Key Takeaways from the Accessing Higher Ground Conference

By: Jeff McCullough, J.D., Senior Director for Accessibility, Center for Equity in Learning

 Earlier this month, I attended the Accessing Higher Ground conference—an event that focuses on:

  • the implementation and benefits of accessible media, universal design and assistive technology in the university, business and public setting;
  • legal and policy issues, including ADA and 508 compliance; and
  • the creation of accessible media and information resources, including web pages and library resources.

These topics are of the utmost importance, especially in light of our continued efforts to enhance ACT’s capabilities to ensure our products and services are accessible to all.

A common theme throughout the conference was the need for educational institutions (colleges and universities) and businesses, including organizations like ACT, to make their websites accessible. Of particular note, a lawyer from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) said emphasizing web accessibility has not changed with a shift in administrations. In other words, colleges, universities, and businesses must ensure their websites meet the accessibility standards required by law. She went on to mention that when the OCR in the DOE receive website complaints, the complaints are thoroughly investigated and pursued if the websites are not accessible to people with disabilities.  She stressed that her goal is to work with the website owners to get them to focus on the most important pathways students and potential students need:  admissions, registration, grades, and payment of fees.  While it is important for all content and processes to be accessible, a measured approach, which starts with the most critical pathways is acceptable to begin with.

The de-facto standards that all institutions and businesses are encouraged to follow are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA. These standards are used by both the DOE and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in settling cases involving web accessibility. The standards are also accepted in multiple jurisdictions worldwide.

In keeping with the theme of web accessibility, sessions throughout the conference also emphasized that documents, videos, and other webpage content must also be accessible.  Many of the break-out sessions focused on producing accessible documents  — PDFs, text, Word, or E-Pub documents..  Another key component of digital accessibility discussed throughout the conference was email. If a student cannot read or understand an email from a course instructor, or other critical emails pertinent to the educational experience, the student is prevented from enjoying the same experience as other students.

As part of ACT’s efforts to ensure all students achieve education and workforce success, we are working diligently to enhance our efforts to not only ensure ACT’s products and services are accessible to all students, but to also ensure our website content and documents are accessible. In fact, in August, ACT sponsored training to teach ACT team members how to produce accessible documents, web pages, and web forms. We also engaged outside consultants to review and validate our efforts to make more web pages and documents accessible to the general public and to state and district customers.

Overall, the Accessing Higher Ground conference provided key takeaways and valuable insights that will aid our efforts to enhance ACT’s accessibility work throughout the next year.