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Ensuring equal access in a digital world

By By Robert Becker, Senior Manager of Accessibility and Usability at University of Phoenix
April 28, 2020 • 3 minute read

Out of necessity, many businesses have recently shifted to adopt a remote work environment to allow their employees to social distance and continue working. Many other companies, though, operated on a remote model before COVID-19. Whether you’re new or seasoned at embracing a remote workforce, and whether the change is permanent or temporary, now is an excellent time to evaluate the accessibility of your online environment, including your website and any virtual resources.

Providing equal access to online environments, whether they are used for education or business, is essential. Yes, it is the law, but more importantly, it ensures that you are promoting an inclusive, supportive environment that gives employees and customers all the tools they need to succeed.

Here are a few best practices for providing an inclusive virtual environment.

1. Have a knowledgeable person or team to oversee your efforts.

Providing equal access to the online environment should be considered a part of your business’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, with a person or a team who is responsible for overseeing these efforts. A team should oversee accessibility of the University’s website, all public-facing content and online applications and play a direct role in supporting disability services, if applicable.

As an overview, there are laws, standards and best practices related to online environments. Sections 508 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act[1] and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as WCAG, are clear that public websites should adhere to accessibility conformance. Make sure whoever is in charge of your compliance understands these standards.

2. Scale the changes, if they need to be made.

Consider scaling accessibility, meaning if there is something that needs to be made accessible to one employee, those updates should be made in the same manner for all. For example, YouTube videos should be professionally captioned to convey complementary meaning. If you need captions for any reason, whether it’s a matter of preference or it is necessary, because you are deaf or hard of hearing, then they are there. This is called “universal design,” and it is a concept that most entities are moving toward. Make the content accessible on the front end for all users. Always start with the most pressing need first, if it is identified, and then work toward total application.

3. Evaluate your online accessibility.

Create a procedural workflow where you collaborate with others on the front end of content creation to make sure accessibility is considered before any assets are produced. Once an asset goes live, continually assess and monitor to note any changes that may need to be made.

If you are exploring adopting new programs or software, it’s best practice to check the product’s Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, also called a VPAT, which explains how the product aligns with accessibility standards and guidelines.

For older or existing applications or services, work on accessibility of net benefit. Since systems are complex and interconnected, make sure improvements increase overall usability. Sometimes multiple changes need to be made all at once. As mentioned before, that can take time, so there should be an action plan to build those adjustments into short-term and long-term goals.

4. Recognize common misconceptions.

The following are the most common misconceptions I have addressed over the years:

  • Technology will correct itself and be more accessible in the future. It is likely technology will catch up at some point, but do not rely on this! It’s better to be proactive than reactive.
  • Some users should just try a different way If you are truly a business that embraces diversity and inclusion as a core principle , this should not even cross your mind.
  • Why are we doing this for so few people? Look at all accommodation needs as an opportunity to respond. Make it your end goal to make your materials accessible to your entire target audience. For some perspective on numbers in education circles, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics[2], as of 2017 nearly 20 percent of enrolled college students have identified as having a disabling condition requiring accommodation.

Accessibility benefits everyone. At the most basic level, you want to ensure that people are invited to your platform or website and have access to information in a way this is both helpful and uncomplicated. Be the business that goes above and beyond to accommodate everyone. Inclusion, after all, is vital to development.