Why Accommodation will never get us where we need to go: Shared responsibility for ensuring usability is vital for technology in education

Technology is absolutely core to education today, but unfortunately, for a majority of student affairs professionals, the accessibility related aspects of that technology use remain an untapped potential. We are using technology…a lot…but we are also running the risk of missing the mark when we choose to use technology without recognizing the degree to which we can be creating or mitigating barriers in the process.

Our recent Survey of Technology Usage in Student Affairs, found that of the 315 individuals who responded, 99.5% reported no use of accessibility related tech tools. This is, or should be, shocking.  And clearly, from a scan of the guidance coming from the Department of Justice, it will need to change.

For those who haven’t seen it, take a look at exhibit 1 from the recent Louisiana Tech settlement which requires the school to ensure that “all technology, including websites, instructional materials and online courses, and other electronic and information technology for use by students or prospective students, is accessible.”  

Luckily, we don’t have to guess at what “accessible” means, because the Department of Education’s agreement with the South Carolina Technical College System in March 2013 already laid it out, stating  that “‘Accessible’ means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.”

What’s interesting is that this isn’t actually a new requirement. We have been obligated to ensure our programs as a whole are accessible under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It’s just that in the past, colleges and universities were able to designate Disability Services as the area responsible for handling accommodation, and business could proceed as usual.

Now, our educational delivery approaches have shifted substantially, such that many of us are providing access to critical services and learning opportunities through web based offerings that are available 24/7.  Given that accessible means equally effective and equally integrated, it becomes clear that we can no longer rely on the accommodation process alone. It simply won’t work. If we wait until users encounter barriers and report the problem, by the time Disability Services can come up with a retrofit, it is already too late. The truth is that if it is online, it needs to be built right to start.

The good news is that meeting this challenge can actually help us reach our institutional goals. The accessibility features that make tech work for people who experience disability also tend to make tech work better for all of us.  For example, when we add subtitle tracks to multimedia content, we are providing information that is needed by individuals who are Deaf, but it also becomes possible to translate the text into another language, or use the interactive transcript to search for a key word. Accessibility features aren’t just helpful for those with disabilities; they are helpful for a wide range of users, and the fact that so many of us in Student Affairs aren’t using them as part of standard business presents a tremendous opportunity.

Projects like GOALS – Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-Study can serve as really helpful frameworks for institutions that are ready to shift practice from a model in which Disability Services is expected to address all disability related student needs, to a model in which accessibility is understood to be a shared responsibility.

The exciting part is that as Student Affairs professionals we have the potential to help lead the way. We can advocate for the policies, training, and resource alignment necessary to truly meet student needs. When we choose to do so, when we choose to view accessibility as part of our business, not just the business of Disability Services, we help to ensure our institutions are better able to innovate with technology in ways that minimize the risk of creating barriers for the student we are intending to serve.

Kaela Parks is Disability Services Director at Portland Community College. She has developed and taught an accessible multimedia service learning course and can be reached at kaela.parks@gmail.com

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