For years, disability services providers at the University of Montana worked to raise awareness of the needs of students with disabilities. An Office for Civil Rights complaint and its resolution agreement made accessibility a topic everyone on campus is aware of and changed the way officials across campus think about accessibility.
Before the agreement, the attitude on campus was that “DSS deals with accessibility so the rest of us don’t have to,” said Dan Bowling of Student Affairs Information Technology.
Now everyone assumes they’re part of the solution, said Janet Sedgley, electronic and information technology accessibility coordinator and manager of accessible technology services.
In most cases, OCR agreements address the specifics of a complaint. But the Montana agreement took a broader approach, Bowling said. For example, before the complaint, students needed to request captioning. Now, the assumption is that students should be able to walk into any class and have videos captioned. Plus, that agreement required the institution to develop and institute procedures to purchase only software that is accessible and to make complying with accessibility standards a part of the request-for-proposal process for the purchase of any new software.
Bowling predicts that far-reaching agreements like the one UM entered into will become more common. Consider the steps UM officials have taken to address accessibility to be proactive on your campus.
Complaint resulted from frustration
The Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana filed the complaint in May 2012. In October, a student represented by the National Federation of the Blind filed a civil suit. A joint settlement to the OCR complaint and the lawsuit was agreed to, and the Resolution Agreement was signed in March 2014.
“The complaint arose out of student frustration,” said Amy Capolupo, director of Disability Services for Students. Not enough people were addressing student technology access. The alliance that was formed that made the complaint wanted action at UM, but they also wanted to have a broader impact, she said.
Before the complaint was filed, officials and staff members didn’t know how to address issues or they chose to ignore the needs, said John Greer, IT director for the UM library.
Allegations in the complaint included:
- Inaccessible class assignments and materials on the learning management system (Moodle).
- Inaccessible live chat and discussion board functions in the learning management system.
- Inaccessible documents that are scanned images on webpages and websites.
- Inaccessible videos in Flash format that are not captioned.
- Inaccessible course registration through the website CyberBear.
- Inaccessible classroom clickers.
Team effort addresses problems
A group of officials at UM decided to take action before they received the formal complaint, said Barb Seekins, Americans with Disabilities Act team leader. The team included the vice president of student affairs, the IT director, the provost, and staff members who worked in disability compliance. The group recommended forming a task force.
The group members knew that one requirement that would be forthcoming would be to create a policy, so they got started on that. And in fact, the resolution agreement called for a policy and a self-study.
“I think when we started, we had no idea how big the problem was. It just sort of overwhelmed people,” Seekins said. “What’s really important is a self-study to give you a sense of what you already have so you’re not overwhelmed.”
Agreement requires accessible software
Before the OCR agreement, officials assumed that having a clause in the contract that said software was accessible would be enough. Now all software has to be evaluated, Capolupo said.
The evaluation process is not simple, Bowling said. When evaluators spot problems, they talk to the vendors, who frequently have no idea what the evaluators are talking about. And accessible software doesn’t always exist. Under the agreement, UM has conditional use of software if no accessible products are available. And UM officials build solutions in house in some cases.
Another problem is that vendors won’t let the institution have software until it’s bought, and the accessibility evaluation must be completed before the purchase, Bowling said. Typically, a backroom deal is necessary to complete the evaluation.
Sometimes a top-rated vendor is not accessible, but a third-rated one is. That can cause hard feelings from the division seeking to purchase the software. “The accessibility police get a bad rap,” Bowling said.
At UM, all software is evaluated for accessibility, not just the software that is student-facing, Greer said. In some cases, software will be used by only 10 faculty members, but it still has to be evaluated.
Some vendors have been very good to work with, said Marlene Zentz, senior instructional designer and accessibility specialist for UMOnline. For example, officials at Moodle, the learning management system, knew UM would not renew its contract if they did not make their product compliant. The forum is one of the more complicated tools in Moodle. Before Moodle revised it, users could see who was responding to comments by indentations. But screen readers could not interpret the indentations, Zentz said. That’s fixed now so that everyone can use the forums.
“The law says educational institutions have to buy accessible software. It doesn’t say vendors have to produce it,” Greer said. If officials from all institutions demanded that software be accessible, vendors would provide it, he said.
Engaging the campus
Early on, one of the hardest parts of dealing with the complaint was that it was hard to keep rumors under control, Sedgley said. Officials had to respond to those rumors and say, “No, we don’t really have to do that. This is what we have to do. It makes a better educational environment. It’s helping everyone.”
Representatives from the executive office and legal counsel held community forums to address the complaint, and that brought attention to its importance, Bowling said.
Zentz and Sedgley visit all the departments for training. Sedgley talks about policy. Zentz explains to the faculty how to build an accessible syllabus that opens the door to an accessible course and accessible use of the learning management system. They expected some pushback from the faculty, but the reaction has been predominantly the opposite, Zentz said. Faculty members think making their courses accessible is the right thing to do. Once the trainers demystify what that means, they are eager to do all they can.
At the beginning of the process, a blind student also worked with officials to review documents and explain accessibility problems they presented to faculty members.
Materials must be updated
The library faced many challenges in making its materials accessible, Greer said. Documents were hosted on an inaccessible platform. Officials moved those to the accessible platform Moodle built. UM subscribes to many databases and services that are used by libraries worldwide. Their content and platforms vary widely in accessibility. Some vendors have been very good about remedying problems, but others have not. For important but inaccessible content, the library is working with DSS to provide solutions in house, Greer said.
Much of the library’s media content was acquired before captioning was available on the products. The library staff has been searching for newer media that is fully captioned and purchasing accessible versions.
Rather than having additional money to address the accessibility issues, the library has changed its priorities for purchasing, in some cases buying an accessible version of something it already has rather than buying something new, Greer said.
Ensuring that all media on campus is captioned cannot be completed overnight. Interpreters on staff still do captioning for students in classes and work closely with the library to meet needs.
Under the terms of the Resolution Agreement to resolve the OCR complaint, UM was required to develop a website related to accessibility. Review it at https://www.umt.edu/accessibility. Among other materials, the website includes UM’s Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility implementation plan and policies. Review the Resolution Agreement at http://www.umt.edu/accessibility/docs/FinalResolutionAgreement.pdf.
OCR resolution brings changes in assumptions
The OCR complaint and its resolution changed assumptions about accessibility at UM. Review the chart below to see how attitudes changed: