How to evolve accessibility at your University and FE institution

Guest blog by Alistair McNaught of McNaught Consultancy*

This is the final blog in a four-part series (see part 1,  part 2 and part 3) exploring accessibility maturity in educational settings. We suggest you read the first three blogs to fully benefit from this post.

Lenses 3, 4 and 5 – Model of disability, Focus of effort, Skills and expertise

In the previous post we explored the issue of responsibility and the irony that the responsibility for institution-wide accessibility is usually delegated down to people who have neither the authority nor the budget to make the changes necessary. In this post we explore 3 lenses together.

There are three reasons for exploring them together:

  1. They are interdependent - beliefs influence our behaviours but our practices also depend on us having the right skill sets.
  2. When piloting the accessibility maturity model, these 3 were the lowest scoring lenses for all participants. They are therefore the areas where biggest improvements are possible.
  3. February got busier than I expected so writing them up together saves time.

Unpacking the lenses – model of disability

Students in a library setting with books in background and desk in centre of old room

When we explore accessibility maturity with organisations, they are often rightly proud of their disability support colleagues and their commitment to students. They are surprised to find that excellent disability support does not give a high score for accessibility maturity. This isn’t a reflection on the team or their value.

It simply reflects the fact that supporting students to get over the barriers they encounter does nothing to change the barriers or the institutional practices that create them. Look at the disability support pages of your organisation and ask some questions about the model of disability.

In the maturity model we unpick an organisation’s approach to disability using questions that probe whether disabled students and the technologies that support them exist in a “medicalised” bubble or whether they blend and blur into generic advice and guidance that would benefit everyone.

Questions like:

  • Does guidance for disabled students references a range of digital skills?
  • Is there join up between study skills, library and disability support / AT information?
  • Are mainstream technology tools such as lecture capture, VLE, library platforms et cetera available and signposted for their accessibility benefits?

In many organisations you only get to know about assistive technologies if you declare a disability. That is a medicalised model and doesn’t rank highly on the maturity scale. For many students, having accessible systems and resources - and knowing how to exploit them - might mean they were no longer disabled.

Focus of effort

Person working on laptop and with workbooks in front of them

If your focus of effort is to build upon the social model to reduce the barriers in the teaching and learning environment, you are on the road to accessibility maturity.

However, many organisations are still focused on compliance as a “task and finish” project rather than culture change and quality improvement. The kind of questions that elicit a mature focus of effort are those that show commitment to long-term improvements. These include:

  • Is there evidence that accessibility informs choice and/or purchase of digital tools and services?
  • Is there evidence of comparable achievement for disabled and non-disabled students?
  • Has there been any mapping of “learning journey accessibility” for disabled staff and students?
  • Is accessibility part of job descriptions for roles involving digital communication with students?

The “Focus of effort” can be considered mature when it’s based around understanding institution-wide barriers and tackling them at source. But this requires a commitment to raising awareness and upskilling staff.

Are you looking for accessibility training courses aimed at higher and further education professionals?

Attend our HE and FE accessibility courses

Skills and expertise

This is where the next lens becomes important. What is the focus of training? Who gets it? How important is it considered?

In this lens, the questions revolve around the following themes:

  • Is guidance available? In what form? Who knows about it and how easy is it to access?
  • Is it generic or specific to the different needs and influences of different roles? The latter is more mature than the former.
  • Is training an optional extra for the enthusiasts or a mandatory requirement to ensure staff are equipped to change their digital practices?
  • Is “go to” expertise available in-house to troubleshoot issues – or do trickier problems simply get ignored?
  • Do the learners themselves have clarity about the accessibility levels they should be able to expect? If they do, they not only benefit personally but can also play their role as informal quality assurance support.

In our pilot group, these 3 lenses were uniformly low – none scoring above Bronze. Much of the issue is still to do with mindset. A mindset that sees accessibility as a niche concern, supporting a “minority of learners with a deficit in their abilities” is never going to be mature. Maturity is when you realise that:

  • The deficit is not the in the learner but in the organisation’s ability to exploit digital technologies in ways that increase their value for everyone.
  • The problem isn’t solved by teaching everyone about 50 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

The problem is solved when everyone whose role involves creating digital content or communications knows how to do it properly and why it matters. The skills needed will be specific to the tasks they do and the technologies they use. 

Deliver training to frontline staff

In total, these three lenses - Model of disability, Focus of effort, Skills and expertise – cover 30 different statements, using evidence from different parts of the organisation to tease out the digital maturity of the organisation.

With thousands of staff in a large institution, the need for skills and training is a challenge but an excellent starting point is with the front line delivery staff who teach students. Creating learning experiences and teaching resources is an excellent place to begin. It’s worth noting that a course level maturity model has also been developed for this group of staff – a model based on the principles of universal design for learning and mapped across to existing elearning frameworks.

In May and June I’ll be working with colleagues at AbilityNet to run a couple of training sessions:

The courses focus on giving consistent student experiences at course and module level. They offer a good way to consider accessible practice in a focused, relevant way that makes sense to front line delivery.

About this blog series

* This is an edited version of Alistair's blog that can be found in full on LinkedIn. This is the final blog in a four-part series. See part 1 part 2 and part 3.

Do you need to train your staff in digital accessibility dos and don'ts?  AbilityNet has two HE and FE customisable, cost-effective online eLearning modules.

Want to learn more?

Further resources

AbilityNet provides a range of free services to help disabled people and older people. If you can afford it, please donate to help us support older and disabled people through technology