What are the Keys to Accessibility in Higher Ed?

Top tips to ensure your edtech strategy isn’t leaving your prospective students behind.

GUEST COLUMN | by Brendan Davis

Technology continues to change the way students and higher education institutions engage and interact. Strategic enrollment leaders who understand this are consistently finding ways to incorporate new technologies into their recruitment and marketing strategies.

However, constantly chasing the “next shiny object” may have its risks; particularly when it comes to Section 508 ADA compliance.

Setting aside realities like the fact that any institution receiving any type of federal funding is bound by Section 508 compliance per the GSA to ensure that all students can get the information they need to attend the university, or that international students (a population that is increasingly important to many institutions) may interact with your online tools differently; it’s just good practice to ensure that anywhere an institution’s brand appears online are accessible.

In essence, supporting student success is good for everyone. 

“Show me the VPAT”

It’s no secret that most institutions don’t “go it alone” when it comes to building online tools.

Many institutions choose strategic partners for everything from full website overhauls, to online form hosting, video streaming, and of course site chat tools.

The goal when choosing any of these partners is to make everyone’s life easier, from the student who is engaging with the school online to the administrator who may not have the time or internal skill set to build these tools themselves.

An easy step to ensure the providers that are building the tools and resources that represent your brand online are ADA compliant is to ask for their VPAT, Voluntary Product Accessibility Template; a self-disclosing document produced by the vendor which details each aspect of the Section 508 standards for accessibility and how the product supports each criteria. This document may be easily shared with leadership, legal teams and accreditors who may be auditing the compliance of your web-based tools.

Key points to consider?

While not an exhaustive list, there are some key assistive technologies to consider when ensuring your web-based tools are compliant and accessible.  Some ways users may interact with your website could include:

  • Using a screen reader, which could read the screen aloud or output text via a braille keyboard.
  • Zooming your website to be 200-400% its original size.
  • For those with hearing impairments such as deafness, or hard of hearing, will need visual cues, such as closed captioning.
  • Alternative keyboard control – Many users are not able to use a mouse to interact with your website. They could use a touch screen, foot pedal, head switch, or even just the keyboard to navigate.


Best way to test compliance?

While documentation is great, the reality is that since a VPAT is voluntary, the vendor can choose which compliance standards they report on. This means, as an example, that while the web forms your CRM system provides to generate inquiries or process applications may be accessible, the “out of the can” site chat or video streaming service they build may not be.

Another important step to ensure your content is accessible is to have someone who uses assistive technology on a daily basis to use your tools and report their findings.

Additionally, you may consider performing seemingly basic tasks, like keyboard navigation, yourself. How challenging is it to get to where you need to go without the help of a mouse? If you find it difficult, imagine how hard it is for someone without the choice.

Additionally, there are some tools online to help. Many of which we have used at my company when ensuring compliance of our tools. These include:


Final tips

Ensuring compliance is a consistently evolving process. It is important to evaluate your online strategy to ensure that all students can access and utilize your tools.

Even the best engagement plans can fall short if students cannot leverage your tools.

Never hesitate to ask your vendors for their VPAT documentation and push back if you feel their tools are falling short. It’s how we all improve.

Brendan Davis is the Principal Engineer at PlatformQ Education, a leading provider of online engagement strategies and tools for higher education. Brendan has been building online communication and engagement tools for over 10 years and holds his Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth. He can be contacted at bdavis@platformq.com.


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