HE/Public Sector Update: Excelling in Digital Accessibility at Open University

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This webinar took place on Tuesday 22 September 2020, 1pm BST. 

On the day before the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR) deadline (23 September 2020), Kate Lister, Accessibility Manager at The Open University and AbilityNet's Amy Low explored the benefits of embedding and evaluating accessibility throughout learning and teaching.

We also provided an update on the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations.

In addition, Amy shared a sneak preview of a module level accessibility badging scheme AbilityNet has been developing with McNaught Consulting.

Who will benefit from watching this webinar playback?

This webinar is for anyone in the public sector, particularly those in a higher or further education setting.

The webinar lasted one hour and included a question and answer session. 

Webinar recording, slides and transcript

All our webinars are recorded and this session's recording is now available below, along with a transcript. The slidedeck used in the webinar is also below.

For additional information read answers to frequently asked questions about AbilityNet webinars.

Find out more about our AbilityNet Live webinar series.

Blog: Read how the Open University defines its accessibility roadmap beyond regulation deadlines, by creating a robust structure to make accessibility part of the fabric of everything it does. 

Useful resources mentioned in the webinar

Questions and answers

Attendees were able to submit their questions for Kate and Amy during the live webinar, with answers provided below:

Kate Lister replies:

Q: Which captioning software does the OU use?

We use 3Play media for most of our captioning on modules, and we use human captioning on Adobe Connect tutorials as a reasonable adjustment. We’re working towards automated captioning on all tutorials but this is pretty complex and will take time.

Q: We've had a question today about captions - wondering if you have any suggestions. Colleagues have raised concerns around caption tools not recognising regional accents very well. They're worried that this will a) cause an additional burden to them re. correcting their captions and b) potentially undermine their professionalism in a live caption situation.

Yes, automated captioning still isn’t quite there, in my opinion. We’ve had issues with accents and also with discipline specific vocabulary in tutorials, which is why we still use manual captioning (by human beings) at the moment. It is getting better all the time though.

Q: How do you ensure that captioning is accurate? Do you have human correctors for captioning?

Yes, we use humans.

Q: Can Kate share the bot plug-in they used?

The bot itself is still being developed – it’s currently in beta trials and will have a larger scale trial next month. We used Microsoft Azure to develop it. We’d be happy to give a demo of it if you’re interested, so do get in touch

Q: You said you would be interested in innovation on Mental Wellbeing and AI for students if we had  equipment and strategies that might be useful in these areas is it Kate the person that we would contact?

Yes please, do contact me if you’re doing anything in these areas or if you’d like to learn more about what we’re doing. Always great to talk!

Q: I have signed up for the OU course, Accessibility of e-learning. Is this a good foundation to use?

Is that the OpenLearn course? It’s good, but a bit old now. There will be a new microcredential coming out on this soon, though.

Q: Do the OU courses have at least two choices for assessments?

Some do, but most don’t, unfortunately. We do have pockets of good practice in assessment, but to be honest we’re still working very much in reasonable adjustment mode, where we have one standard assessment and alternatives on request. It’s not ideal, we do have a long way to go.

Q: Are there links in your work to Advance HE and Equality Charters

We’ve drawn on AHE/ECU guidance, yes.

Q: Where I can find out more about the AI for accessibility that the Open University is collaborating with Microsoft on?

Find out more about the project on our website and you can also see a paper out on the subject, too. If you would like more info, you can get in touch with me or with the project lead, Tim Coughlan.

Amy Low replies:

Q: Will we know if we have been 'sampled' and tested?

Everyone that is tested will receive a report from GDS sharing the findings (as long as there's contact information that works).

Q: Do we know how many site they'll be monitoring? And how many of each type?

In the first phase (Jan 20 – Dec 21)
1395 simplified tests
80 detailed tests
24 Mobile apps
Also including reviewing accessibility statements for compliance

This will take in all public sector bodies as per the selection criteria. Sampling will be taken from two lists:

  • public sector organisations
  • domain names registered on public sector top-level domains, such as .gov.uk, .ac.uk and .nhs.uk

The sample must be:

  • diverse
  • representative
  • geographically-balanced
  • inclusive of a broad range of public services

Sampling within each organisation type or domain list will be random.
If a certain organisation type, size, location or purpose is dominating the sample GDS will review and rebalance to ensure wider coverage.

Q: Which testing tool did you say they were using Amy?

Axe, by Deque - this is open source so you can use it yourselves to establish issues it would raise on your site and also consider that the simplified testing will include keyboard and zoom manual tests. 

Q: How often will the Cabinet Office publish the list for non-compliant statements? Have they said?

They haven’t indicated any frequency so far. Having asked GDS, they indicated it's likely to be twice a year or quarterly.

Q: How will the government monitor sites that are not public? Presumably they need to request access (e.g. to intranets, virtual learning environments behind institutional portals)?

Yes, the risk for non public sites is going to be higher on the basis of student led complaints which could then lead to a detailed audit on the specified site. Whilst the risk of having something picked up by the monitoring body is therefore low, the VLE and intranet are arguably more critical to the student experience and more likely to create barriers that could impact on student success so really important to ensure these are prioritised to improve their accessibility.

Q: Will all issues identified in tests/evaluations require fixing?

The regulations require that you are compliant at WCAG AA standard and therefore it is quite possible that GDS could request that all issues found at levels A and AA are fixed. Give the size and complexity of many university sites the time allocated (stated as reasonable) should be commensurate with the effort required to achieve the standard. GDS has responded to the question with the following: "The simplified tests only pull out issues that we think have major effects on the accessibility of sites. Yes, sites should fix to WCAG 2.1 AA as strictly as possible. We currently give sites 12 weeks to fix issues and get back to us. We're working with EHRC and ECNI to determine what they are likely to consider acceptable, and we give a recommendation to them when we hand the cases over after the 12 week period for them to determine."

Q: Do you have some info on the requirements needed for accessibility statement please? 

Yes, you might find watching our webinar playback useful (transcript provided): HE/Public Sector webinar: Is your accessibility statement ready yet?

Q: Will the badging system become part of good practice in HE? Will it be monitored by Office for Students (OfS)?

From a student perspective particularly this would be advantageous for the reasons I mentioned in the webinar where many students have little to go on when they are trying to make an educated decision about where to study if they are looking for the most accessible and inclusive experience. We have previously raised with OfS how they can potentially be more focused on accessibility monitoring as part of their role as the regulator and at that time they pointed to GDS as leading on this, but did state that digital accessibility was something they would be looking for evidence of in Access and Participation Plans. We would like to get the pilot underway initially and some feedback to ensure that the frameworks we have designed are meeting the needs of both institutions and students and then would certainly be interested in providing the framework to OfS to help the with their Access and Participation Plan monitoring.  

Q: Is the pilot just for higher education or can further education take part?

We would be happy to hear from both FE and HE providers to participate in the pilot and can see how adopting these frameworks for FE could be really useful in helping to embed inclusive practices in colleges.

Q: In terms of the new regs how much is the accessibilty of learning materials covered?

Learning materials are in scope of the regulations and as Kate mentioned in the webinar, accessibility principles are closely aligned with Universal Design for Learning principles so you will accelerate your progress towards any teaching and learning excellence projects by evaluating learning materials versus WCAG guidelines and accessible learning principles. With much of the teaching and learning taking place online just now due to the pandemic this is going to have a really positive impact for everyone and give learners who may be struggling with the new modes of delivery a greater chance of succeeding.

Q: We have a conference centre that we own but it’s a commercial product in its own website does this come under the regulations?

I am not sure on this one. I assume that since it is part of the university it would be in scope (similarly to university online shops for instance) but I will check and add more to this response soon.

Q: Do we have to think about our social media accessibility?

Yes, this is really important. Most social media platforms do have the technology available (such as captioning, alt text image descriptions and so on) but your teams managing your social media sites will need to be clear on how the features can be accessed and dos and don’ts, such as avoiding using huge strings of emojis that a screenreader will announce one by one to the user, and using Camel Case for hashtags to make sure the words are announced correctly. We have a training course coming up on Social Media accessibility that might be of interest, with a webinar also coming soon.

Q: A general question (not about the OU): In the case of very small educational institutions, please could you comment on how it can be recognised and confirmed that the basic accessibility check may be appropriate. As set out in this Gov.UK article.

This decision making is all around the notion of claiming disproportionate burden. If you go that route you would need to make a business case for why your institution cannot fund a detailed check on your website. This business case will need to be calculated and should include assumptions based on size and resources of the organisation, costs and benefits to disabled site users, and usage of the app, site or document. It is worth noting that you cannot claim disproportionate burden on an ongoing basis so is only going to be a temporary hiatus and the case for disproportionate burden will need to be detailed in your accessibility statement on the sites.
Typically with a smaller institution there will be fewer sites to check so potentially the amount you would need to invest would be worthwhile for reasons other than legal reasons (for example, student experience and positive PR of taking inclusive practice seriously). That being said, there are good training materials out there to help you learn how to check your site yourselves. AbilityNet runs regular training sessions on how to conduct your own accessibility testing and also have some consultant-led testing services to suit a range of budgets. Happy to have a quick chat with you so you can get a feel for all the options open to you. Please contact me via email.

Excelling in Digital Accessibility at Open University - AbilityNet webinar slides via SlideShare

Date of webinar: 
22 Sep 2020 - 13:00