Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice

Universities and Colleges in the UK are working to comply with the 2018 regulations for digital accessibility. From discussions on mailing lists and webinars, it is clear that each institution is approaching this in their own unique way. I’d presented an update on our progress on Digital Accessibility at the ALTNE forum and the Blackboard Ally UK user group online meeting in Nov 2019. It made me curious about how we were doing relative to others, how we could measure this difference and perhaps select some other great ideas out there to try. 

I decided to use Kotter’s (1996) 8-step change process to reflect on our journey. I came across Kotter’s leading change theory when I used to deliver the Learning and Skills Improvement Service’s (now defunct) eCPD programme. We used it to help the change leaders plan ahead for what they needed to do. Others in education have tried using Kotter to review changes in University settings (Penrod and Harbor, 1998, Sidorko, 2008). Applebaum et al’s (2012) review paper of the arguments for and against Kotter’s theories are an interesting read if you’d like more background to the 8-step change process (Kotter, 1996). Apart from using the 8-steps on the University of York journey, I had the opportunity to present this idea as a workshop at the Durham Blackboard User Group conference on 7 Jan 2020. I called the session Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice. Several other organisations used this framework for their reflections at my workshop, with the result that we have a starting point for us all to glimpse and compare our different approaches and learn from this.

Create sense of urgency, build powerful guiding coalition, create a vision, create buy-in, empower others and remove barriers, create quick wins, build momentum and make it stick.
Diagram of the eight-step change process based on Kotter (1996).

I’ll use quotes from Kotter’s work to explain each step and present the approach taken by the University of York as a case study. Feel free to follow along and fill in the Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice reflection form. This link is provided again at key stages in the explanation below. At the end, you will be able to see the results from other institutions and get a link to continue updating the form.

The first stage is creating a climate for change, which has the following 3 steps.

1. Create sense of urgency

This stage requires leaders and change champions.
“Getting a transformation program started requires the aggressive cooperation of many individuals.”
Don’t “underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones”.
“Make the status quo seem more dangerous than launching into the unknown.”

Kotter (2007)

Key to creating the ‘sense of urgency’ (apart from the deadlines!) was a briefing paper for the Published Information Compliance Group and the University Teaching Committee.We held briefing sessions for every university team that we could, using the established hierarchies to target them, from Boards of Studies to service owner meetings, department computing officers to administration meetings, Heads of departments and programme leaders to tutors. 

However, there are still a few areas in the University that need to feel that sense of urgency that we do. So the issue is: How to help the areas that were not within scope when we were starting out. We still don’t have a dedicated resource for this change programme, so we had to prioritise Teaching and Learning and the University web site. We’ve now been successful in a bid for a full time post (for 2 years) to work with improving the skills of students, especially disabled students, to engage with accessible documents. Some sign of impact, then!

2. Build a powerful guiding coalition

“Major renewal programs often start with just one or two people…the leadership coalition grows and grows over time. But whenever some minimum mass is not achieved early in the effort, nothing much worthwhile happens.”
“Someone needs to get these people together, help them develop a shared assessment of their company’s problems and opportunities, and create a minimum level of trust and communication.”

Kotter (2007)

We were lucky at the University of York that Richard Walker, our Programme Design and Learning Technology manager, took up the reins to bring key people together. We started with the original members of the e-accessibility forum and built up representation from various key departments including Enterprise Systems Group, IT, Marketing, Student Unions, Disability Team, Library and Archives, Inclusive Learning Steering Committee, Equality and Diversity. There is more we can do but we lit our fire under the teaching and learning areas of the University and then spread our influence. 

We meet once a term, sometimes twice. Each person takes on some action to progress the agenda in their sphere of influence and reports back at each meeting. The group reports to the Inclusivity Strategy Group, which reports directly to UTC and the PVC for TnL.

3. Create a vision

“A vision says something that helps clarify the direction in which an organization needs to move.”
“If you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not done .”

Kotter (2007)

We aligned ourselves to the University’s Inclusive Teaching, Learning and Assessment strategy. I think contributing to the achievement of a vision that is already there can win you friends (and resources). On a personal note, when I deliver Creating Accessible Documents workshops, I share my vision with colleagues: that every student will leave the uni knowing how to create accessible documents. This guides me in deciding what to focus on.

Pause and reflect on how you have created a climate for change at your institution: Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice reflection form

The next stage is engaging and enabling people. This stage has 3 steps.

4. Create buy-in

“use all existing communication channels to broadcast the vision.”
“Communication comes in both words and deeds, and the latter are often the most powerful form.”

Kotter (2007)

We used multiple communication channels and dissemination methods – blogs, wiki, newsletters, stickers and face to face meetings and workshops. We briefed several university committee meetings with a wide range of staff roles and kept a record of these. It’s quite an impressive list! We use all the staff digests and newsletters that we know of, including student channels. We ask Heads of Departments to use their department channels and away days to address the challenge. We have a wiki, several Google Groups, a blog, and our stickers are a way to bring a brand image to the campaign. There are a few Slack channels at uni that focus on digital accessibility too.
I knew that some of the key influential people might be too busy to come to a workshop so I extended an invitation to their secretaries!

5. Empower others, remove barriers

“In the first half of a transformation, no organization has the momentum, power, or time to get rid of all obstacles. But the big ones must be confronted and removed.”
“Action is essential, both to empower others and to maintain the credibility of the change effort as a whole”

Kotter (2007)

In terms of removing obstacles, e-interns were key to our strategy. We provided departments with the initial resources to make things happen and to start work. The students were trained by the central team and worked with staff to make their vle sites and documents more accessible. 

Our Creating Accessible Documents workshops are run by a team of people and at each workshop, we invite others to help deliver a segment at the next one. This helps to spread the workload and also ensures that departments and teams have someone who can help at point of need.

We also worked with IT to update software and purchase licences where needed. We encouraged department-level workshops and discipline-specific research eg maths and latex documents. Departments created their own accessibility statements, which is great for ownership and empowerment. The departments and central teams are working with ‘suppliers’ to gather their VPAT or accessibility statements. 

We are currently piloting Blackboard Ally which is a way to provide an accessibility checker and guide in the space where staff do a lot of work. The alternative formats download will also provide students with the flexibility to choose a format that works for them. 

Work in progress includes running ux workshops, rolling out a staff skills framework and handing over training to BAU (business as usual) teams. We have reviewed several templates, including Marketing and Communications team templates too. We still have some work to do with some third party suppliers to our academics, like Design and Print services.

6. Create quick wins

“Real transformation takes time, and a renewal effort risks losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate.”
“When it becomes clear to people that major change will take a long time, urgency levels can drop. Commitments to produce short-term wins help keep the urgency level up and force detailed analytical thinking that can clarify or revise visions. ”

Kotter (2007)

We reused much of the material we already had about creating accessible documents and sites, so creating the wiki was a case of pulling our disparate resources together from across university teams. This reminded people about what was already there since 2011.

We used phases of work to set short-term goals. Phase 1 was providing departments with information from audits to help them plan their work and creating the climate for change. Phase 2 was providing e-interns for departments to make a head start, so it was about removing barriers and engaging people. Phase 3 (current phase) sees the departments running their own projects with students, piloting and rolling out Blackboard Ally, running UX workshops and is more about empowerment. Looking back now, it has been helpful to identify the key aims of each phase to help us do short evaluations at each stage. 

We did quite a bit of work exploring what worked for Maths as it seems to be such a key ‘language’ used across so many departments. Coming up with our guide for creating accessible equations (  was a good win that we could provide to people to make them feel there was something they could explore on their own.

I wish we had been more careful to plan to measure from the beginning. Luckily we used so could track hits on resources. We also tracked workshops and briefings by department to see our reach across university, useful data to use for nudges (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009). I surveyed staff who had attended workshops to see what has stuck in practice. 88% of people now regular use headings to structure their documents and use descriptive hyperlinks. Our BB Ally institution report showed we’d made 20% improvement before we even turned it on. Another ‘win’ that we could report on, showing people that their efforts were already paying off.

Reflect on how you have engaged and enabled people at your institution: Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice reflection form

The final stage is implement and sustain. This stage has 2 steps.


7. Build momentum

“Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before. …They include new reengineering projects that are even bigger in scope than the initial ones.”

Kotter (2007)

Our Learning and Teaching conference in March 2020 will focus on Inclusive and Engaged Learning. This will help to maintain some momentum and also mainstream the topic of digital accessibility. There is now a structure in place to support departments but we still need a resource to help with the increased work, and we need additional student-facing resource to work more effectively in this area. Luckily the latter has been approved! We are starting to engage HR and other student information systems in the process. The ux workshops have been an amazing way to bring service owners closer to key users to build that bridge and provide even more motivation to make our systems and resources accessible. We need to collect more evidence of what has worked and this term will focus on student-run focus groups. The roll-out of Blackboard Ally will help digital accessibility to keep ‘in the news’. I’m now planning regular webinars that will include a variety of staff and students.

8. Make it stick

“Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed.”
“Two factors are particularly important in institutionalising change … The first is a conscious attempt to show people how the new approaches, behaviors, and attitudes have helped improve performance…The second factor is taking sufficient time to make sure that the next generation of top management really does personify the new approach.”

Kotter (2007)

We have created a tutorial that all staff will take once a year, much like Fire Safety. We’re still in the process of discussing how we make this happen with HR. We are launching a staff digital skills framework at the University as updating IT skills are key. We will continue to run the Creating Accessible Documents workshops and supplement with regular webinars and forums. We have community groups to enable more self-help. We will monitor the impact of what we are doing and keep communicating progress. We will work on gathering stories and sharing these to make the effects of digital accessibility work obvious to all.

Part of making it stick will be using an Appreciative approach (Cooperider and Whitney, 2005) and ensuring we’re sensitive to people’s mental health and well-being as we ask them to move through a big change in their practice.

Reflect on how you will implement and sustain change at your institution: Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice reflection form


Overall, Kotter (1996) provides a useful framework to stimulate and review actions, and to help us be aware of challenges to come. I’m aware that the ‘corporate’ language and examples used in the literature may be off-putting to an academic audience. Kotter also suggests using external influences to create a sense of urgency but makes no mention of how an organisation could cooperate with others to accelerate change. Certainly, cooperating with others through the mailing lists (DigitalAccessibilityRegulations, Cabinet Office Accessibility Community) and regular webinars run by JISC and AbilityNet (view Richard Walker’s session) has been influential in the progress we’ve made at the university.

I hope you find the ideas from this post useful for evaluating your own work at your institutions. Feel free to get in touch to exchange ideas:


  • Appelbaum, S.H., Habashy, S., Malo, J. & Shafiq, H. (2012). Back to the future: revisiting Kotter’s 1996 change model.
  • Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Kotter, J. (2007). Leading change – Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 85(1), 96.
  • Penrod, J. I. (1998). Building a client‐focused IT organization. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 15(3), 91–102.
  • Sidorko, P. E. (2008). Transforming library and higher education support services: can change models help? Library Management, 29(4/5), 307–318.

See also:

One response to “Shifting Digital Accessibility Practice

  1. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – February 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

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