Accessibility as a Civil Right
Art Morgan is vice president for partner development at Automatic Sync Technologies, a provider of closed-captioning services for education and educational publishers. Writing for EDUCAUSE Review, he makes a case for regarding accessibility as a civil right and describes some benefits that arise from doing so, particularly benefits accruing to campus-wide initiatives to promote accessibility.
On the EDUCAUSE Accessibility Constituent Group list someone recently raised the question of how to promote the importance and benefits of accessibility on campus. It’s an important question: Many campuses do a great job of documenting what needs to be done to ensure that courses and campus resources are accessible, but few of us step back and take the time to figure out how we can mount a campus-wide campaign to get buy-in from faculty, staff, and students. While I have not personally implemented such a campaign at a college or university, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this over the last few years and have worked with several colleges and universities that are making great strides in raising awareness about accessibility and why it is critical to put more resources into accessibility. In my opinion, the most successful campaigns have a common thread: they promote accessibility as a civil right and explain how accessibility fosters diversity and inclusiveness.
Following are the five main reasons why promoting accessibility as a civil right works better than other approaches.
Accessibility is a civil right.
Nearly everyone knows that laws and regulations related to accessibility exist, but few realize that laws such as Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act were passed with the intention of protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities and preventing discrimination. They are enforced by the civil rights offices within the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education (ED). Helping people on campus understand the intent of the relevant laws is important, because that understanding helps everyone who plays a part in implementing accessibility understand why what they are doing is important and how it benefits the campus community and society at large.
Diversity and civil rights don’t “stifle innovation,” they accelerate innovation.
Too often, we present accessibility as a sort of legal checklist. When it’s presented in this way, even the best-intentioned people are tempted to skip items on the checklist under the guise of innovation and “thinking outside the box.” On the other hand, most people now realize that diversity in an organization is an asset, and that it stimulates and accelerates innovation. For example, a study from the well-known business consultancy McKinsey & Company showed that companies with greater ethnic and gender diversity financially outperform those with less diversity. Moreover, recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) demonstrates that even those in majority groups can reap long-term benefits by learning and working in a diverse environment. CTI calls this type of diversity “acquired diversity,” referring to individuals “whose background and experience has conferred on them an appreciation for difference.” In other words, if your students have the opportunity to study and learn in an environment that includes people with diverse abilities and learning styles, they will develop skills that make them more valuable in the workplace. It’s a virtuous circle: Students with disabilities and different learning styles develop valuable career skills by learning side-by-side with your “traditional” students, and your traditional students learn from the “nontraditional” students, which in turn makes the organizations that they join more productive and innovative.
Increasing diversity on campus and protecting civil rights requires a significant investment, but one with huge dividends.
When faculty and staff charged with implementing accessibility view accessibility as a checklist, they are invariably tempted to take shortcuts that initially appear to save time or money. Purchasers might accept vendors that claim to “check the accessibility box,” regardless of the quality of their product — even when quality standards for the college or university as a whole are very high. Their rationale often rests on the assumption that few students will ever use the accessibility accommodations and that the few who do will view the low-quality accommodations as “better than nothing.” Closed captioning is an example of how easy it is to fall into the box-checking trap. Some campuses are tempted to use captions generated by speech recognition engines or by crowd-sourced solutions, which have a significantly lower initial cost than professional captioning solutions. However, students with disabilities expect, and deserve, educational materials that meet the same rigorous quality standards that other students receive. Giving them anything less could be viewed as discrimination. On the other hand, when your organization understands that accessibility is a civil right and that diversity is an asset, staff are less likely to take shortcuts and your organization is more likely to reap the benefits of diversity.
“Separate but equal” is not a valid approach when it comes to education, and accessibility is no exception.
After decades of civil rights struggles, most people intuitively understand that “separate but equal” is not a valid approach when it comes to education. We need to help people understand that having all students use content and technology that is accessible is almost always the best approach. Framing your efforts as a diversity and inclusion strategy helps avoid counterarguments like “when we do get someone like X, we can have them use Y instead.” It is far better to be inclusive in your instructional design and follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning — and it is the only way to fully benefit from diversity in the classroom.
The right time to invest in diversity and accessibility is now, and it must be an ongoing investment.
Another common form of pushback when campuses take the legal checkbox approach to accessibility is that staff are likely to complain that “we don’t have any people with disability X in our classes,” or even worse, “we only have a few people with disability X, so it’s not worth doing Y.” Thinking of accessibility as a strategy for increasing diversity forces people to think about why they don’t have a more diverse student population (especially in certain classes or majors) and what they could do to better include people with a wider range of abilities and learning styles. As an example, it is estimated that more than two percent of the adult population of the United States are deaf, and an additional 13 percent are hard of hearing. With percentages that high, it would be unusual for a large university not to have any students who are deaf or hard of hearing. If the percentage of students with disabilities at your college or university is low, your admissions and recruiting departments need to do a better job of reaching out to more diverse groups by ensuring that all public information about your organization is accessible and assuring these audiences that the technology and resources are in place to help them reach their fullest potential if they choose to attend your institution. For this reason the organizations that are most successful in their efforts to promote accessibility typically include it under the umbrella of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they set goals and invest resources that ensure they make progress toward those goals.
In short, once your organization recognizes that accessibility is a civil rights issue, faculty, staff, administration, and students are all likely to “get it” much more quickly, and you will have much less reticence and ambivalence toward accessibility efforts. But how do you get to that point? I started with the premise that an accessibility group within a college or university could mount a campaign on campus that would help people understand that accessibility is a civil right and that improving accessibility improves diversity, leading to a host of other benefits. I am not a public relations expert, but I do have a few suggestions based on my observations of organizations that have used this strategy of promoting accessibility as a civil right:
- Accessibility is about people, so you shouldn’t be afraid to include people in the images that you use in your campaign. However, just as you would with any images that promote diversity, you should show people interacting when possible, not just a single face meant to represent a particular group.
- While some groups have used the wheelchair icon effectively, personally I don’t like the blue and white wheelchair as a representation of accessibility. I think it reminds people of the legal checkboxes too much, and it really only represents one type of disability. I prefer iconography showing cooperation and integration, such as the linked hands used by Tolerance.org.
- Finally, take advantage of resources offered by civil rights advocacy groups and government entities when conducting your campaign. Organizations that have a mission of promoting accessibility and/or civil rights are often happy to share their expertise and materials. For example, as part of their technical assistance programs, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education might send someone to speak at a relevant conference or provide remote access to experts or materials that support your cause. Similarly, DO-IT, a project of the University of Washington, promotes awareness of the benefits of implementing accessibility best practices and how these practices can transform a higher-education organization.
I hope these ideas help stimulate discussion on your campuses and ultimately help all of us make progress this year toward both increased diversity in higher education and better access to quality education for everyone. These thoughts represent a starting point but also a basis for policy guidelines on your campus. Ensuring that civil rights are upheld has never been an easy task, but it is a cause that anyone who cares about higher education can readily understand and support.
Art Morgan is vice president for partner development at Automatic Sync Technologies, a leading provider of closed captioning services for education and educational publishers. He has over 20 years of experience working with enterprise, education, nonprofit, and government customers and partners on software development and integration projects. Morgan enjoys working with progressive organizations that improve the way we work, live, and interact with our communities. Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.