By Dr. Ahrash N. Bissell
In education, there is widespread agreement that finding a way to maximize accessibility is critical for any implementation, yet it remains challenging to define expectations for all parties. At The NROC Project, a nonprofit organization building courses and tools that support college and career readiness, we found that it was both dissatisfying and problematic to think about accessibility requirements as a regulatory burden. As such, we have refined our approach to accessibility and established three core principles to guide our efforts. We make no claim to have originated these ideas, but we think they may be useful to other organizations and institutions in a similar place.
1. Accept That Accessibility Improvements Are Never Finished
As a sector, educational technology is very much in a state of flux, with new programming approaches, plug-ins, and various other tools and techniques being introduced and incorporated into product development pipelines all the time. Accessibility guidelines also continue to evolve, and assistive technologies vary in their behavior and adherence to published standards. The result is that learning applications must comply with multiple expectations, all of which might change at any time and without notice. We found it useful to establish a threshold of reasonable compliance (e.g., using the WCAG 2.0 AA standard), but we otherwise incorporate accessibility issues into our standard bug-fixing and support protocols. In other words, accessibility is not a special class of problems, and accessibility improvements are never finished.
2. Avoid Designing for the Middle
If a student has no problems utilizing a given application, but that application is unable to provide that student with the presumed benefits of its usage, is it really accessible? We don’t think so. We recommend, instead, that the distinctive needs of each user should be explored and defined. We should avoid the natural tendency to design for the middle. In any case, we have had much more productive engagements with the higher education community when we keep the focus on improved outcomes rather than compliance issues.
3. Leverage the Power of Community
It takes time and effort to incorporate people outside of our organization into our agile development processes, but for accessibility issues, such involvement is crucial. We have tried—with some success—to build a community of people and organizations who are able to give us advice, help with testing, and think through emergent challenges. We have had especially productive partnerships with other organizations focused on accessibility in educational technologies, including Benetech, the Inclusive Design Research Center, and CAST.
The Future of Accessibility in Higher Education
We anticipate that the technical aspects of accessibility compliance will get easier in the future; however, the technology landscape continues to evolve and new challenges arise daily. More importantly, accessibility is a social compact, not a technical specification, and we have a long way to go where good design is synonymous with accessible design.
Visit us at booth #411 at the Innovations Conference or NROC.org to learn more about our commitment to supporting all students. This article was derived from a post originally published at the WCET Frontiers blog.
The NROC Project is League Platinum Partner and an Innovations 2020 sponsor and exhibitor.