The Intersection of Accessibility and Open Educational Resources

By | October 8, 2015

This post was contributed by Kaela Parks, Director, Disability Services, Portland Community College.

Accommodation Not Keeping Up With Student Needs

Colleges and universities have obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), as amended (2008), to ensure equitable access to our programs. Most postsecondary institutions have established policies and practices to support alignment with these federal mandates. For the most part, these policies focus on use of the accommodation process. This means that faculty adopt curricular materials without explicit attention to accessibility. Disability professionals then retroactively work with students to mitigate barriers on an individualized basis.  

However, even a cursory review of the landscape makes it clear that with technological changes in the way education is delivered, the accommodation process alone is insufficient. Lawsuits and civil rights violation investigations across the nation illustrate the point that colleges and universities, when operating as we have been, are ill-equipped to ensure equal access to the technologies that are core to our educational offerings today.

By failing to acknowledge the guidance coming from the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice we run a continued risk of being found out of compliance, but also, and more importantly, we incur the cost of failing our students. This is critical, because as noted in reports such as “Reclaiming the American Dream,” which was produced by the American Association of Community Colleges, the surest path to economic vitality and strength in the middle class is through education. In the absence of improving the situation, we contribute to already dismal rates of poverty and unemployment amongst the disabled and lose out on the social and economic contributions that they could have made.

We Need a Fundamental Shift, Not Incremental Change

If we wanted to aim for incremental change within the current status quo, we could try to increase the regulation of traditionally produced offerings to make them more accessible. Unfortunately, this approach has a history of being hampered by opposing interests. As an example, consider the recent attempt to propose federal legislation that would provide voluntary guidelines for publishers of curricular materials. The voices in support were overwhelmed by a swell of outcry from industry-backed associations. Furthermore, even after legislation is enacted, industry groups can be effective in securing exceptions, such as the situation in which Amazon, Sony, and other ebook reader manufacturers were granted an exception to the Communications Act of 1934, as Enacted by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. It is extremely difficult to change workflows and practices that are built to produce inaccessible offerings, because there are significant costs in retrofitting or redesigning, and companies are likely to resist spending the money.

At the institutional level, it can be a challenge to get accessibility policies in place, and when policy does exist, institutions are still likely to struggle with compliance. In part this may be because even if a school has adopted an accessible technology policy, if institutional practice is reliant upon commercial publishers and producers, and those vendors are not obligated (or even encouraged) to create accessible offerings, the point is moot.

Further, an increasing percentage of educational offerings are being delivered online, which means the type and nature of disability-related barriers are changing. Unfortunately, even with benchmarking and best practices through projects such as Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-study, there continues to be a gap between what we know is needed and what we are actually capable of delivering. The challenge is to find ways to ensure equal access through more fundamental shifts in practice such as those described by the Refocus Project.

Making the Connection to OER

One way to approach this fundamental shift is to look at a related problem: cost. A growing number of students and faculty are exerting pressure on educational institutions to examine the high cost of curricular materials. Data gathered through the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission has shown that many students don’t even buy the books that are listed as required. The practice of adopting inaccessible, expensive curricular materials is bad for our students, and especially bad for our students with disabilities.

This brings us to a new option that represents a real change in how we approach solving the problem: supporting alternatives to commercially produced offerings. Rather than trying to convince a profit-minded corporation to do right by the people, this strategy infuses accessibility and universal design principles into the growing open education movement and the open educational resources (OER) that support it. OER creators retain their copyright but add an open license, such as Creative Commons licenses, which enables successive authoring in which contributors build upon each other’s work.

Accessible OER potentially benefit all students, by virtue of saving students money in textbook charges, but especially benefit individuals who experience disability because this is a population already experiencing poverty at double the rate seen within the general population.  In a similar way, the addition of accessibility-minded language to the Oregon OER law benefits all students, by requiring more flexible and robust offerings. That said, students and faculty who experience disability will benefit the most, because there will be very little need for additional accommodation in terms of curricular materials themselves. Rather than using our alternate format workflows reactively, to fix a problem for one student at a time, with OER we could work proactively, at the point of creation or cultivation, to ensure that standard offerings will work well regardless of the access technologies our students might rely on.  

OER’s Accessibility Potential

It has become increasingly clear over time that architectural design must align with standards, and yet, in the virtual environment, we still try to accomplish the equivalent of carving out curb cuts on the fly. It is impossible. Worse, even as access technologists painstakingly adapt inaccessible commercially produced content for one student at a time, the virtual curb cuts they are creating along the way too often fill right back in when the content is copyright protected and we are restricted from being able to share the alternate formats.

With open resources, inaccessible materials can be revised to meet accessibility standards and then shared back out to the commons. Whereas with copyrighted content each school has to do this work themselves and is prevented from sharing, with open content there is a tremendous savings through sharing. As it stands, the quality of available OER varies. For example, there may be peer reviewed content that is superbly aligned with course learning outcomes but it might exist as an untagged PDF with images that have no text equivalents, or data tables that lack structure. The good news is that if any school wishes to adopt those materials, they are empowered to add the logical structure and alternate representations, then re-release the improved, accessible upgrade.  

Even better, if we look to examples such as MERLOT or the B.C. Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit we can see that it is entirely possible to create OER that are accessible in the first place. Following the “born digital, born accessible” movement of Benetech, we can reap additional benefits for all learners, as supported by research through Universal Design initiatives which have shown how multiplicity and flexibility works better for more students.

We can ensure flexible, robust offerings to improve student learning outcomes, but to do so, we need content expertise as well as accessible instructional design expertise to ensure that important features are enabled.

Policy Recommendations

Institutions crafting OER policies and accessibility services professionals working on open content should consider these guidelines:

  • OER Grant Funded Initiatives should include line items for costs associated with review and repair of OER materials in addition to line items for faculty release.
  • When accessibility features are enabled, the presence of those features should be communicated. Language requiring schools to identify courses with low-cost or no-cost course materials should be coupled with additional language such as that found in California’s OER law which designates that “all open educational resources created or cultivated will have been tested and validated as having met accessibility requirements for students with disabilities before approval and release. The textbooks and other materials shall include documentation for students with disabilities that describes available accessibility features.”

In some states, such as California, legislation to support OER has already been enacted. In Oregon we are making good progress. House Bill 2871 recently passed, and thanks to testimony and engaged participation, included an amendment that placed accessibility front and center. From the standpoint of a Disability Services professional, this is fantastic.

With Accessible Open Educational Resources we have a truly viable policy alternative. We have the potential to create and cultivate resources that are of high quality, that align with web content accessibility guidelines, that save students money, and that could allow us to advance our institutional and state priorities.

The writing is on the wall, and the reality is that colleges and universities need to move beyond the accommodation process. It is becoming increasingly clear with each settlement that establishes requirements for accessibility related policies, plans, and training. We need to work proactively. We need to ensure access to our programs a whole rather than relying on the individual accommodation process and we can do this in partnership with the open education movement.