Ensuring that your campus is compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards for online courses and technology accessibility can help your institution avoid hefty fines. But perhaps even more important, compliance enhances the quality of education for all students. Institutions that welcome a diverse student body, including students with disabilities, provide a more well-rounded education for all. Building an accessible campus is about more than just providing captioning on request or the correct screen-reading software. Building a truly accessible campus involves generating disability awareness in every aspect of campus life, making your office more visible to key campus staff members, and allocating resources in the most effective manner for your students’ needs. Kaela Parks, director of disability services at Portland Community College, provided several key takeaways to make your campus more technologically compliant, both for your online courses and for student access to technology.
Provide professional development to faculty specifically in their field
The PCC disability services website offers biweekly professional development webinars for faculty and staff regarding need-to-know topics for technology accessibility. Recent topics include faculty support for creating accessible instructional material for students with visual impairments and demystifying access technologies. To provide students with access to resources and courses, Parks and her team have made it a priority to educate faculty and staff on best practices for creating accessible classrooms. Parks creates relevant programming for faculty members and uses a variety of techniques to engage faculty to actually complete the webinars.
“One example of a practice at PCC that has promoted [faculty] engagement is our subject-area studies [demonstrated through webinars]. This is an incredible practice that provides faculty with release time to study the curricular design and deployment techniques used in their discipline by colleagues across the college,” Parks said. Faculty members then work directly with end-users and accessibility technicians to explore, research and test options, finding what seems to work best and crafting a report to share best practices with other faculty members. Ensuring that faculty members have designated time to learn about technology accessibility — whether through webinars or in-person professional development — and having the information about accessibility tied to their academic field increases campuswide engagement and buy-in.
A new program being launched at PCC will provide faculty members with a small stipend for the time they spend devoted to professional development on campus technology accessibility. The program’s courses focus on models of disability, access technologies, and universal design for learning. Faculty members who complete all three courses earn a certificate.
Accessibility is an opportunity for the entire campus, not just disability services
To create and maintain a truly technologically accessible campus, the efforts can’t be a one-stop shop centered in disability services; you need the entire campus to feel like they have a stake in the process. At PCC, inclusion has meant building a team with members across campus to explore accessibility goals and options.
“We have librarians, technology managers, media services, instructional faculty, students, as well as distance learning and disability services, all coming together monthly to meet and ensure we are making good progress on our priorities. The mission for this group is to ensure accessible computing opportunities across and throughout our community,” Parks said, adding that the group focuses on collegewide licensing of AT software, loaner equipment, and training for students, staff and faculty.
Be proactive in creating opportunities for visibility on campus
Parks stressed that one of the best practices her office has adopted is in promoting its own visibility and not waiting for faculty or staff to come to it at the last moment in their hour of need. Ensuring that disability services is already visible helps keep universal design practices on professors’ minds when they are designing courses. Parks described her team as infusing opportunities into the landscapes of her universities that are already well-established, so that faculty members have an easier time being open to the unknown. “For example, we ask to be invited to department and division meetings rather than expecting people to come to us. There are also some techniques that we employ to try and make it easier to connect,” Parks said.
She also recommended taking steps such as embedding disability services’ event calendar into webpages where people can easily find it, and simply add the events to their own calendar. “The idea is to make it more likely for people to not only want to attend, but actually plan for it, and follow through,” Parks said. Finding ways on your campus to be visible and to make it easier for other departments to take accommodations and aids into consideration, whether in designing courses or in the options used for technology during the semester, can make all the difference in the relationships they build with your disabled student population.
Offer students multiple options for technology accommodations
Finding accessible technology that works for a population of students with a variety of limitations and needs is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. To that end, Parks has found a way to accommodate a wide variety of student needs on campus by allowing for multiple options for students to access a large selection of devices. “Items such as magnification devices, amplification units, digital recorders, mice, specialized keyboards, talking calculators, etc. are available to any library patron who wishes to borrow them,” Parks said. The loans are made for a full term, and there is no need for documentation or special permission for the students to be able to use them.
Parks said that in addition to these first-come, first-served library loans, there are also prioritized loans made available through disability services, with the difference being that the loans come with training and more of a student development approach. These devices available for loans include magnification devices, amplification units, Livescribe pens, tablets, laptops, tactile drawing kits, and other aids that are provided on an individualized basis. “The goal is to help students ’try it before you buy it,‘ but the program is not meant to provide ongoing home-based use of college-owned equipment. Our intent is to provide students with opportunities to experiment with technologies in the interest of identifying what works best,” Parks said.
To fund these accommodations, Parks’ office has moved to matched-funds initiatives rather than fundraising simply from its own budget. “For example, [we provide] a 50/50 match with our campus-based testing centers to lower the cost for them to invest in larger monitors, new laptops and updated peripherals. We love this approach because it promotes sustainability, makes our tech fee dollars stretch further, and creates a stronger sense of shared responsibility,” Parks said.
Develop positions to handle high-volume requests
One of the most common requests for accommodations for any campus remains captioning for online videos and courses. Parks has handled this need within her own office by creating a part-time position dedicated specifically to coordinating caption requests from students. Parks and her team, with this new part-time position, have worked across departments to create a more streamlined approach, and one that is not necessarily focused on only doing captioning in-house.
“We streamlined our communications, using our accommodation management system to register requests and track work orders. By leveraging bulk-rate purchasing through our third-party provider we can pool dollars across departments to get a lower rate,” Parks said. Parks stated that this allows her office to get the lion’s share of the captioning work done quickly and efficiently, while still being able to handle jobs in-house as well with the new part-time position. Handling captioning requests in-house is especially important for quick turnarounds, or videos that are particularly tricky.
Having the half-time position available allows Parks’ office to have someone who can train student-workers and offer training and guidance for faculty. Parks said her library has been great about ensuring accessibility through library subscriptions, and PCC’s instructional support personnel help faculty who want to caption their own recordings. “We do a lot of work with vendors, publishers and other content contributors to ensure our expectations are clear. If people want to do business with us, they need to take accessibility seriously,” Parks said.
You can contact Parks at firstname.lastname@example.org.