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Accessibility in UM’s digital spaces

Why designing for digital accessibility matters to us all

March 12, 2024 — 

The University of Manitoba is the university for Manitobans. And in Manitoba, 29.2% of people over the age of 15 have at least one disability, according to Statistics Canada.  

Additionally, the Accessibility for Manitobans Act Information and Communication standard comes into force on May 1, and focuses on ensuring barrier-free communication and access to information digitally, in print or through interaction with technology or people. 

That’s why UM is committed to accessibility not only in its physical spaces, but also in its digital spaces.  

“People with disabilities are part of our community,” says Tina Chen, vice-provost (equity). “To counter ableism, we need to always assume people with disabilities are present. Universal and accessible design starts from this principle.” 

Chen continues “Universal and accessible design benefit us all right now – including providing for different preferred learning and work styles – while recognizing that people’s needs change over time and that, as disability activists such as Sherri Torjman remind us, the experience of disability is intrinsic to the human condition.” 

Designing for everyone 

“Accessibility aims to create an equal experience for all users of a website or tool,” says Lonnie Smetana, architecture practice lead in IST planning and governance and a member of the web accessibility project team. 

“Designing for people with varying levels of abilities results in designs that benefit people universally,” he says. “There are hidden audiences for features that would initially seem to be for a specific group of people only. An example is someone who has English as an additional language. They might use captions on a video to help them understand the content and improve their language skills.” 

“Accessibility means that people using a website or digital tool are empowered to accomplish tasks independently and will not be frustrated by barriers of a poorly designed or implemented system,” says Smetana.

Centering the user experience 

Sarah Kroeker, accessibility coordinator in Student Accessibility Services, agrees.

She cautions to avoid thinking about digital accessibility as only about hearing or seeing content through assistive technologies like closed captioning, described video, or compatibility with screen-reading software – although these are important starting points.

“Accessibility in digital spaces is largely about the user experience and logical paths to essential information,” she says.  

Kroeker gives the example of accessibility in a physical space to help illustrate: 

“Imagine a building that has multiple floors and an individual needs to get to the top floor. There are stairs and elevators, so this building is technically accessible. However, the stairs and elevators terminate on each floor; the rider must exit and change stairwells or elevators to continue going to the top. This is an obvious flaw in design and creates many opportunities for getting lost, stuck, or giving up completely,” she says. “This can be a problem when designing digital tools without thinking about diverse users.”

“When accessibility is effective, students and other end users find the information they are looking for and can act on their own terms,” continues Kroeker. 

However, she cautions that not everyone has access to digital technology.  

“Having digital access is a privilege that can be out of reach for many people, even university students,” says Kroeker. 

“Information must still be available in analogue formats or through face-to-face interactions. For example, having only QR codes at transit stops means that people without cellphones or access to data plans do not have reliable transit data when they are waiting for a ride.” 

Universal design for learning

Johnathan Bevan is an educational developer at the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. One of his roles is researching and helping faculty and instructors implement universal design for learning, a design philosophy that aims to reduce barriers so all learners can engage in meaningful learning.  

“There can be a temptation to make an accessibility checklist and try and paint all access concerns with a broad brush,” he says. “It needs to be understood that accessibility and accessible design are relational acts. They cannot be meaningfully enacted without the input of those experiencing the barriers.” 

“Universal Design for Learning is an infinite game. There is no destination where we will arrive and say “ah, yes. Everything is accessible now,” continues Bevan. “Universal design for learning is a process in which we must actively engage, to the best of our abilities, in every space we operate within.” 

Bevan facilitates the Accessible Course Design Coaching program and says the program is a good start for anyone not sure where to begin.

“Making efforts to design digital environments is essential. This is a moral imperative as well as legally required as of May 1, 2024,” says Bevan.  

“We should also be exploring who is visiting these spaces and who is being excluded. We should ask ourselves how we can better design our digital environments to be inclusive and inviting of a wider range of people.”

Accessibility features in digital tools 

Rob Wiebe, IT learning coordinator in IST, runs training sessions on the accessibility tools available in Microsoft and Adobe Acrobat. He says accessibility is important because it ensures everyone has equal access to information, regardless of their abilities and helps us reach a wider audience. 

It is easier to start with accessibility in mind than to remediate a document, he says.

“Accessibility tools in Microsoft and Adobe will help you identify some, but not all of the accessibility issues in a document. It is important to have a basic understanding of the components that make a document inaccessible,” says Wiebe, who notes you can sign up for courses through the Learning and Organizational Development registration site, by searching for the term “accessibility” to find the sessions.  

“Incorporating accessibility can benefit everyone, not just one audience, because it forces us to give more consideration to crafting a well-structured and easy-to-use document.” 

Smetana sums up the conversation on accessibility well. “Accessibility should not be viewed as a one-time effort to reach compliance with legislation. An important aspect of this project is to increase awareness of the different ways that people use our websites and services. With increased awareness, we can do a better job of accommodating the full range of abilities that people actually have.” 

Find more information on accessibility training as well as additional resources on the Accessibility Hub on the Intranet.

The university is currently making ongoing efforts in support of its digital strategy and this article highlights how accessibility in digital technology is improving our practices. Faculty and staff who are interested in engaging in discussions about digital best practices, technology and trends are invited to join the Digital Community of Practice.   

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