Accessibility of college and university materials and services is an important topic for all those involved in education today. Higher Education institutions are working to develop policies and guidelines for ensuring accessible content for all learners. Do such policies result in more accessible digital environments? How can institutions help support faculty to develop more accessible content?

Today, we’re excited to welcome Ella Epshteyn, a recent graduate from Northeastern University, whose doctoral dissertation work looked at faculty needs and concerns associated with accessibility of digital content and how institutions can improve compliance with institutional accessibility efforts. Thank you to Ella for today’s great post!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

– Lindsey Downs, WCET

Accessibility of digital content is one of the most widely discussed issues facing higher education in the US. Eighty-eight percent of post-secondary degree granting institutions in the US have reported enrolling students with disabilities and 11% of all undergraduate students have some type of a disability (U.S. Department of Education, 2011), which could include a wide range of physical, mental, sensory or cognitive impairments, and be visible or invisible, as well as temporary or permanent. Per federal law (particularly Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)), colleges and universities are required to make all services accessible to students with disabilities. The still evolving legal precedent suggests that this includes digital course materials (such as electronic documents, images, video and audio), while a recent wave of lawsuits over accessibility in higher education underscores the urgency of the need to make such materials accessible. While advances in instructional and assistive technologies allowed many more individuals to access higher education, students with disabilities continue to encounter barriers within the digital environment itself – often due to incompatibilities of content (such as documents and e-books, websites, video/audio, etc.) with the assistive technologies.

Proactive Accessible Content Creation

Faculty are responsible for creating a significant amount of digital content in higher education. Although there is more to the technical requirements for content accessibility, the following (selected) best practices may alleviate many accessibility issues across disabilities:

  • Break material into smaller chunks. Based on concepts in cognitive psychology, chunking may refer to grouping related items together, focusing on one concept at a time, separating long text into paragraphs with white space in between, or using bulleted or numbered lists. Chunking helps learners to quickly scan, memorize and recall information.
  • Offer content in multiple formats. For example, content can be presented as text, spreadsheets, PowerPoints, video/audio, or visual elements, such as graphs and charts.
  • To be compatible with screen readers documents have to have an established logical reading order. According to Section 508 accessible document guide, .docx and .pdf formats may be more likely to be accessible than .rtf, .doc, .txt, and .odf. In addition, all visual elements must have alternative textual descriptions.
  • Incorporate a true semantic structure within text. For example, headings, subheadings, bullets, numbering, etc. help provide structure for your content. Although similar looking layouts may be accomplished with bold text (to indicate headings) and dashes (instead of bullets), using build-in bulleting and header features in commonly used word processors and web content editors creates an outline that allows for easier navigation with screen readers.
  • For all types of content, avoid emphasizing text using font changes like color, small or unusual fonts, dark backgrounds and unclear images.
  • Provide transcripts and closed captioning for audio and video recordings.

Institutional Policies to Support Accessibility

To improve accessibility of digital environments on their campuses (and to avoid litigation), many colleges and universities are developing policies and/or guidelines for accessible content development. According to a recent report by WCET/OLC, 61% of respondents indicated having formal policies to address accessibility issues at their institutions.Text reads: Your website is not accessible. Access to the web as a basic human right. Account for: Disabilities and Disadvantages. We assume a lot about our users. Operable, Navigatable via keyboard and hotkeys. How to represent info in multiple formats to cover lacking senses. Perceivable: use alt-tags, input fields, videos, sountables, captcha. Adaptable: meaninful labels. Robost = compatable.

However, do formal digital content accessibility policies result in a more accessible digital environment? Specifically, are faculty responding to policies and making their content more accessible? What would help facilitate their compliance with such policies? In other words, what do faculty need to develop accessible content?

These questions were at the heart of my doctoral dissertation entitled “From Policy to Compliance: US Higher Education Faculty Concerns over Digital Content Accessibility Policies”. Concluded in August of 2019, the study aimed to explore faculty needs and concerns in regards to institutional digital content accessibility policies, as well as gain a deeper understanding of how higher education institutions approach accessibility improvement and what systems, processes, and resources encourage faculty buy-in and compliance with these efforts.


A survey was developed in Qualtrics based on Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM) – a framework designed to guide program implementation. The tools and techniques provided by the model aim to inform processes and support systems to facilitate adoption – by collecting feedback from stakeholders and assessing use. The survey targeted higher education administrators and faculty and was distributed via multiple professional forums, such as Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), The Chronicle of Higher Education Forums, POD Network, WCET, and many others. Respondents were encouraged to forward the survey to faculty at their institutions, as well as to their professional contacts.

Professional roles and geographical distribution of survey respondents

The participants in the study, following some data cleanup, were 265 higher education staff and faculty. Here is the breakdown of the respondents by professional role:

  • 12 worked in provost offices,
  • 105 were from offices in disability services,
  • 27 worked in faculty development,
  • 20 were faculty members,
  • 16 held combined faculty/administrative roles,
  • 10 held combined administrative roles, and,
  • 75 were from other related professional roles (such as IT, instructional design, distance education, educational media, library, teaching and learning services, human resources and compliance offices). Of particular interest were emerging accessibility-specific roles – coordinators/managers, IT specialists/technologists and compliance officers.
Geographic distribution of the responses. Note higher concentration of responses in the eastern United States.
Geographic distribution of the responses. Note higher concentration of responses in the eastern United States.

Please note: Given the size of the sample and especially the small number of faculty, caution should be used generalizing results. Rather, the study provided an initial insight. It is hoped that the following brief summary of key findings will start a discussion regarding the next steps and future research.

Brief Summary of Results

Campus efforts to improve accessibility of digital content

Improving accessibility of digital content is a growing priority at most higher education institutions in the US, with over 75% of respondents reporting a large or growing concern at their institutions, as well as ongoing efforts to address these concerns. The most prevalent effort reported was conducting an accessibility audit. Other efforts included:

  • considering/drafting guidelines,
  • considering/drafting policy,
  • implementing guidelines, and,
  • implementing policy.

According to the responses, current policies and guidelines tend to be wide-scope and far-reaching, encompassing a wide range of digital accessibility issues. Yet, institutions might not be ready for successful implementation. Based on faculty perceptions, there is still a significant lack of tools, resources, and support services needed to develop accessible content. The data and input from faculty who are responsible for developing accessible content, as well as administrators who are responsible for implementing policies, also underscored fragmentation of institutional and support structures, and the need for centralization of efforts (such as clearly defined leadership, widespread communication of policies, guidelines and resources, consistent language, and consistency of requirements and messaging across departments).

Communication of policy requirements to faculty

The respondents reported a wide range of methods used to communicate the requirements of policies and/or guidelines to faculty:

  • email
  • dissemination via department chairs and via faculty senates
  • training opportunities in various formats
  • campus-wide announcements
  • posting information on institutional websites or in learning management systems
  • via disability offices
  • through discussions with instructional designers
  • via faculty contact with personnel in other administrative roles

It is important to note that most of communication methods listed above could be considered one-way (passive) communication – from administration to faculty.

Awareness and buy-in

Special keyboards and other devices on display at the 2011 Diversity Conference.

While institutions are developing digital accessibility policies and guidelines directed at faculty, there seems to be a lack of awareness and buy-in within this group, with faculty prioritizing other tasks and initiatives over digital accessibility improvement. Current passive communication strategies may not be enough to fully address these issues. However, when it came to adopting policies and guidelines, faculty commonly reported collaborating with others. This would suggest that active communication and engagement strategies may be more effective in raising awareness and securing faculty buy in.

Processes to facilitate adoption

Training and professional development was identified by faculty and administrators as the most prevalent process to facilitate faculty compliance with accessibility policy or adoption of accessibility guidelines, followed by availability of technical support. However, if there is indeed a lack of awareness and buy-in among faculty, then there may be a disconnect between support services available (such as professional development and technical support) and services needed to address specific issues (such as awareness and buy-in). Other processes included:

  • access to closed captioning services,
  • availability of accessible document templates and/or checklists,
  • availability of student workers,
  • assistance to remediate documents or to find alternative formats,
  • using Blackboard Ally to support accessibility in online courses,
  • quality assurance processes,
  • a campus-wide informal community of practice, and
  • making accessibility a part of instructional design process.

Recommendations for action

This study provided initial insight into how higher education institutions approach digital accessibility improvements. While more research is needed, the key findings provide a starting point for discussion and crowdsourcing of ideas regarding the next steps. I’m interested in your views! Please comment below in response to the following questions:

  • Are the key findings consistent with your experience in regards to digital content accessibility improvement efforts?
  • How do we improve faculty awareness and buy-in?
  • What communication strategies might help engage faculty in digital accessibility improvement efforts?
  • What strategies could help alleviate fragmentation of institutional efforts and support systems?

You can also tweet your thoughts using #WCETFrontiers.

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Ella Epshteyn
Recent graduate Northeastern University



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