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A policy driven approach to IT accessibilityLast month, IT accessibility leaders from several states presented a policy-driven model as another approach toward evaluating vendor bids and the level of accessibility in those information technology products.

Rather than emphasizing technical standards, the presenters identified major areas and key criteria related to accessibility by which to assess a vendor’s commitment and capability to producing accessible information technology products. While intended as guidance for vendors, these same topic areas and criteria offer a policy-driven approach to accessibility that may be used by colleges and districts in measuring institutional practices in support of IT accessibility.

As outlined by the presenters, the major topic areas that vendors should consider for adopting a policy-driven approach to accessibility includes: Policy Creation; Organization; Business Process; Compliance Planning; Training; and Communication. These same major topics overlap with identifiable key areas by which to improve IT accessibility within our own education environments beyond simply following technical standards. Incorporating governance of IT accessibility into an organization, whether vendor or education, can spur outcomes that exceed minimal requirements and satisfy the needs of a diverse campus community.

Policy Creation

Institutional policies can establish institutional expectations and provide guidelines for faculty, staff and administration. Policies related to IT accessibility may involve a college or district’s business and fiscal affairs and/or general institutional board policies. These board policies may then be supported by administrative procedures that provide additional details or clarification of such policies.

For example, a general institutional board policy for IT accessibility may state it will comply with applicable state laws (e.g., California Government Code 11135) as well as ensure access to information and applications for all members of the campus community. Administrative procedures may then expand on relevant technical standards that could apply to campus websites, procurement of IT products and services, etc., in support of the policy. Creating an institutional policy specific to IT accessibility is a foundational step toward defining the responsibilities expected of the college and representatives.

Organization

In addition to having policy and defining administrative procedures, an organizational structure that supports accessibility across the college is essential. One outcome of recent accessibility lawsuits and settlement agreements is the expectation to have a defined role responsible for IT accessibility at the institution. This responsibility may fall to a college’s chief technical officer, chief information systems officer, or director of IT services. Regardless of the exact title, an executive champion can provide the leadership necessary toward implementing broader institutional goals for IT accessibility and advocate for the resources necessary in support of faculty, staff and administrative change.

Business Process & Compliance Planning

While policy statements and organizational structure provide an executive approach, it is decisions within the business processes and compliance planning that have direct impact as to the degree of accessibility for IT solutions at the institution. Internal processes that allow for the continual purchase of IT products and systems that lack accessibility support will result in a continually inaccessible IT environment regardless of policy or administrative oversight.

Changing business and decision-making processes to evaluate and assess the degree to which IT solutions meet accessibility expectations is a significant factor toward improving IT accessibility institutionally. Furthermore, it is necessary to identify current IT solutions that may not meet accessibility requirements and implement alternate solutions until a more accessible version may be realized. A successful approach changes the manner in which IT products are developed and procured as well as identifies alternate access strategies for inaccessible IT solutions with a plan and timeline for such barrier removal.

Training

Institutions vary in their business processes and informing faculty and staff of changes to purchasing procedures is essential to meeting IT accessibility goals. Additionally, technology applications and products evolve, continually providing new opportunities to engage students and the campus community. Recognizing where there are gaps in current training opportunities allows institutions to plan accordingly and to include accessibility information in those topic areas.

For example, a college moving to a new learning management system should include orientation and education regarding the accessibility features of the new system. Not including such accessibility information as part of faculty training can have negative outcomes for students with disabilities attempting to interact with such online environments, and may result in extensive compliance planning to address shortcomings. Training and professional development opportunities for faculty and staff on internal business processes and accessibility best practices are critical for long-term success, both for students and the institution.

Communication

Feedback and communication from the campus community or the public can aid in identifying where IT accessibility solutions may be lacking and require greater attention. While most colleges have some type of mechanism to receive feedback or comments via the website, there is often a lack of information or clarity as to how an individual would report an IT-related accessibility barrier.

Additionally, once such feedback is provided, there can be confusion as to who is responsible for addressing the IT-related accessibility barriers. Waiting days or weeks to decide how to respond can result in significant ramifications, particularly if such feedback originated from a student trying to register online for classes or purchase course materials from the bookstore’s website.

Institutions should provide mechanisms both for members of the campus and members of the public to report IT access barriers regardless of whether such issues exist on the college website or within those applications used internally at the college. Institutions should also define a plan for investigating reported issues along with a strategy for responding to complaints in a timely manner.

In a policy-driven model for IT accessibility, it is important to note that the aforementioned major topics are not intended as a simple checklist. Rather, the topics and core criteria are reflective of a model by which educational institutions should evaluate progress continually and, as appropriate, initiate change so as to realize greater inclusion by individuals with disabilities.

Further details and examples of a policy-driven approach as outlined by the presenters are available through the resources listed below. Creating an accessible IT environment is a necessity for our technology-rich colleges, and requires participation and commitment from the entire campus community.

Additional Resources


Sean Keegan is Director of the California Community Colleges Accessibility Center