3 Tips for an Accessibility-Focused Approach to Technology Implementation

By Mary Heid | July 5, 2021 | | Education

Prioritizing accessibility early when making decisions about technology is critical to successfully supporting students and staff with disabilities. A similar practice can be employed to guide thinking about all digital interactions to be more inclusive and support the ability to quickly pivot, which this past year has taught us will be the operating model of the future.

19% of undergraduate students and 12% of postgraduate students enrolled in higher education institutions in the United States report having a disability, according to the Department of Education. Statistics from most other countries are lower; the population of people with disabilities in many countries often has less access to education and international data varies greatly in terms of definition and reporting.

Accessibility. Accommodation. Universal design. Terms used to describe access to technology are sometimes interchanged and often misunderstood. Let’s clarify.

  • Accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.
  • An accommodation is an alternative or adaptation provided for a specific circumstance, and is often provided as an add-on or afterthought.
  • Universal design is a term coined by Ron Mace, architect and founder of the Center for Universal Design, to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

Thinking about these in terms of people; accessibility is proactive and focused on people with disabilities, accommodations are reactive adaptations often for a single person, and universal design is proactive thinking on behalf of the whole. Universal design enables most people access but may not necessarily enable all users with disabilities. Accessible design enables access for users with disabilities and provides a bonus to many other people. Combine both and we have a winning combination.

So how can one proactively assess if a technology is accessible, is designed to be universally inclusive, supports a person’s autonomy, and doesn’t require accommodations? If a product does not follow the principles of universal design, it will most certainly not be accessible. The following guidelines offer an approach that focuses on evaluating accessibility.

Woman using braille technology device
Prioritizing accessibility early when making decisions about technology is critical to successfully supporting students and staff with disabilities.

1. Who Will Be Using It?

When acquiring, creating, or providing a technology or service, it’s important to think first about the people who will use it. Regardless of scope, any technology undertaking must focus on the end user or customer. Ask and listen to as many different perspectives as possible. Ensure requirements are clear and complete by asking those who will use the software, including users with disabilities, what they need. Consider the experiences and changes to how we’ve relied upon and pivoted our use of technology over the past year. Be open to not knowing how people will use technology in the foreseeable future and look for flexibility.

The technology provider has the most control over the accessibility of the product. It’s the institution’s job to hold them accountable. Thankfully, there are laws, policies, and guidelines that govern accessibility worldwide. The internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the standard for web accessibility. The WCAG consists of principles, guidelines, criteria and techniques to ensure that websites and software are accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. The Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR), based upon the WCAG, is a vendor’s statement of accessibility and should be required in a Request for Proposal.

These terms, WCAG and ACR, should be familiar to a technology provider. If not, that should be cause for concern and further investigation. The ACR describes how the product was tested and if it is accessible to users with disabilities. Spend the time to read the report; a person who is familiar with web development may be helpful to interpret it.

2. What’s the Product Experience Like?

The most telling indication of the accessibility of a product is to experience it. When a vendor comes to visit campus, insist they bring someone who knows about the accessibility of the product. Having already read the ACR, ask clarifying questions. Did a salesperson write it or was an unbiased third party hired to evaluate the product and write the ACR? Of course, students, staff, and users of all abilities, including those with disabilities, will be at the demonstration. Encourage them to participate and ask questions of the vendor.

Finally, get an evaluation copy of the software and test it out for yourself. Can all the functions be performed without a mouse, using only a keyboard? If not, then users of assistive technology probably can’t use it either. If you’re lucky enough to have a person around who uses a screen reader, ask them to test out the software. Be sure to compensate them appropriately for their time and expertise! Provide feedback to the vendor and, if necessary, ask them to commit to fixing any barriers to access. Negotiate that in the contract — now is the time to exercise your leverage.

Students wearing face masks while sitting at desks
When acquiring, creating, or providing a technology or service, it’s important to think first about the people who will use it.

Thinking about inclusion doesn’t stop when the software has been selected and implemented. It’s an ongoing process that will require consistent consideration and thoughtfulness.

3. Hold Vendors Accountable

It’s a software development team’s job to design and create accessible, inclusive, usable software and to test it. That’s never been more imperative than it is now, given the increase in online services for students. Research published in the Connected Student Report indicates “only about one-quarter of students say it was easy for them to make advising appointments online.”

What about the remaining 75%? Do they not get the critical services they need? And if the software is not accessible, then what about those for whom it’s not just difficult, but impossible — those 19% with disabilities? At a time when students are increasingly in need of and seeking academic and other support, we must provide easy-to-use tools and seamless access to that support.

Admissions Connect and Advisor Link have been designed and developed with accessibility in mind. They were tested with automated tools, keyboards, screen readers, and were vetted by users with disabilities. The ACRs are publicly available on the Product Accessibility Status page.

We don’t know what the next challenge will be or when. Thinking broadly about all users’ needs — and doing so from the very beginning from an accessibility perspective — might just put us in the position to have a bit of an advantage or technological buffer so that the next time we pivot, we’ll exclude fewer people in the process. By doing so, we’ll be able to rise to the next opportunity that presents itself.

Get more insights from the second edition of Salesforce.org’s Connected Student Report.

About the Author

Mary Heid, Quality & Accessibility Engineering at Salesforce.org
Mary Heid
Quality & Accessibility Engineering at Salesforce.org
Mary focuses largely on helping ensure Salesforce.org designs, develops, and delivers products that are accessible to all individuals. As a life-long higher education information technology professional, Mary is passionate about her work focusing on the universal design of technology as a means to provide students equitable access to education and opportunities.