on accessibility, partners can offer insight, feedback and validation which are all important in the process. Perkins Access is a key partner for us in reviewing products and platforms to ensure accessibility. Having a dedicated accessibility partner is helpful, but institutions need to ensure all vendors they work with are meeting the needs of their students. It’s important to provide as much information as possible to vendors and to state your exact needs, not just a broad “this needs to be accessible” statement. To get this information, go directly to those who know students’ needs best – faculty, disability services and the students themselves.
  5. Accessibility benefits all students. There are incredible benefits to accessible design for individuals of all abilities. Everything you do to support students with disabilities will inevitably help everyone in the classroom.

Fernando Bleichmar is executive vice president and general manager for U.S. Higher Education at Cengage, where he leads a cross-functional team focused on delivering affordable, quality learning for students. Bleichmar has dedicated much of his career to helping organizations successfully overcome barriers to deliver superior products and services.