University aims to increase digital accessibility

A Q&A with Doug Foster, VP for information technology and Kim Hodges, director of digital accessibility

 The University of South Carolina is currently undertaking an effort to improve the accessibility of its digital content. Doug Foster, VP for information technology, and Kim Hodges, director of digital accessibility, offer insights into why the initiative is important and how it’s being undertaken.

What is digital accessibility, and why is it important?  

Digital accessibility is the process of making digital products — websites, mobile apps and other digital tools and technologies — accessible to everyone. It is about providing all users access to the same information, regardless of the impairments they may have. It is important because it provides a level playing field for all users and allows for equal opportunities for success to any individual. As we see technology become the cornerstone of how we live in our educational lives, working lives and social lives, access to information and services becomes increasingly important. Making sure that users can log in, read, or listen, and understand the information presented is the main goal of accessibility.

It is important because it provides a level playing field for all users and allows for equal opportunities for success to any individual. 

How do we need to adjust our thinking in order to achieve digital accessibility? 

There is an acronym associated with the four concepts of functional accessibility. This acronym is POUR, and it stands for perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. This outlines a more detailed approach to making digital platforms and content accessible by means of perception (allowing the user to be able to perceive all functions and information in an application), operation (can the user work the functions of application), understanding (can the user follow a logical flow to navigation and access to information throughout the application) and robust, in the sense that the user can access the information on the device they feel comfortable with. 

Another aspect to digital accessibility is changing people's worldview. Advocating to the point where individuals who don’t come into contact with or have little knowledge about people with disabilities start thinking about how the things they do, develop, and use are done, consumed, and used by individuals with disabilities. Creating this shift allows people to draw insight into how technology can positively and negatively impact users with disabilities. When the worldview shifts, accessibility becomes a new consideration. This helps pave the way for the more detailed work that is required.   

What are the biggest challenges you face in trying to ensure that the university is meeting accessibility needs? 

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes. While none are insurmountable, awareness of accessibility is usually the first and biggest hurdle. Speaking about accessibility to a point where people not only understand what it is, but also how important and impactful it is makes the following steps in digital accessibility a lot smoother and easier. 

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes. While none are insurmountable, awareness of accessibility is usually the first and biggest hurdle. 

What are common issues you see — things that members of the university community should be thinking about as they navigate this terrain?

Common issues can range from images missing alt text so that screen readers (assistive technology used by those with visual impairments) reads out inaccurate information, to color contrast issues that affect those with low vision and color blindness, to links not reading out to the appropriate location. While these are common issues, they are easily corrected in the right context of education. Another common issue is documents, primarily pdfs. When a pdf is scanned as an image it means an individual who is low vision or visually impaired cannot access that document and the information contained within. 

When we talk about accessibility, are we just talking about Or does it apply elsewhere?

Accessibility covers a lot more than just Any digital product, application, site or content that is housed or used within the university falls under the same expectation for accessibility. This means Blackboard, IT help desk, outside websites, digital tools and applications like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc. These are all part of digital accessibility.

Who are the key players on campus in this effort? 

This is a team effort and coordinated response from across campus to make this work. Representatives from Communications, Melissa Spring and Laurie Barnhill, Student Disability Center, our Digital Accessibility team with Kim Hodges as the Director and myself and Marcos Vieyra stay heavily involved as we work to put this plan into action. 

Accessibility covers a lot more than just

How can faculty and staff help?

I believe that faculty and staff can help by being aware this is an issue and something we are focused on, by asking questions, and by having open conversations about how they can contribute to these efforts within their own areas.

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