UC touts cutting-edge digital accessibility

When it comes to online learning and digital access for all, UC stays ahead of the game

While higher ed around the world scrambles to adjust to new virtual learning norms, the University of Cincinnati continues to surpass expectations to make websites and online learning tools accessible to everyone.

“The real value of UC’s digital web presence goes beyond continuing a smooth transition from in-class to remote or hybrid learning for students during the pandemic,” says Heidi Pettyjohn, executive director for accessibility in the Division of Student Affairs. “We’re also maintaining our commitment to include digital access for people with disabilities.” 

In alignment with the university's Next Lives Here, strategic direction, UC is committed to the growth and development of all students, faculty and staff. For example, several improvements include the addition of closed captioning on all videos, adding alternate text that is embedded into photos to describe the content of an image from a screen reader for the visually impared and ensuring there is a high-color contrast between text words and background shades for those who have trouble distinguishing certain colors, adds Pettyjohn.

Beyond students, she says there are parents or family members who are hard of hearing or visually impaired, as well as people on campus where sound is just not available to them on their devices for one reason or another.

“We also encourage faculty to check in with students, especially at the beginning of the semester to see where they may need help," says Kimber Andrews, assistant director for UC’s Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. "We suggest faculty add explicit guidance on how the course will be offered in the fall so students can think ahead about what kinds of support they will need and reassure students you are available to help them succeed.”

After COVID-19 threw the campus a curveball in March, we were able to partner with faculty to help them quickly and efficiently transition to an online and digital teaching framework. Things were happening so fast and we hit a few road bumps, but making it mandatory for all new technologies to meet UC’s accessibility standards prevented many students from feeling isolated.

Mitchell Jones accessible technology specialist for UC Accessibility Resources

Digital Inclusion Days

People sitting in the UC Blue Ash auditorium during the June 2019 Digital Inclusion Day.

UC held its first Digital Inclusion Day at UC Blue Ash in 2019.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), UC’s Accessibility Network will hold its second Digital Inclusion Days conference on July 22 and 23. This year's event will be a virtual livestream from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Register for one or both days and learn new techniques for developing software and learning tools and making digital media accessible. 

Portrait of UC's Debra Merchant, vice president for Student Affairs.

Debra Merchant

Keynote speaker this year is Debra Merchant, UC vice president for student affairs. The event will coincide with a series of activities to celebrate the original signing of the act on July 26.

Last year’s first event, kicked off by Bleuzette Marshall, vice president of equity and inclusion, was held at UC Blue Ash and welcomed participants from around Ohio to network and learn how to incorporate accessibility into their everyday work materials.

“We want to make sure all members of the community can live, love, learn, work, grow and thrive in a safe, supported environment,” said Marshall. “A digitally inclusive community is important to vibrant economic and civic participation.”

Cultural awareness

Stemming from federal guidelines as part of the ADA, UC began a whole new refresh of the university’s main webpage in 2014. 

As a result of the ADA, a person with a disability must be able to obtain digital information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability. While it might not result in the same ease of use compared to a person without disabilities, Pettyjohn says UC must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits, opportunities and equal treatment in the use of that technology. 

And UC went beyond the minimum requirements.

“Most schools hire one or two people to do accessibility work,” says Pettyjohn. “But for the kinds of technological investments we’ve made, the university now has a cross-functional team of 16 full-time professionals working in six different units across campus to maintain that digital accessibility and inclusion." 

Staying ahead of the game, UC launched its new accessibility network website earlier in July, which includes new touch points like remotely accessing copy machines and other electronic devices on campus.

Leveling the field

“After COVID-19 threw the campus a curveball in March, we were able to partner with faculty to help them quickly and efficiently transition to an online and digital teaching framework,” says Mitchell Jones, UC accessible technology specialist. “Things were happening so fast and we hit a few road bumps, but making it mandatory for all new technologies to meet UC’s accessibility standards prevented many students from feeling isolated.”

Creating course content can be somewhat complex so Pettyjohn highlights seven primary standards to make it more accessible to all, including best practice principles for how to use headers, links, alt text, color and contrast, tables, forms and checklists.

In addition, the Canvas program, a course management system that supports online learning and teaching, offers a tool that provides faculty with real-time feedback for the accessibility of their content. “It checks it right when they upload it, prompts them to fix it and provides tools to help them at the point of creation and insertion into their course program to make it more accessible,” adds Pettyjohn.

While Andrews says moving to Canvas from Blackboard, a similar system, can be one easier way to make courses more accessible, she also encourages the use of headings within the content as a way to separate the information for screen readers and to make it easier to read. 

“Before faculty and staff buy new software or implement new technologies, we hope they will continue to partner with us to ensure their sites and tools are digitally accessible and inclusive,” says Jones. “That way we can continue to advocate with and on behalf of the disabled members of our community so everyone has access to learning and new things going on at UC.”


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Featured image at top: UC's campus surrounding green space. Photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative + Brand

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