SENATE MATTERS: Electronic accessibility implementation raises several issues


The Electronic Information and Technology (EIT) Accessibility policy and its associated procedure recently were endorsed by both the Senate Computing and Information Technology Committee and the Senate Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy Committee, only to fail a similar vote in the Faculty Assembly. This leaves us with some things to unpack.

First, there is the principle behind the policy. The proposed EIT policy answers obligations that the University faces by virtue of existing federal regulations supporting the principle that disability should not dictate a person’s ability to access information resources. Framed this way, it is clear that even if there were not federal regulations the University had to comply with, implementing the accessibility standards described in the policy would be the right thing to do.

There is no rationale congruent with the University mission that could advocate for intentionally denying people of differing ability access to the electronic information resources at Pitt, and there is similarly no such rationale for not making a reasonable effort to provide that access. In principle, the proposed policy is reasonable and necessary.

Second, there is the policy itself. The requirements conform to accepted accessibility standards developed, tested and adopted elsewhere, both nationally and internationally. What this tells us is that we can have some assurance that the standards are not arbitrary and are likely to satisfy their intended purpose. The scope of the policy is as broad as anything can be at Pitt, covering almost anything that simultaneously uses electricity and conducts information whilst being used for “… University academic, research and business activities.” (In Faculty Assembly, I inquired about what that might not include, and the response — paraphrased — was, “That language was intended to imply that the policy applies to all University activity.” And incidentally, to match that intended scope, the “and” should probably be changed to “or.”)

It is worth pausing to reflect on that for a second. The examples stated in the policy document include both “electronic signs” and “course content.” One might reasonably ask, “How can one policy generally apply to both of these cases?” and “What is the plan for differential application of the policy to these clearly different cases?”

Somewhat reasonably, the policy provides a prioritization scheme for compliance, differentiating between new EIT, which must be immediately compliant, and fundamental and secondary EIT, two priority levels which will presumably have different implementation compliance timelines. You can imagine how this scheme might apply to the two questions above, but my personal intuition is that this is not enough. More on this later …  

The policy also allows for “rare and demonstrable” exceptions, which sounds and is intentionally restrictive, but as outlined in the associated procedure is fair and reasonable in spirit.  The spirit of the policy — the principle we can all agree on above — will not be served if everyone can simply opt out easily. Bias against the disabled is so powerful in our society that we simply could not trust ourselves to not take the easy way out more often than not. I realize that will not be a popular statement, but my guess is that if you have a disability, you will probably agree with me, and frankly it is your opinion that matters most here. From this vantage it is easy to also see why the policy is fundamentally proactive, not simply reactive. Waiting to reformat course materials only when a disabled student registers for a course is likely not going to go well for the student or the instructor.

It is worth noting where the responsibilities lie for complying with and enforcing the policy. As outlined in that document, ultimate responsibility for compliance lies with the employee conducting the applicable activity, while direct enforcement responsibility lies with their department. For faculty, this seems to mean you are responsible for making sure your course materials are compliant, while ostensibly your chair or their designee is responsible for verifying this. Further up the chain, the policy does state that the senior vice chancellor for Engagement or a designee can act at their discretion to remove or bring a department’s (or more generally “area”) resources into compliance, and that the cost may be passed on to that department. On the face of it, this seems well-intentioned but poorly stated. There are ways of reading this section that imply that this policy affords a mechanism to restrict content, not just information modality, and this could be interpreted as a threat to academic freedom.

Third, there is the implementation, and this is the crux. When the proposed policy was brought to Faculty Assembly, very little specific information could be provided to address the key concerns of the faculty present, which basically boiled down to, “Who is going to pay for this? And how?” University policies, we have heard, almost never typically include specific answers to those questions, except perhaps the special case noted above. And these concerns generally focused on the very heavy lifts that some faculty may have, such as adding subtitles to large volumes of video resources or transcribing large volumes of audio resources. 

What became apparent in this discussion is that no one on either side has a really practical sense (i.e., an inventory) of what implementation of this policy is going to take University-wide, except that it is going to be big. That answer does not pass a reasonable standard for how policy development with major implications for working conditions and academic activity should proceed, which brings me back to a point from a few paragraphs back. It may be that this policy is best embodied as two documents: one covering academic activities and one covering everything else. As it stands, the broad scope of this policy complicates and delays rapid progress that could likely be achieved outside of academic activities. Similarly, it may take an overly simplistic approach with academic concerns in the interest of combining all “… University academic, research and business activities” under one umbrella.

Fourth, there is the vote. Policy 01-01-01 does not indicate that Senate / Faculty Assembly votes must alter the course of a policy on its way to final approval. It merely stipulates that the Senate will provide consultation on proposed policies. In voting in Faculty Assembly to send the policy back to its committee for additional refinement, the elected faculty exercised their duty and conscience, but they also revealed the limitations of this particular shared governance mechanism. Votes like this have no inherent procedural value to influence policy in the current policy development process, and they present the risk of diluting the influence of the Senate by eventually giving the administration no choice but to ignore a vote and proceed with a policy.

Hold that thought …The rationale for that could be as simple as, “This policy has been developed over the course of several years with broad University input. We have to side with the rigor of that process over the limited review of the Senate.” And that would be a fairly practical decision, if the premises held up. However, if the Senate is involved early and effectively in the policy development process, it is more likely to see policies that make sense to its members. Good policies are likely to receive affirmative votes; if we build good policies together, “No” votes will be rare. But, just so we are clear — our votes will always matter to us and the people we represent.

Join us in the Senate and see what we can do together.

Senate Vice President David Salcido is a research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the School of Medicine.