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Accessible Technology (or Lack Thereof) at EDUCAUSE

[This is a guest post by Terrill Thompson, a Technology Accessibility Specialist at
the University of Washington. He may be reaching via email at tft@uw.edu, and you can follow him on Twitter as @TerrillThompson.
]

In Denver on the final day of the EDUCAUSE national conference last week, I was wondering two things. First, I wondered whether conference attendees will be impacted by the major winter storm that will soon be descending from the Rockies. Second, I wondered whether we’ll ever see a day when the technology tools we’re using in higher education are easily accessible to all users out of the box.

EDUCAUSE is amazing. There are over 270 exhibitors here, all offering tools and technologies that offer a wide variety of solutions that help academic institutions to fulfill their missions. Of these 270 exhibitors, how many of them do you suppose have products that are fully accessible to blind users, or users who are physically unable to use a mouse or otherwise operate user interface controls? Or users who are deaf or hard of hearing and dependent on captions and transcripts? There are a few vendors who are actively working to improve their accessibility, but I’m hard-pressed to name a single product that is fully accessible to all users.

This is a huge problem. We’re morally obligated to provide an effective education to all qualified students, and national laws uphold this obligation. We shouldn’t provide a lesser quality education to someone simply because they can’t see or hear well, or because they have less-than-perfect dexterity or process information differently. There are many brilliant students we would be excluding if we did that, not to mention brilliant faculty members. Unfortunately that’s exactly what we’re doing when individuals with disabilities are unable to use the same tools as their less disabled peers.

That said, we also don’t want to stifle innovation. There are some very exciting and practical tools out there that provide real benefits to students, faculty, and staff. Fortunately innovation and accessibility do not have to be mutually exclusive, but sadly they often are.

There’s another way of looking at this situation though: It’s also a huge opportunity. At EDUCAUSE I’m struck by how every vendor tries to out-dazzle the others. In order to compete, they need to have the largest most extravagant displays, the loudest and most entertaining presentations, the best conference schwag, the friendliest reps, and the wildest after-parties. But they’re all doing that. What really sets any one vendor apart? It seems to me that in a huge multi-billion dollar education technology industry that has few or no accessible products, the real winners are going to be the first companies that can deliver innovation in a way that is fully accessible to all users. That’s a wide-open playing field and a huge market need that is not being met.

The problem is that education technology vendors are blind to the opportunity. And how would they know about it? Customers don’t ask about accessibility often enough for it to have appeared on their radar. This year’s conference included several accessibility-related sessions, and several of the speakers talked about this problem. We in higher education need to demand accessible products.

John T. Hardwood, Associate Vice Provost for Information Technology Services at Penn State, gave a talk on his institution’s accessibility efforts following legal action by National Federation of the Blind. He said “The big theme here is: Work with the vendors. Work with the vendors. They are the ones who need to fix this… Talk to vendors early and often about their accessibility strategy.” This same idea was echoed in several other sessions as well, and came up often in conversations about accessibility.

On Wednesday evening at the conference I hosted a video premier of “IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have To Say”, which was covered in The Wired Campus. One of many good quotes from the video comes from Gerry Hanley, Senior Director of Academic Technology Services in the California State University Chancellor’s Office. Gerry says “Making accessibility a priority in [vendors'] development roadmap is going to be driven by the market demand. And if an institution never says a word, the vendor isn’t going to do anything about it. So if we begin to communicate our demands collectively, then the vendor will recognize the market value of accessibility.”

We all share responsibility for improving the situation. Whenever we’re deciding which tools to use in our courses, accessibility should be part of that decision-making process, and should be stressed in our conversations with vendors. Perhaps we can influence our institutions to take systematic action by requiring accessibility in RFP’s and contracts, and by establishing strategies for evaluating products for accessibility prior to procurement.

One year from now EDUCAUSE will be in Anaheim. I’ve already marked my calendar for next year’s conference, and I look forward to seeing then which vendors have risen above the competition and are actively marketing their fully accessible products.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Wesley Fryer]

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