IT professionals as drivers of digital accessibility in higher education

Posted on Thursday, November 30, 2017

Author: Julius T. Nganji, Programmer analyst

Computer displaying warning

The quest for knowledge and the desire to remain informed of events in our surroundings in this information era has led to an increase in the use of software applications and technological devices. At the core of today’s information revolution are IT professionals who are actively involved in the development process, hence directly involved in the determination of software applications’ accessibility. Despite the successes recorded with the adoption and diffusion of technological devices and their associated software applications, some people are being left out. People with disabilities experience difficulties when software or hardware is not developed with their needs in mind. By default, most professionals develop software having non-disabled persons in mind, only to realize that it is not usable by everyone and must be retrofitted, a costly process.

To facilitate the development of disability-aware software applications, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) produced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). From software specifications and requirements gathering to delivering the final product, IT professionals can ensure that the resultant product is both accessible and usable to all intended users by following the established standards and guidelines. A question some professionals might ask is, “Why bother with digital accessibility?”

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. Statistics Canada also estimated the number of Ontarians with disabilities in 2012 to be about 15.4% of Ontario’s population. To facilitate access to information in a non-discriminatory way, we must ensure that accessibility is incorporated into all stages of software development.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA 2005) ensures that institutions provide accessible services to customers. The University of Ottawa is committed and obligated to implementing accessibility standards. In its multi-year accessibility plan, it “seeks to ensure that the university campus is inclusive and that each person enjoys free and unhindered access to the University’s programs, goods, services, facilities, residences, communications, events and employment opportunities”. As IT professionals, we are at the forefront of implementing accessibility for software applications given our direct involvement in the software development lifecycle.

For some people with disabilities, digital applications provide a great opportunity to access information in a way that is not possible with print media. A legally blind student or staff member, for instance, could use a screen-reading software to access information from digital versions of documents. Nevertheless, to minimize any incompatibilities with assistive technologies, the software used for storing information should be accessibly designed following established standards and guidelines.

The University is committed to inclusion. We can achieve this objective by integrating the principles of accessible and usable design in the work we do. Thus, whether it be by developing accessible software applications or producing accessible documents, IT professionals can be champions of digital accessibility and usability in higher education.

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