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COVID-19 Intensifies Need to Tackle Digital Accessibility

More learning content than ever before has migrated online, bringing accessibility concerns to the forefront. Here's how higher ed institutions are making progress toward equitable access.

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The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) won a landmark settlement with Harvard University last November, requiring the institution to make its website and online resources accessible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, through quality captioning. This news is symptomatic of a larger trend we're seeing across industries: a 181 percent increase in digital accessibility lawsuits, a clear sign that persons with disabilities are no longer willing to tolerate being unable to access websites, mobile sites and apps.

Accessibility lawsuits in education are not new. However, with colleges and universities undertaking their own digital transformations (moving more content and services online), lawsuits targeted at equitable access to physical facilities (like bathrooms) have logically expanded to digital offerings for students relying on assistive technologies to access them. The current COVID-19 crisis is likely to exacerbate this, as more learning content than ever before has migrated online in these unprecedented times. Persons with disabilities will demand nothing less than completely equitable access, particularly when it comes to their safety. While many higher ed institutions still have much to do for their accessibility initiatives, there have been many promising developments:

Higher ed institutions (public and private) are adopting a more commercial, business-like approach. Colleges and universities are establishing an accessibility baseline for their digital properties by making adjustments (such as captioning for the deaf and descriptive alt text to accompany images for the blind) and measuring progress based on metrics. Smart monitoring for accessibility includes measuring compliance with the internationally accepted accessibility guidelines (WCAG), accessibility issue ticket resolution rates, and metrics for customer support relating to accessibility. In some instances, institutions are working with digital accessibility experts; however, new developments such as guided tools (like axe Pro) and open source rules libraries (like axe-core) are empowering non-experts to make accessibility improvements on their own.

Universities are more proactively carving out budgetary resources for digital accessibility.With digital lawsuits capturing headlines — organizations ranging from Beyoncé to Domino's Pizza to Harvard being recently in the spotlight — there's a growing awareness of the substantial risks involved in inaccessibility and how it is much more cost-effective to address accessibility early and often in the software lifecycle, rather than in post-production. According to an IBM study, the cost of fixing a defect in production can be as much as 30 times more than addressing it in the design or development phase — and that doesn't even include the potential legal costs.

Third-party technology providers understand the importance of being fully on board. Most organizations rely on third-party technology partners as parts of their systems. A number of third-party solution providers in the education space demonstrate strong support for digital accessibility. Organizations like this know that if they aren't accessible, then they aren't competitive and, as a result, they're prioritizing accessibility as much as performance and security. This is vital because, from a compliance perspective, higher ed institutions are responsible for ensuring all third-party elements integrated into their sites are accessible. Before you make a purchase, protect your institution by verifying that the third-party software you are buying is actually accessible.

It's encouraging that universities are paying more attention to digital accessibility, because these demands apply to far more than the web. Just as accessibility complaints against higher ed institutions have evolved in nature over time, we see accessibility demands extending to digital devices and other cutting-edge instructional technologies being introduced in the classroom. Common teaching tools like attendance clickers, videoconferencing and virtual resource sharing are growing in popularity, yet may be inaccessible to many people with disabilities. Furthermore, it's not just students who will demand full accessibility, but also employees.

Everyone deserves equal access to education, and as more educational content goes online — amplified by the current COVID-19 crisis — K-12 districts up to public and private universities must stay focused on digital accessibility. It is emerging across industries as a key human rights issue, and it only takes one person for a university to endure a potentially costly legal hit or reputational damage. While today's higher education institutions have the right mindset and are starting to embrace the right tools, there is still much work to be done in order to make higher ed accessible to all.

About the Author

Glenda Sims is Team A11Y (Accessibility) lead for Deque Systems.

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