Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Digital Access to Tertiary Education – GAAD Day

9 May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. “The purpose of the day is to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities”. Today I’ll talk a little bit about access to tertiary education.


Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Universities are turning to the web more and more. They use their website for critical information about programmes and courses, examinations, graduations. Students are encouraged to enrol online. Universities provide forms online for various processes students have to follow during the course of their studies. Even tuition is delivered online.

Yet, many universities’ websites are not particularly accessible, not disability friendly. From my own experience as a student and in talking with other students, here are just some of the barriers encountered:

Large number of navigation links without ways to skip
It is not unusual to encounter up to 100 links in the top navigation of university websites. Some even have several hundreds. When your only way to navigate is to use a keyboard, or have a screenreader read through one link at a time, it quickly becomes tedious and frustrating to have to trudge through all these links. Providing a “skip to content” link at the top of the page is an easy way to resolve this.
Online enrolment forms not accessible
Several issues at play here, including process timing out, to poor error highlighting if there is a problem with data entry in the form, important information delivered only through images without alternate text, etc.
PDF forms not accessible
Forms students have to complete are not friendly to people using screenreaders.
e-Learning platforms not accessible
While there are e-learning platforms that allow improved accessibility, most of these platforms have a lot of room for improvement.
Poor organisation of course material for online delivery
Even if the e-learning platform is allowing accessibility, the course material is organised in such a way that it is very difficult to find any resources for the course.
Videos aren’t captionned or audio described
Many courses rely on instructional videos or videos of presentations to deliver content. Yet, few of those videos are captioned or audio described. Students who have hearing or vision impairments miss out.
Course material delivered in PDF innaccessible documents
It is not unusual to have “minor” accessibility issues in PDFs, such as untagged documents, or no alternate text for images that provide content. But it appears that in academia, a lot of documents are scanned as images of text and saved as a PDF. No OCR means that a screenreader isn’t able to tell what is on the page. From a usability perspective, students are also unable to copy/paste any content of such documents.
Lecturers refusing to provide digital versions of course material
Some lecturers or head of departments have even been known to outright refuse to provide digital copies of their course slides or other material, citing copyright issues.
Required textbook aren’t available in digital formats
The first thing most people think about accessibility to textbook is for people who are blind. While there are processes available to most blind students to get textbooks in braille, or digital formats, it would be so much easier if the publishers provided electronic copies. But there are other students who would benefit from digital copies of textbooks – for instance someone who is quadriplegic, or someone who has bad arthritis. Why make students jump through hoops to get Disability Services to provide the material electronically, if there even is a Disability Services at the university? Why not establish agreements with the publishers to provide the textbooks electronically? It’s about to happen for UC Berkeley students!

Some universities are making efforts to improve, and I salute that. But there is a lot of room for improvement.

These are issues that go beyond the web teams at universities. Paradigms need to be shifted. There needs to be a commitment from the very top trickling down. There needs to be a lot of awareness developped.