Global Accessibility Awareness day (GAAD) – 20 May 2021

To celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021 which is on 20th May, we have been reflecting on the past year during which our teaching moved online and the majority of our staff transitioned to working from home. To adapt to these changes, there has been a need to improve the accessibility of our online systems and create new guidance. So what have we been doing at the University of York?

The actions that we have taken should be seen as part of an ongoing journey towards establishing an assistive technology enabled culture within our institution.  The driver for this is not simply about meeting our legal requirements as a pubic institution, but is also informed by our inclusive learning, teaching and assessment policy. Our institution has a long-standing commitment to digital inclusion and a proactive stance towards accessibility provision, pre-dating the current Covid 19 context, and is about ensuring that whole learning experience and the means of delivery are accessible, removing barriers and anticipates and considers a variety of learning needs and preferences.

Progress over the past year has been most visible with the development of online resources, such as a dedicated digital accessibility webpage with specific guidance information to staff made available on the e-accessibility working group page.  There have also been further developments in institutional policy to clarify what staff need to do,  with a statement on captioning and guidance on using Zoom and Google Meet for online meetings and online lectures, setting the expectation that auto captioning will be enabled by the meeting host at the start of each meeting. The University has recognised the workload implications for staff in reviewing captioning and making corrections by establishing a central captioning fund, to which departments can bid for resources to cover some of this work.

We recognise that policy changes and guidance are not sufficient to effect changes in digital practice, and consequently a strong focus has been placed on developing training and support provision to help colleagues to develop their confidence and an awareness of accessibility issues. All staff are now required to complete our mandatory digital accessibility tutorial, which addresses the rationale for digital accessibility and the key steps that need to be taken. Following on from this, they are able to choose from a range of training opportunities, such as a dedicated workshop on creating accessible documents. Colleagues who have attended this workshop are then invited to monthly accessible document meet-ups, where they can bring along something that they have worked on and receive hints and tips on how to improve the accessibility of the target resource.  One thing that we have learned from these experience-sharing sessions is that the natural instinct is to be ‘sight-centric’ in our approach to accessibility; we try to describe the visuals that we are using rather than the information we are trying to get across. Once we suggest to people to imagine they are creating a podcast about the subject, it frees them up to create the most appropriate narrative text, instead of feeling constrained by visuals and alt text. 

We have also undertaken our own user-research with staff and students to get a better grasp of some of the changes that need to be made. Lilian Soon’s report on the student experience of digital accessibility has been particularly insightful in this respect, highlighting a number of areas for action:

  • Lockdown teaching forced many departments to create more consistent layouts on the VLE, although there is still some way to go on some practices like consistent reading list use. 
  • Our next task is bringing all our guidance and advice to students under one umbrella of the Skills Guides so students can search for the resources they need. 
  • To promote better digital skills, we produced ‘Game Changing tips’ for departments to add to their student newsletters. We use quotes from the students to signpost skills guides they might not already be aware of. 

We also recognise students as key stakeholders and partners in the cultural changes that we are promoting and have attempted to involve them in a range of initiatives. This has included the launch of a digital accessibility student champions scheme, giving students the opportunity to lead the way on topics they were most interested in. Our question “What would happen if students designed their own accessibility project?” has had far reaching consequences which we’ve summarised in an article for the upcoming Forum magazine. If you’d like to promote the opportunity to students, please send them the Terms of reference for Digital Accessibility Student Champions. We have hired a maths intern to conduct more research into creating accessible mathematical materials from LaTeX and R Markdown. 

  • We are turning our accessible equations primer into a website with templates that have guidance on accessibility built into them. See accessible equations website.
  • We have also enabled staff to install Pandoc (used for converting documents from one format to another) on managed machines.

Looking to the immediate future, there are a number of exciting initiatives planned, including a second user experience research project with disabled students. In our first user research workshop we invited representatives from a wide rage of university teams, including Library systems, HR systems, student system teams, IT and Finance to get involved with the UX work. We’re now working with programmers and business analysts as well as teaching and learning staff. As one of the outputs from the first UX project, we’ve had our first article on user research with disabled students published in ALISS. We are gathering student stories to share on our website, with our first story by Arnold describing how he works with his dyslexia.

This is just a snapshot of some of the work that we have doing to promote accessible practices. Global Accessibility Awareness Day represents a good opportunity to look back on the progress that we have achieved so far, and the journey ahead.  There is still much to do, but what has been noticeable is how visible accessibility issues are now within our institution and part of the everyday conversation around our digital practice. This represents a strong foundation to build on for the future.

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