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University students are expected to know how to use technology fluently when they start classes. In fact, a lot of the information they get before they show up to their first day is emailed to them. Classes are selected online, in what I personally found to be a nerve-racking process of refreshing web pages and praying courses weren’t full. Payment can be completed online as tuition and financial aid forms are now being digitized.

Then, once students arrive on campus, they’re expected to know how to use the internet to do research, coordinate with their peers, and correspond with their professors. Some people see these digital advancements in higher education as helpful, but to others it’s a barrier. Disabled students interact with technology differently, and it might not be so simple for them to adapt to this digital trend that universities have become so fond of using.

Please Hold While I Search for the “Send” Button

Here’s a story to illustrate my point. When I found out my retinas had detached due to lattice degeneration it was winter break between my first and second semester of graduate school. I had surgery on my right eye, and decided to return for classes while my eye healed. The surgeon didn’t recommend operating on my left eye and right eye simultaneously because my quality of life would drop significantly. Since I was just playing a really stressful waiting game until my next surgery, I figured school would be a good distraction.

Well, my surgery failed during a night class and suddenly the professor’s handwriting on the board was covered by a black curtain. My right retina detached again. I had to have emergency surgery the next morning and at that point I had to face the music and dropout of school. I was expected to pay for those weeks of class because I’d missed the cutoff period by a few days. That amounted to a fair bit of money that I now owed which was adding to my stress.

One day, I was on the phone with the financial people discussing the situation when they asked if I could email them something. I still remember the feeling in my gut when I had to politely answer that question, knowing I would get my mother to do the emailing for me. What part of I just had surgery because I’m going blind didn’t the person understand? No, I can’t just email it to you. If I could, then I’d be in class. But my world is a blurry green mess and that’s why we are on the phone in the first place. I was livid.

EDUCAUSE Gets It

Higher education is a wonderful concept where students can learn anything and everything and find their place in the world. With this freedom should come inclusion so that everyone can have the opportunity to feel so limitless.

One of the best ways to help promote this sense of exploration is to make sure digital content is accessible to students, and that’s where EDUCAUSE comes in. If you run in higher education circles, then you may have heard of them. According to the EDUCAUSE website, “EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology.” While they don’t just deal with accessibility and technology, it is one of their focal points.

It’s good to know that this organization exists, because if you’re going to pursue higher education then you need to be able to focus on learning more about your field. You don’t need to spend countless hours just trying to navigate the technical expectations that everyone else takes for granted. Believe me, I know.

Understand Your Risks

To ensure that they’re properly covering the issue, the organization established and internal committee called the IT Accessibility Constituent Group. If you’re interested in getting a peek into the discussions the group is having, they even have a public archive of their conversations regarding IT accessibility in higher education.

If you’re considering how to make your digital content more accessible to students, then the group has the perfect summary document to get you started. The IT Accessibility Risk Statements and Evidence paper is one of the easiest to read and most comprehensive documents I’ve seen regarding accessibility. It clearly lays out just what issues IT leaders need to consider, why they could be problems, and then gives an abundance of supporting links to help make the case.

Yes, I’m pretty much gushing about a document, but it’s really nice to find such a clear and logical path to accessibility risks. Also, having the legal precedent attached to each risk is a really helpful inclusion. Often, IT managers will need to make a case for implementing the recommended changes, and it’s nice to be able to point to specific legal issues other schools have encountered when they didn’t comply.

Get Informed

This issue isn’t going away, and it really shouldn’t. Universal design should be a foundational principle in any university’s IT program. Ensuring accessibility is about more than just avoiding lawsuits (although that’s a good reason too). The EDUCAUSE Committee makes a good case for accessibility in IT in their paper EDUCAUSE 7 Things You Should Know About IT Accessibility, “

As IT has become more pervasive in higher education, the responsibility for ensuring accessibility is moving from disability services offices to IT groups, who are beginning to understand the inadequacies and inefficiencies in retroactively adding accessibility fixes onto inaccessible products. This results in a greater focus on universal design…”

While disability groups are very helpful to students, students shouldn’t have to constantly need to adapt their education to suit their needs. Instead, technology can provide them with everything they need from the outset. Learning more about what you can do to make your institution’s digital content more inclusive will keep you from scrambling to make updates later or alienating students who are just trying to learn.

The EDUCAUSE Accessibility Wiki post is a good place to start looking for ways to make your content more accessible. They reference WCAG 2.0 guidelines, so head over to our post on the topic to learn about the standards and rules. EDUCAUSE’s Wiki gives you a good idea of what issues your students might have when using digital content.

For example, have you ever considered that a blind student might not be able to understand tables in a Word document? In order to solve this problem, you need to convert Word documents into HTML format. This format change will give the text-to-speech function the markup details it needs to properly convey to a student that the text is in a table, instead of communicating it as an illogical mashup of words.

For other great tidbits on how to help your students focus on learning and not on overcoming the digital barriers, you can go to the Microsoft Disability Desk and learn about how they recommend using their products to be more inclusive.

It’s About Learning

Making education inclusive is critical to giving your students the best learning environment possible. I didn’t start out graduate school disabled, but I ended it visually impaired. I appreciated the efforts my university made to make my learning experience less challenging (despite that one financial situation) and I wrote a post about the benefits of accessibility accommodations in universities to prove it.

Cultivating a positive learning environment means helping students to focus on learning and not the modifications they need to start learning.

Any students out there who require accessibility accommodations? What do you recommend that schools do to help make digital content work for you? Let us know in the comments below!