Accessibility maturity in higher education

Guest blog by Alistair McNaught of McNaught Consultancy*

This is the second in a series of four blog posts (see part 1) exploring accessibility maturity in educational settings. We suggest you read the introductory blog first to fully benefit from this post.

Further and higher education organisations in the UK (and, indeed, in Europe) have a legal obligation to meet the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR).

Policies, strategies and practices that are enacted in order to meet minimum legal requirements cannot be considered maturity, only compliance.

AbilityNet/McNaught maturity model - Lens 2 - "Drivers"

In the AbilityNet/McNaught maturity model, there are a 8 different institutional lenses, each explored by a series of questions.

In this article we explore the “Drivers” lens. What is driving your change? The need to be compliant and tick off the boxes? Or a desire to be digitally inclusive, ensuring every student can be as confident, independent and productive as possible?

We explore the Drivers lens with a number of self-assessment statements on which participants measure their organisation's accessibility:

  • Top level accessibility statement for all sites.
  • Links to 3rd party site external statements.
  • Staff training in digital accessibility available.

Student standing in library between shelves of books

These are important, but they are low on the scale of maturity so in the maturity model they have low scores.

You would be foolish (and/or non-compliant) to ignore them, however. They demonstrate less of an institutional commitment to inclusive practice and more of a desire to “cover our back”.

A higher score in the model's 'Drivers lens' would be reflected in statements such as:

  • Automatic scanning conducted and regular (e.g. termly) review of results.
  • External accessibility review of sample pages to supplement internal testing and scanning.
  • Course level accessibility statements explain benefits of accessible content for student productivity.

Showing commitment to accessibility

Statements like these are designed to draw out commitment and purpose. For example, regular automated scanning of the digital estate illustrates a commitment to ongoing improvement. External reviews demonstrate integrity, a desire to learn and a recognition that automated processes are limited. Course level accessibility statements show that an organisation recognises that accessibility benefits all students and is the responsibility of all staff. This is a maturity shift.

The highest marks in this lens are reserved for statements that illustrate a commitment to a changed culture rather than a tick box compliance. This includes the following kinds of statements:

  • Blackboard A11Y, Sensus Access, Brickfield or other alternative formats/virtual learning environment (VLE) scanning tools are installed and promoted.
  • Staff training in digital accessibility is mandatory.
  • Disabled users (staff or students) involved in development of new sites or services.
  • Where such evidence is available, it strongly suggests an organisation is driven by a vision for excellence and inclusiveness rather than the need for compliance.

Results from the pilot

In a pilot project with 18 institutions, the average score for this lens was 35% with a range from 11% to 61%. These low scores can be interpreted in more than one way.

In some organisations, it was clear that the focus had been “getting over the line” in terms of the legislation. There had been little thought in making digital accessibility sustainable. But in other organisations, participants were uncertain about how to respond to the sample statements because it was outside their role or responsibility.

This highlights the importance of accessibility maturity being explored by different people within the organisation.

Some of the lower scores could also be explained because the pilot version of the model had scope only for yes/no answers. This made some participants answer “no” to statements where they were aware of partial but incomplete implementation.

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How statements map maturity

In total, the “Driver” lens covers 14 different statements. They use a range of evidence from different parts of the organisation to tease out whether digital accessibility is being driven by a one-off response to the legislation or an ongoing commitment to inclusive professional practice.

Many of our pilot participants valued the way the statements used evidence to map maturity, for example:

  • “It's not a 'one-off' task - it's about culture and embedding practice. This is so helpful!”
  • “The activities and focal discussion points have provided a most useful lens for critical self-reflection at an organisational level.”

They also highlighted the importance of more than one person taking part in an accessibility maturity review:

  • “Definitely a collaborative process across teams to fill in.”
  • “It would be easier completed as a group exercise - partly because of lack of knowledge of certain areas and also to get a balanced view.”

Making ongoing improvements

One of the key outcomes from the pilot was the way we were able to adapt and improve the model, clarifying explanations, tweaking some of the statements and scores and, most importantly, moving beyond a yes/no scale to a more accurate No/don’t know; Somewhat agree; Largely agree: Agree.

This makes the scoring more accurate at institutional level and it also makes the badging process more nuanced by allowing a more granular range of scores.

About this blog series

The third post in this four-part blog series will be about 'The Lens of Responsibility - who are the Actors? Do they have sufficient authority?'.

* This is an edited version of Alistair's blog that can be found in full on LinkedIn.

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Further resources

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