University of Wisconsin–Madison
An illustration of tools and devices to support remote learning and working, including a laptop, tablet, notebooks, pens, a microscope and other tools and digital symbols, such as the wifi symbol

Digital Accessibility: A Pandemic Look Back—And Forward

When an emerging global pandemic shifted the university’s operations largely online in March 2020, UW–Madison faced the daunting task of moving over 9,000 courses into a virtual format in the frenetic span of just two weeks.

It was just one piece of a seismic pandemic shift to remote operations for a major higher education institution. And if the concept of designing a more accessible, usable digital campus for all had previously been a ripple in conversations about how we do things at UW–Madison, those ripples were about to build into tidal waves.

A year and a half later, with a largely in-person fall 2021 semester now in full swing, digital accessibility advocates across our university reflect on the many critical ways in which accessibility challenges became more apparent during the pandemic—and the lessons learned going forward.

What is digital accessibility?

What exactly does “digital accessibility” mean? The concept is centered around the practice of ensuring that digital resources can be used by all members of the university community with a diverse range of abilities—including those who may experience barriers to fully interacting with digital resources because those resources are not designed and developed to include people with hearing loss, visual, motor, cognitive or learning disabilities, or those who are aging or have lower digital literacy.

These “digital resources” include websites, emails, documents, video, web and mobile apps, instructional technologies, software, computers, kiosks, telephones and more. Accessibility barriers may also be created by social-economic factors, such as access to high-speed internet and whether a home environment is conducive to working and learning.

How prevalent is the need for digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility supports everyone, including people with disabilities, especially as we become more dependent on digital environments to participate in the university and society. By providing heightened functional usability, a commitment to digital accessibility makes technology more usable for everyone. For example, digital accessibility supports all users who use video captions to support enhanced learning in addition to supporting the deaf or hard of hearing community.

A common question fielded by UW–Madison’s Center for User Experience: “Can’t we just provide accommodations for people with disabilities, or those who use assistive technology like screen readers, rather than go through the effort to make something fully accessible?”

But imagine if you had to request an accommodation every time you needed to use a university digital resource in order to participate alongside your colleagues or fellow students.

Accessible digital resources help create an inclusive university because it allows all people, including those with disabilities, to fully participate independently in university activitieswithout experiencing barriers, or needing assistance or accommodation. This allows people with disabilities to avoid being disadvantaged by the need to request an accommodation or gain access to an alternative means of participation.

Microsoft data cited by the Center for User Experience shows that about 62% of all users reported that they have severe or mild difficulties with using technology—and not all of these users reported that they identified as having a disability.

Center for User Experience leaders say it’s an often-surprising statistic—and the high prevalence of those who are impacted by accessibility barriers underscores how making our digital resources accessible makes them more usable for everyone.

“Digital accessibility is a core component of ensuring that our campus is a diverse, equitable and inclusive place for all,” notes Jess Jones, interim director of the Center for User Experience. “And ultimately, it’s a responsibility shared by all.”

As the pandemic dawned: an accessibility awakening

When the pandemic sent most university employees to home offices and prompted the pivot to remote instruction, this sudden shift increased the reliance on new and often unfamiliar modes of technology to work, teach, learn and interact in ways we’ve never before experienced.

“The potential for someone to experience a barrier, due to a disability or otherwise, increased greatly because our access to work and learning was limited to digital technology,” explains Sandi Arendalkowski, digital accessibility program coordinator for the Center for User Experience. “What was happening across the country—and certainly what we found at UW–Madison—was that temporary and permanent and situational disabilities surfaced in so many ways, whether or not people identified as having a ‘disability’ as defined by a medical need.”

In a flash, students, faculty and staff had to rely on their home environment for being able to productively learn and do their jobs, Arendalkowski added.

“There was this huge shift away from the resources that may have supported you in work and academics while physically on campus,” Arendalkowski explained. “Suddenly we were all at home, all remote, and all relying on digital tools and resources. And that upended the supports people previously had when they were on campus.”

“It causes the physical space to then bleed into factors of success in the digital space.”

And so the university’s massive, unprecedented endeavor to maintain operations and maintain continuity of instruction amid a pandemic introduced a wide range of complexities tied to digital accessibility—and a wide range of solutions to address them.

As part of this endeavor, UW–Madison—like so many other higher education institutions across the country and worldwide—had to quickly roll out and train instructors on both existing and new technologies. This toolbox strengthened and expanded during the pandemic to facilitate remote instruction, including applications like Canvas, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Webex, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Kaltura Mediaspace, Zoom and others.

In response to these roll-outs and the various ways instructors chose to use the technology, the UW’s McBurney Disability Resource Center had to act swiftly to ensure student access to their classes, adapting many accommodations to these new modes of instruction and technologies—some of which weren’t initially built for accommodations like live captioning and remote sign language interpreting.

Digital accessibility considerations in teaching and learning

In the teaching and learning space, as the critical importance of digital accessibility became more felt and experienced during the pandemic, a number of endeavors and areas of focus have emerged—and these efforts have continued to evolve over the past year and a half:

  • A widespread consultative effort to help instructors understand accessibility and weave equity, inclusion and accessibility concepts into how they pivoted their courses to an online format.
  • Greater focus on captioning and transcription for lectures and various forms of video and other media used in courses.
  • Creating a valuable and accessible virtual experience for previously in-person activities like SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising and Registration).
  • Increased emphasis on the tenets of “universal design” when creating content and digital tools—meaning, incorporating accessibility considerations from the beginning of a project, as opposed to tacking on accommodations after the fact.
  • Working with technology vendors and the creators of third-party digital tools and applications to advocate for accessibility-related improvements in the products we use.

Let’s take a closer look at some highlights of just a few of these wide-ranging and ongoing efforts to improve digital accessibility for all, both during the pandemic and moving forward.

Building an infrastructure to support digital accessibility

The shift to new modes of teaching and learning forced many students to cope with a new learning environment. And this new environment may have been negatively affected by students’ lack of access to high-speed internet, technological capacity, housing conditions, diminished social connections, study spaces, testing spaces and other factors.

So as instructors worked to move courses to a virtual format in spring 2020, campus leadership pulled together an “Instructional Continuity” effort, a partnership between the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, DoIT Academic Technology, the Center for User Experience, the Division of Continuing Studies, the McBurney Disability Resource Center and contributors from several schools and colleges. A significant foundational aspect of this effort involved consultative work with faculty and instructors to help them keep digital accessibility efforts at the forefront of their planning.

“With each subsequent term, there was a higher standard that instructors were held to,” recalls Andy Goldstein, who served as interim director of DoIT Academic Technology for UW–Madison throughout the pandemic shift (Goldstein left UW–Madison for a role at an outside organization in September 2021).

“For instance, if you’re using video in your course, let’s make sure you’re considering captioning it,” Goldstein added. “Or if you’re making use of any sort of text information, make sure it’s in an accessible format that people can understand and use.”

This consultative help included evaluating course content and providing instructors with feedback on how to do things like improve heading structure, add alternative text or “alt text” descriptions for images and graphics, and take advantage of other tips and advice in a complex imagery guide.

“Recording yourself in a lecture for 60 minutes and calling it done may have worked the first time during the initial spring 2020 pivot,” Goldstein said. “But over time, how do you make that a more interactive, equitable and accessible experience across the board? It became one of those ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ moments.”

Contributing to that lift was a series of “Make It Accessible” how-to guides and documentation developed by the Center for User Experience, offering guidance on everything from how to create accessible video and audio content to a guide to help procure accessible technology when an application or tool needs to be purchased. The guides were a partnership between the Center for User Experience, the Office of Compliance, DoIT Communications and the McBurney Disability Resource Center.

Digital media captioning and transcription

Captions and transcripts help to make media content more accessible and help to ensure that digital media content is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The information provided by captions and transcripts helps those who are deaf or hard of hearing experience the audio track of digital media. People also use captions and transcripts to better understand the content of a recorded lecture, for example, or to better follow along in a loud or distracting environment.

As the university shifted to remote instruction, instructors produced thousands of hours of lectures and media content. And in cases when a student requires an accommodation for a disability, Goldstein explained, the automatic “machine captioning” in Kaltura and other applications for these recordings simply wasn’t sufficient or compliant for students to be able to fully engage, understand and participate.

Accuracy rates for machine captioning hover around 70%, which means that students relying on auto captions would miss out on a great deal of information, Goldstein notes.

But providing the better, more accurate option of “human captioning” is a laborious, time-intensive process to attempt manually. Additionally, with the shift to synchronous and asynchronous instruction, the use of video and lecture capture for courses increased exponentially overnight compared to in-person instruction, overwhelming existing workflows.

That’s why DoIT Academic Technology enabled REACH, an integration for professional captioning within Kaltura for use with student accommodations, which allows instructors to easily place orders for professional captioning from within Kaltura as soon as their videos are uploaded, Goldstein explains. This new workflow also had the benefit of helping to ensure that students had access to the captioned videos at the same time as their peers.

“It’s been very successful, to leverage the human captioning component of Kaltura REACH, in conjunction and in partnership with the McBurney Disability Resource Center, to address accommodations,” Goldstein said.

Currently, REACH is available specifically for McBurney Disability Resource Center use for students with accommodations, but DoIT Academic Technology is evaluating longer-term options to potentially extend human captioning services for purchase to the rest of campus.

Taking SOAR online

After the initial spring 2020 shift to remote instruction, the next big hurdle was a daunting one: As we approached a new academic year, how could we give incoming Badgers the best possible orientation experience—all without students coming to campus?

A cross-campus collaboration brought together DoIT Academic Technology, the Center for User Experience, the Center for the First-Year Experience and the Office of Undergraduate Advising and many other schools and units, resulting in a well-executed program—offering the ability for new undergraduate students to enroll in classes through online SOAR, meet peers and an academic advisor, and get connected to campus resources through an online experience.

SOAR also included online components for parents, family members, and supporters of incoming Badgers to learn more about the campus resources and support networks available to help their students succeed. Goldstein noted the collaborative effort involved “a lot of special attention” paid to the media developed for SOAR, including the virtual tours, interactive activities and advising experiences.

“It was very intense—working to make these things as accessible as possible, to consult when needed, and to provide consultation regarding what’s inclusive and what isn’t,” Arendalkowski recalls. “It was a very big lift.”

Moving SOAR to an online format was accomplished in about 8 weeks, a feat that a private consulting firm estimated would take 4 to 6 months. And incoming Badgers took notice: Student survey feedback from the first online SOAR did not show a drop off in how participants ranked the newly transformed virtual experience compared to previous in-person years.

Embracing “universal design”

Another endeavor highlighting accessibility and user experience at the forefront of planning was the development of the New Student To-Do List app, meant to be the primary hub for all new students to access critical applications, websites, and information needed to facilitate a smooth transition to UW–Madison.

This hub, accessed through MyUW, was designed to give new students a central checklist to help them know what things they need to do and what deadlines are approaching specific to their student records and interests.

Together with the Center for the First-Year Experience, DoIT Academic Technology and the Center for User Experience built the application “from the ground up,” with accessibility considerations woven into the planning—as opposed to “added on” after the application was built, Goldstein explained.

Backwards engineering an application to tack on accessibility considerations when it’s near completion or already built is not only inefficient and a waste of time and resources—it also winds up being “torturous” for both the developers and the end users, Goldstein says.

That’s where the concept of “universal design” comes in. What does it look like to create content and digital tools using universal design? Tenets include:

  • Considering the needs of users with internet bandwidth issues
  • Considering needs a “low-tech” user may have
  • Being “responsive” for phone, tablet and desktop use
  • Not relying on color alone to communicate anything
  • Providing text alternatives for all audio and video content (ie., captions and transcripts)
  • Offering straightforward ways for users to report barriers and request alternative content

Essentially, universal design embraces the idea that accessibility benefits all by ultimately creating a better, more understandable and usable end product, as opposed to simply providing accommodations for a few.

“That’s the thing about universal design and about digital accessibility—if something is designed with digital accessibility in mind, it helps to cross the barriers that surface when you don’t have good internet bandwidth, or there are other obstacles even beyond disability requiring accommodations,” Arendalkowski explains.

Embracing the concepts of universal design was a big win for the university during the pandemic—and a meaningful shift in mindset that should continue to grow and flourish, says Ruben Mota. Mota serves as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator in the university’s Office of Compliance, collaborating and coordinating with campus partners to ensure UW–Madison is continually striving for access and inclusivity for individuals with disabilities.

“It’s a phenomenal growth and learning opportunity from the pandemic—for us to shift away from thinking, ‘I need to make something accessible after I’ve designed it,’” Mota says. “When you bake accessibility into the design—whether it’s an instructor building a class, or a new application being built—it makes the experience much more seamless and available for everyone.”

A more accessible “Safer Badgers” experience

Sometimes, however, digital accessibility adjustments do need to be made for a tool or application that’s already fully developed. And throughout the pandemic, the Center for User Experience has continually advocated for accessibility improvements in third-party vendor products we use across the university—from the initial selection and purchasing process all the way through to after-the-fact enhancements.

One key example is the Center for User Experience partnership with University Health Services regarding Safer Badgers, the app the university used last year for safe building access, COVID-19 exposure notification and information about testing locations. Built by a third-party vendor, the app’s initial COVID test scheduling functionality posed barriers with screen reader accessibility and usability through the appointment-making process, Arendalkowski explained. There were also color contrast accessibility issues within the app, which posed problems for those with low vision or color blindness.

Working together with UHS, UW–Madison Chief Technology Officer Todd Shechter and University of Nebraska partners in the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s IT Accessibility Group, the Center for User Experience advocated with the Safer Badgers app vendor for accessibility-focused enhancements. Shechter noted that this Wisconsin-Nebraska collaboration was successful in large part because the feedback provided to the app vendor was very detailed and actionable.

“We were able to give clear directions to the vendor exactly what our institutions needed to be done to reduce barriers with the app,” Shechter explained. “The Madison and Nebraska teams worked together to produce one report of barriers, which increased the vendor’s efficiency—they knew that making a change once would benefit both campuses.”

In Madison, other accessibility improvements tied to the Safer Badgers app included shifting the problematic app-based COVID test scheduling functionality to a walk-in model, ensuring a more equitable testing experience for all.

“With digital accessibility and inclusive design, it’s not just about remediating things through fixing code,” Arendalkowski explains. “It’s about looking at the wide-ranging consequences of your experiences, the context around it, the task flow, and the impact—and then making operational, business and design development decisions to create a stronger, more accessible, more usable experience for the human being using the tool.”

Looking ahead

From embracing principles of universal design to considering How To Host Inclusive Hybrid Meetings that include both in-person and virtual participants, the drive to ensure that all people can participate fully in classes, work and activities continues—even as fully remote pandemic operations give way to a largely in-person fall semester experience.

For the fall 2021 semester, additional classroom technology considerations have come to the forefront, including a greater demand for microphone equipment to amplify voices while instructors are wearing masks and potentially also face shields, Goldstein explains.

And as it has done for decades, the McBurney Disability Resource Center continues to be a resource for students with physical, learning, hearing, vision, psychological, health and other disabilities substantially affecting a major life activity (e.g., walking, communicating, learning, seeing, breathing, reading, etc.). Many students seeking McBurney Center services have non-apparent disabilities such as depression, anxiety, autism, learning disabilities, ADHD and health conditions such as Crohn’s disease or fibromyalgia.

Even aside from the pandemic, demand for McBurney Center services has continually grown in recent years, with an increase of about 250-350 students per year affiliating with the McBurney Center, says the center’s director, Mari Magler. Between summer 2020 and spring 2021, the increase jumped to over 700, with 3,667 UW–Madison students eligible for services through the McBurney Center—though Magler notes that it’s unknown exactly how much of that increase can be attributed to the pandemic.

“We had a mix of responses and needs from students,” Magler recalls. “Some students were better able to connect and engage with classes online during the pandemic, but certainly for other students, it was the opposite.”

One example is students with disabilities impacting executive functioning skills. Those who experience barriers related to memory, concentration and organizing information may have experienced more difficulty in a remote environment with things like finding their class syllabus or assignments in Canvas—especially when instructors use different organizational structures for each course. However, Magler emphasizes that even students with the same disability can have very different experiences, in both in-person and virtual environments.

From the McBurney’s Center’s perspective—whether looking back on fully remote learning or to the current in-person semester and beyond—similar basic principles apply.

“What we try to do is identify the barriers disabled students experience. And if there are accommodations for that student, we work to eliminate or reduce those barriers,” Magler explains. “Flexibility is one of the biggest things that students need, and it’s not always clear or necessarily easy to implement.”

New accessibility policy and training

With a decades-old Web Accessibility Policy that took effect in 2000, a new university policy addressing accessibility is currently in the works, offering much-needed updates. As the new policy rolls out, educational efforts will be launched to help the university community understand the importance of digital accessibility—equipping people with the knowledge to incorporate best practices into everyday processes and “do the right things” when it comes to making digital materials accessible to all, Arendalkowski explains.

The Center for User Experience is developing a training series to help people across the university embrace the new policy and put it into practice. The first in the series: Disability & Ableism Awareness Training, a Canvas course openly available for learning and discovery. Additional training will cover topics such as content accessibility, and will be rolled out by summer 2022 and throughout the 2022-2023 academic year. The series will include Canvas courses and will have some synchronous remote and in-person trainings offered through Inclusion@UW. These trainings will feature content on how to create accessible digital resources in a way that’s also sensitive to ableism, privilege and other aspects of inclusion.

The recently launched Digital Accessibility Community of Practice—created by the Accessible Technology Advisory Group chaired by Beth Richardson, Bridget Whelan, Jessie Nemec and Al Nemec—is another example of the university-wide supports being built at UW–Madison to help faculty, instructors and staff practice digital accessibility in their everyday work.

“What I’m most excited about is the emphasis that accessibility is a shared responsibility: It lies with the person who is developing or designing a tool, just like it lies with a contractor who’s swinging a hammer to build an accessible ramp,” Mota explains. “When we open up a Word doc and create our course syllabus for our next class, or create a presentation for our next staff meeting, we have the opportunity to refer to the digital accessibility policy and its resources to make everything we create as accessible and inclusive as possible.”

“Accessibility really comes from ownership from within and from ‘right-doing’” Mota added. “Through the new policy and through the parallel campaign of raising awareness, it really takes away the fear of not knowing how to do the right thing.”

And while the pandemic continues to present challenges for everyone, Jones in the Center for User Experience emphasizes that together, we have learned a lot about ourselves as a university community. These learnings can—and will—be applied as we move forward, she says.

“We learned that we can pivot dramatically and make change happen when we work collectively,” Jones says. “If we apply that lesson to digital accessibility, that means that if we all integrate accessibility best practices into our work, we can make our technology inclusive and welcoming as a part of doing business—and in turn send the message to everyone in our campus community that ‘you belong here.’”

Need help?

If you are considering, reviewing, purchasing, implementing or upgrading a digital resource, request an accessibility evaluation with the Center for User Experience as early in the process as possible. Additionally, you can find more accessibility guidance in the “Make It Accessible” guide on the it.wisc.edu website.

If you are a student who needs an accommodation, contact the McBurney Disability Resource Center.

If you are a university employee who needs an accommodation for work, contact the Divisional Disability Representative (DDR) for your school, college or unit.

If you would like to connect with a community of UW–Madison staff who are practicing digital accessibility in their work, join the Digital Accessibility Community of Practice.