The message could not have been clearer. “Ensuring educational accessibility is foundational to achieving the Vision for Success goal of creating an equitable system of higher education and is a critical piece of student success and degree completion,” wrote Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley in a 2018 letter to college administrators and information officers underscoring accessibility standards both on the web and with instructional materials. “In support of the Vision, I am fully committed to extending the benefits of universal access throughout the system.”
Since the directive was sent, the Chancellor’s Office has remediated approximately half the 1,150 or so documents on its website that were not compliant with accessibility standards, in addition to having a third-party vendor evaluate the site to make sure it adheres to state and federal mandates. Web editors regularly undergo internal training regarding accessibility. Twice-annual accessibility workshops are held for information technology professionals throughout the system. And the Chancellor’s Office, through the Digital Innovation and Infrastructure Division and the Institutional Effectiveness and Partnership Initiative, is busy supporting colleges in adopting instructional material that is accessible to all.
Such practices not only make sense, it’s the law. In 1998, Congress amended the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and, under Section 508, required federal agencies to provide disabled employees and the public the same kind of online access to information that is available to others. California adopted comparable decrees through Government Code Sections 7405, 11135 and 111546.7.
Assistive technology runs the gamut from voice recognition and screen readers to leveraging the accessibility of content created by web authors and designers for easier comprehension and use. The California Community Colleges’ Accessibility Center is on the front lines, holding between 25 and 30 training workshops and hand-on sessions throughout the year.
“This is an institutional responsibility and not the responsibility of any one person or any one department,” said Accessibility Director Sean Keegan. “It is in many ways a culture shift underscoring our commitment to student access and student success.”
The Accessibility Center, funded by a grant from the Chancellor’s Office, is hosted at Butte College and provides accessibility assessments to colleges across the state. More importantly, Keegan said, it’s providing colleges the framework to develop and maintain a system that meets accessibility standards.
Those standards can be overlooked. College staff or administrators may believe they are fully accessible as they may rarely, if ever, receive any complaints about the accessibility of a website. “But sometimes that’s because they don’t have a formal complaint process,” Keegan said.
“We want the colleges to ask themselves, ‘What does an effective strategy look like at our institution? We want to help colleges understand their role in ensuring accessibility and empower colleges with best practices.”
The focus is not entirely on the web. The California Community Colleges Alternate Text Production Center has, since 2002, engaged in transcribing textbooks into Braille for blind users, incorporating tactile graphics into manuscripts and creating electronic textbooks, among other measures, to ensure students with physical limitations are not denied an equitable opportunity to secure a solid education. The work can be challenging. Transcribing a book into braille can take weeks or more, but the Alternate Text Production Center has been known to get results within days.
“The student has to have what they need when they need it,” said Director Jeff Baugher.
The center has built such a solid reputation for excellence that it now provides services for educational systems across the United States and Canada.
“I really like what we do here,” Baugher said. “It’s something that’s really important and it’s something that we’re really good at.”