Building an Accessible Digital Institution

A few weeks ago at the Cetis 2014 conference on Building the Digital Institution I facilitated a workshop session on Building an Accessible Digital Institution. The abstract for the session described how:

A digital institution should ensure that it supports the needs of students with disabilities. But how should we go about building an accessible digital institution? This session will review the strengths and weaknesses of internationally agreed approaches such as WAI’s WCAG guidelines, explore how the BS 8878 Web Accessibility Code of practice may address limitations of the WAI approach and see how BS 8878 may be applied in a learning context.

However the numbers attending the session were low. What is the reason for the apparent lack of interest in accessibility of digital resources?

What is the reason for the apparent lack of interest in accessibility of digital resources?

It may be that universities feel they’ve ‘solved’ accessibility by asking their staff to ensure that content conforms with WCAG guidelines. However, a quick look at the accessibility of many university’s websites is sufficient to indicate that this ‘solution’ hasn’t had the desired effect, which is why I feel it’s important to consider how the BS 8878 code of practice can help to document achievable and realistic ways of enhancing the accessibility of institutional web resources.

And perhaps, since the threat of legal action and fines for organisations whose Web content is not accessible seems to have disappeared, there is less of an interest in this area.

If that is the case, a new driver is about to arrive, which is likely to result in institutions needing to change their approaches to accessibility – the proposed cuts next year to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).

Cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)

As described by Sarah Lewthwaite in a recent Guardian article entitled “Cuts to grant funding for disabled students will put their studies at risk” the proposed cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowances in 2015 “may lead to higher drop-out rates, lower grades and students struggling without support“. The article goes on to describe how:

Under the banner of modernisation, David Willetts has announced measures to cut Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) from September 2015 – grants offered to disabled students to support their studies. Without this funding – a vital support mechanism in recruitment – higher education will no longer be viable for some. For others, cuts will mean persevering without necessary support, leading to higher drop-out rates,dissatisfaction and lower educational attainment.

The article also asks Is disability in higher education being redefined? and points out that:

Proposed changes to DSA funding may fundamentally redefine disability in higher education. Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD/ADHD, have been singled out for the largest cuts, and there is a real danger that their needs become invisible.

Shortly after the announcement of the cuts was made there was an announcement of a campaign urging all UK political parties to add digital accessibility pledges to their 2015 election manifestos. The petition begins:

We, the signatories of this petition, hereby urge every UK political party to show commitment to building an inclusive society in which all persons can participate without loss of dignity, including older persons, and persons regarded as having disabilities of any kind, independently of ability or skill, creed, race, gender, sexuality or other characteristic or preference.

A follow-up article, Funding cuts to disabled students will hit some universities hard, provides evidence of the likely impact of the cuts:

These cuts, estimated at nearly 70% of the total DSAs budget, will put the studies of disabled students at risk. DSAs currently support 53,000 disabled students, paying for assistive technologies, non-medical assistance and other costs incurred by studying with a disability.

It may be that we will see renewed interest in accessibility issues. But beyond signing a petition what else can be done?

Next Steps

BS 8878

Image from Hassell Inclusion blog – see

At the IWMW 2013 event held at the University of Bath a year ago Jonathan Hassell gave a plenary talk entitled “Stop Trying to Avoid Losing and Start Winning: How BS 8878 Reframes the Accessibility Question“. At the end of the talk a show of hands showed that there was significant interest in a dedicated event which explored how BS 8878 could be applied in a university context, in particular how it could be used not only to support the provision of accessible informal resources but also in teaching and learning and research contexts.

The announcement to the cuts in the DSA is likely to result in renewed interest in institutional approaches to the provision of accessible web services. Although the numbers attending the Cetis accessibility workshop were low I did receive encouragement to revive Cetis’s work in this area, which had previously been addressed by the Cetis Accessibility SIG. I’m also pleased to say that following discussions with Sarah Lewthwaite (a disability researcher based in London) and Jonathan Hassell (lead author of the BS 8878 code of practice) we have agreed to explore the possibility of further work in this area including running an event of the applicability of BS 8878 in an educational context.

If you’re interested in how the forthcoming DSA changes may impact you, and would like to know how you can respond to the changes in a strategic way, please get in touch and we’ll send you information as it becomes available.