By DONOVAN HARRELL
Faculty Assembly sent a proposed digital accessibility policy back to the drawing board after multiple members scrutinized its potential costs and overall implementation.
The proposed Electronic Information and Technology Accessibility Procedure could affect all University digital academic and business activities, Senior Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Pam Connelly and Digital Accessibility Coordinator Angie Bedford-Jack told the Assembly on Nov. 5.
It would call for University hardware, software and digital content to accommodate people with cognitive impairments, hearing and sight impairments and mobility issues, along with other disabilities.
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The proposal has been in the works since 2015 when former Provost Patricia Beeson made a recommendation that a digital accessibility policy and coordinator position be created.
In 2017, Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey formed the Electronic Information Technology Committee to create a policy proposal and procedure based on Beeson’s recommendations.
The policy would ultimately get the University in compliance with federal civil rights laws, such as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The University Senate’s Equity Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy Committee and Computing and Information Technology Committee endorsed the proposed policy before it came to Faculty Assembly.
This policy would allow the University to create a flexible timeframe to implement changes. Without a digital accessibility policy in place, the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) could impose a stricter timeframe if a person were to file a complaint about digital accessibility, Connelly said.
“Having a policy before the OCR comes in gives us a lot more control and ability to figure out the best and most reasonable way forward for Pitt,” Connelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, and the OCR comes in before we have a policy, we lose a lot of that agency.”
University units would be in charge of implementing digital accessibility features, Connelly said, which would allow for flexibility for each unit to meet their specific needs. In some cases, she added, technology hasn’t caught up to the need for accessibility, and a flexible time frame could allow more leeway.
But the proposal faced scrutiny from multiple faculty who were uneasy with the potential costs, the difficulty of implementation and phrasing of portions of the policy.
Nicholas Bircher, associate professor emeritus from the School of Anesthesiology, said the language in the proposed “Noncompliance” portion of the policy “seems a little draconian” in the sense that the senior vice chancellor for engagement can “unilaterally impose a standard, and then bill the unit …”
“That seems like an unusually, non-negotiated approach,” Bircher said.
Melanie J. Scott, an associate professor of surgery, and Tyler Bickford, co-chair of the Budget Policies Committee and an assistant professor in the English department, along with others, echoed this concern.
“I mean it all sounds very reasonable and that you’re going to be very reasonable, but that’s today, sitting here when we’re being asked to approve it,” Scott said to Connelly, adding that a future SVC for Engagement could decide to strictly enforce compliance.
Bickford said that he agreed with the standards for accessibility, but he had concerns about who would foot the bill for implementing this policy.
“The current draft of the proposal, which says schools and academic units are responsible for the implementation, could put a harsh burden on faculty,” Bickford said.
“This is a rule faculty have to follow, rather than a project that the University as a whole is working on,” Bickford said adding that the SVC for Engagement could impose “unreasonable” standards.
“And maybe that’s not going to happen because it’s unreasonable, but we also shouldn’t be writing policies that allow for unreasonable outcomes,” he said. “I would really like to see, specified, that the central administration is responsible for funding and supporting the huge effort that is going to go into this.”
Other Assembly members said the implementation of this policy would require tremendous effort. One repeated concern, for example, was that faculty may have to caption each video and make countless audio and digital files more accessible. This could potentially deter faculty from using certain digital resources in class to avoid the extra work of bringing it into compliance.
Connelly acknowledged that implementation will be tough, but defended the proposed policy, saying it’s important that the University get started on addressing digital accessibility. It will take the entire Pitt community to make this work, she said, and it’s worth the effort.
“This is not an easy problem, this is a complicated problem that we need to get started working on,” Connelly said. “There have been a lot of people looking at this for a lot of years, and we can be paralyzed by the enormity of it, but we’re not cutting edge … if you compare to what other schools are doing.”
The Assembly voted 28 to 3 to send the draft policy back to the University’s Electronic Information Technology Committee to address the concerns raised.
Bedford-Jack said she was “disappointed” with the decision.
“I thought that the policy that we presented was fair and thoughtful and has had a variety of stakeholders involved in reviewing and crafting it,” Bedford-Jack said.
As for funding, Bedford-Jack said she wasn’t sure if the costs of implementation could be estimated due to the scope of the changes that need to be made. She’s also unsure of how to address faculty demands that a funding mechanism is explained in the policy since, she believes, no other policy from the University specifies a funding mechanism.
If faculty need further information or support for digital accessibility, Bedford-Jack said that there are several resources for the Pitt community to use, starting with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion website.
Some of these resources include guidance for addressing accessibility issues for content creators and web developers; access to an enterprise license for Siteimprove, which can be used to scan University websites; Ally, a pilot learning management system, that can identify accessibility errors and walk faculty through fixing them; and a license to SensusAccess, a program that provides on-demand alternate formats.
In the meantime, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will continue to test implementation methods, Bedford-Jack said, but ultimately, faculty need to work to make digital content more inclusive.
“I think faculty have to be on board with this,” Bedford-Jack said. “And the reality is, is that whether it’s a heavy lift from them or a certain amount of work from them, it’s going to take work from everyone to make it more accessible. There’s not a silver bullet, there’s not some special machine that we can press a button and make things accessible.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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