Higher Ed Institutions Are Enhancing Accessibility with a Variety of Tech Tools

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This article was written by Erin Brereton on May 23, 2024 and published by EdTech Magazine.

Technological tools, ranging from text-to-speech apps to audio-enhancing receivers, are being used more and more by schools to make content readily available to students with hearing and vision loss.

The move to remote learning in recent years has emphasized the importance of creating inclusive learning environments, which has always been a challenging endeavor, says Jason Warner, associate CIO for academic technology services at Southern Methodist University.

“In higher ed, we know that most faculty feel ill-equipped to provide important student accommodations,” Warner says. “Fortunately, technology can help faculty eliminate many tough accessibility barriers. You don’t have to be an expert on accessibility because tools such as your learning management system can show you what a mostly to fully accessible course should look like.”

Universities Could Augment Current Accessibility Measures

As the Department of Education and Department of Justice jointly noted in a May 2023 letter, two federal laws — the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act — require postsecondary institutions’ online and other services to be accessible to people with disabilities.

While the majority of institutions (82 percent) have digital accessibility policies in place, more than two-thirds (68 percent) say their school has faced at least one legal or governmental challenge related to digital accessibility, according to an EDUCAUSE survey.

The survey notes that accessibility training is available to staff members at 70 percent of higher ed institutions and to faculty at 72 percent. Participation at most schools, though, is optional. Only a few survey respondents said accessibility training is mandatory for their staff and faculty.

Offering programs with a manageable time obligation and user-friendly structure may encourage university members to take advantage of them.

The chunked format used in the campuswide 10-day accessibility challenge that the State University of New York at Oswego introduced in 2021 has been well received, according to Rebecca Mushtare, associate dean of graduate studies.

Participants receive daily guidance on a digital accessibility topic — such as how to choose colors to improve readability — which they can review as their schedule allows.

“That served as a more fun way of delivering the information and getting people to upskill without a huge time commitment,” Mushtare says. “We’ve had good participation among faculty, staff, administrators and students, who have reported they want to do this in part because it’s good for their professional development and future careers.”

Institutions May Be Able to Tap into Internal Accessibility Resources

At last year’s EDUCAUSE Conference, Warner and Jennifer Culver, SMU’s director of online production services and senior academic technology director, challenged attendees to find tools to enhance digital accessibility in their sphere.

“Schools do not always have to purchase expensive hardware or software to improve course accessibility,” Culver says. “Many of the tools we already own and use can strengthen accessibility at the push of a button.”

Adobe Acrobat products and Microsoft tools such as Outlook and PowerPoint, for example, contain functionality that will check documents for accessibility components, such as a format and headings that will allow someone using a screen reader to easily navigate them.

“Microsoft and Adobe have worked to create accessibility checkers that not as many people as you might think know about,” Warner says. “Some very popular tools that people are familiar with can check accessibility and walk people through how to make those documents a bit more accessible.”

Apple device users can employ Safari’s built-in screen reader capabilities; the browser element provides an audio version of the text on a page.

READ MORE: Jill Bateman makes online accessibility a priority at Ohio University.

According to Richard Allegra, director of information and outreach for the Association on Higher Education And Disability and the National Center for College Students with Disabilities, a number of videoconferencing and viewing services offer captioning tools. The disability resource centers that coordinate accessibility needs at some institutions have helped increase awareness of these tools in recent years, Allegra says.

“They have done a lot of work with instructors on their campuses to make them aware. If they’re using videos from third-party sources, those things should be captioned, and if instructors are creating videos, they should be aware of captioning as well,” Allegra says. “The piece we’re seeing now is automated captioning. The quality has improved quite a bit, even in the past year.”

Accessibility Aspects Can Also Help Classmates and Faculty Connect

Instructors in the Department of Information and Computing Studies within the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf have found that the Microsoft Translator app’s real-time transcription capabilities, in addition to converting lectures to another language, can support both understanding and engagement in class.

Ed Lucas, who provides audible and sign language instruction in the courses he teaches at RIT, relies on the technology to convey information to students who use a variety of communication methods, such as solely signing or articulating their thoughts vocally.

“Before I began using automatic speech recognition, a lot of times I was trying to go between modes,” Lucas says. “Now, when I use the ASR, I find a lot of students are glancing at the board to make sure that they understand what I said. I’m getting better understanding; they’re not asking me for clarification as often.”

Lecturer Walter Bubie’s comments are projected onto a large Microsoft Surface Hub screen. The Jabra microphones used in class are sensitive enough to also pick up students’ spoken comments — a valuable contribution, Bubie says.

“It’s not just us, as instructors, communicating with the students individually,” he says. “To facilitate a fair discussion among the group, there has to be all kinds of ways to make sure the communication is smooth.”

The available educational accessibility options have come a long way since he began teaching at RIT in 1977, Mark Reynolds says.

“We didn’t have voice recognition, cellphones or display screens,” Reynolds says. “Our resources were chalkboards and overhead projectors.”

Warner anticipates further technological changes will occur at colleges and universities. He hopes more instructors will start to view the digital accessibility features in solutions they use on a daily basis as something that can increase both their personal efficacy and the overall scope of accessibility at their school.

“IT units are in a unique position not just to advance the networking or ­enterprise resource planning and ­payment systems but also to be the agents of digital change,” Warner says. “We must cultivate awareness that creating accessible content is more ­possible than ever before.”

Positioning Institutions For Success with Accessibility Initiatives

To achieve institutionwide implementation of digital accessibility best practices, getting endorsement from university leaders is critical, says Eudora Struble, director of technology accessibility at Wake Forest University, who also serves as the co-chair of EDUCAUSE’s IT Accessibility Community Group.

“Leadership buy-in can promote accessibility as a commitment across the broad range of university functions and roles, ensure policies and commitments evolve as needed, and advocate for the vital support staff and resources to maintain effective training and resources,” Struble says.

On campuses that have a disability resource center to oversee accessibility accommodations, officials may find a collaborative approach helps, says Allegra.

“In some of the best situations I’ve seen, the disability resource centers will work with the teaching and learning centers or instructional designers to get the word out to instructors,” he says. “The instructional designers are often the best advocates because they’re great go-betweens. They speak the language of the faculty.”