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Avoiding ‘inclusion exclusion’ – keeping stakeholders on board

26 Feb 2021 | Alistair McNaught The Disabled Students’ Commission has published new guidance to help universities and colleges improve support for the digital experience of disabled students.

Guidance for captioning rich media: Institutional approaches to supporting disabled learners provides guidance for minimum achievable standards so that universities and colleges can share good practice, identify sustainable benchmarks for delivery and effectively plan for ongoing improvement within a clearer practical and technical framework.

In this blog, Alistair McNaught from McNaught Consultancy, one of the co-authors of the new guidance, explores the issues of communicating technical standards to non-technical people to ensure that organisations meet the needs of the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Requirements.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have a good readability score - the average reading level for most adults. But beyond the reading algorithms (based on sentence length and polysyllabic words) things are different. For example, who could tell that “Information, structure, and relationships conveyed through presentation can be programmatically determined or are available in text” actually means (among other things) “use the inbuilt heading styles in Word when making headings and subheadings.”

Inclusion exclusion

The guidelines are aimed at web developers. Developers might use a range of technologies with different characteristics so the language needs to be technical enough to be precise and generic enough to be transferable. This makes the guidelines very useful to web developers.

But digital inclusion depends on others too. In a typical higher education institution, most online content is created by non-web developers like teaching staff, support staff, administrative staff and so on. This is where the chief irony lies.

The people whose accessibility practices will make most difference to disabled users don’t understand what they need to do.

They may know that all their digital content now needs to “meet the accessibility requirement” but they are hampered because:

  • the “accessibility requirement” is meaningless to them
  • they don’t know how to translate it into Word, PowerPoint, pages on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), online delivery or lecture capture
  • when they finally find out what it means to their practice they discover that some of the requirements are not possible to achieve with the technology they’re using
  • even if the requirements are technically possible they are often extremely challenging to achieve within the constraints of teaching load and available support.

Shrinking practice?

In the worst case scenario, lecturing staff seeking to preserve their own mental health and wellbeing may decide to retreat from digital. There are no standards governing traditional, non-digital content. Photocopies, chalk board scrawl and didactic “stand and deliver” lectures invite no judgements from accessibility police. Yet this is the biggest irony of all because almost any digital content is more accessible for disabled users than traditional chalk, talk and handouts. Digital content has enormous potential for personalisation. Lack of training and lack of skill may mean the digital potential is not exploited, but the key thing is to get more digital content, not less. We just need to ensure we don’t accidentally create barriers through ignorance.

Growing beyond standards

For educators, the focus should not be technical standards but accessibility maturity. You can’t get to accessibility maturity without respecting the standards, but the maturity concept goes beyond standards to focus on the learner’s experience. Compliance, on its own, guarantees little by way of the disabled student experience. An interactivity like drag and drop labelling on a diagram may be technically accessible to a blind user but painfully unenjoyable. Focusing on the user’s actual experience is what matters and, in that context, standards are only part of the picture.

The Accessibility Maturity Model for Education is one way of translating accessibility into everyday practice for a wide range of roles.

At its topmost level, the model consists of five stages; Luck, Tokenism, Standards, Ownership and Partnership. At the next level down, these five stages are translated into different “lenses” through which the organisation can be viewed. There are eight lenses in total:

  • What is the main driver?
  • Who has responsibility?
  • Which model of disability is in play?
  • What is the focus of effort?
  • Skills and expertise?
  • Which policies include accessibility?
  • How does the culture of the organisation feel?
  • What is the student digital experience?

The final, detailed version consists of 50 questions across a range of roles like delivering teaching and learning, supporting teaching and learning, library and resources and manager roles. Through this process, accessibility principles translate into daily practices.

'Accessibility maturity model has five stages Luck, Tokenism, Standards, Ownership and Partnership.  The benefits to the organisation increase towards the ownership and partnership end.'

Walking the tightrope

Meeting all the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for all the content in a typical higher education setting is, currently, unlikely. But the accessibility regulations are not unrealistic. They have a derogation for Disproportionate Burden (if you have evidence to support the case). This creates a tension. For example, for some universities, the cost of making lecture capture videos compliant with the standards could cost more than rolling out lecture capture. It may be tempting to invoke Disproportionate Burden but this creates a false dichotomy. The question should not be “Can I achieve 100% accessibility or should I claim Disproportionate Burden?”. The better question is “How can I improve my current practices so that even if I claim Disproportionate Burden, fewer barriers remain?”. In this context, developing minimum achievable accessibility standards is key to an inclusive culture. There is no faster way of killing culture than making impossible demands. The tightrope organisations have to walk is between two types of unreality – making unrealistic demands on over worked staff or being unrealistically complacent about the needs of disabled learners.

Creating accessible content should be a part of the professional culture of any digital communicator and the key practices can be taught very quickly. Presenting accessibility in ways appropriate to people’s practice and skill set will take you much further in the end than focusing on technical standards, not least because technical standards will change.

Download Captioning rich media: Institutional approaches to supporting disabled learners


Alistair McNaught is a digital accessibility specialist with 17 years in the field, working nationally for TechDis and JISC before going independent in 2019. He is an associate for the Education and Training Foundation and has set up joint services to HE and FE with AbilityNet and textBox Digital.

Click here to read the Disabled Students’ Commission Annual Report: Enhancing the disabled student experience and watch Chair Geoff Layer introduce the report in an accessible video

Advance HE has responsibility for providing secretariat support, as well as overseeing the management, coordination and dissemination of research and other DSC outcomes. Find out more about the Disability Students’ Commission


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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