Improving Online Accessibility for Students a Major Issue for Schools

By Bridget McCrea
March 27th, 2015

Getting schools onboard with accessible learning is a struggle that Kara Zirkle is all too familiar with. As IT accessibility coordinator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., she says resistance to change, particularly in the cultural senseis fairly natural and tends to stand in the way of even the best intentions on the assistive learning front. To overcome this obstacle, she says schools should institute solid policies and procedures that address all federal (i.e., ADA) and state accessibility requirements.

On the K-12 front, she says the board of education, principal, and technology directors should be part of an effective “top-down” approach to accessibility. Without these key players on the team, Zirkle says such initiatives can quickly become fragmented and ineffective.

In some cases, watching how other schools either addressor, get in trouble for thwartingthe laws can help institutions formulate their own approaches to accessible learning content. “We’re seeing more lawsuits and complaints surfacing, and that’s giving schools some benchmarks to turn to, rather than having to reinvent the wheel,” says Zirkle. “The recent activity is creating a chain reaction of responsibility and helping institutions gain a better understanding of what’s really involved when it comes to accessibility.”

Since launching its closed captioning initiative three years ago, GMU has tripled its usage of the utility and is now at 50 percent compliance and 50 percent accommodation on all content. “We’re having to ask for additional funds every year because the closed captioning is growing so much,” states Zirkle, acknowledging the fact that not all schools can accommodate and fund such growth. The large university that’s experiencing budget cuts, for example, or the small K-12 district that hasn’t even addressed the issue yet, are both in challenging positions.

“I see accessibility as a huge area for new schools that have no such initiatives in place because money is tight everywhere,” says Zirkle. “In an ideal world, every school would have a chief information accessibility manager, but for now there are still many of them that are thinking, ‘Hey we’re good. We don’t have to worry about this until we get caught.’

Industry Gets Some Skin in the Accesibility Game

At UW, Burgstahler says the university has built accessibility into its workflow. Working with Phil Reid, associate vice provost, academic services UW-IT, for example, she enlists the help of a high-level task force comprising faculty members, an ADA compliance officer, the IT department, purchasing agents, and communications representatives to create a well-rounded approach to accessibility.

“We meet once a month to discuss the issues and the forward-looking changes that need to be made,” says Burgstahler, who sees the IT department as an integral piece of the accessibility puzzle. “You need someone who can provide the guidelines and to consult with teachers that want to caption their videos. These are both really important parts of the process.”

For example, Reid says the college recently switched over to a Panopto electronic captioning system. But before rolling out the system, his department looked closely at the design aspects of the solution and how those factors impact the need for accessible content. “To make the transition as easy as possible, we baked the accessibility elements right into the service from inception,” he points out, “rather than waiting for the service to mature and then wondering what to do about the accessibility later.”

Reid says this proactive approach has served UW well. As more institutions of higher education and K-12 districts either take their own proactive approaches to accessibilityor, come under scrutiny for either intentionally or unintentionally ignoring the requirement she expects awareness of the underlying issue to reach new heights. On a positive note, Reid sees more technology vendors stepping up to the plate to help educational institutions comply with ADA and other mandates.

“We’re definitely seeing a greater awareness of accessibility on the part of industry,” says Reid. “When we deal with industrial partners for software and service-type initiatives these days, for instance, accessibility is discussed much more frequently. That’s a good thing and a step in the right direction.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

Reproduced from