By the time the University switched to online instruction in March in response to COVID-19, Laurie Cochenour was familiar with the making the online environment accessible for to all types of learners and abilities.
The University Center for Teaching and Learning maintains a robust compilation of instructional accessibility resources for faculty and staff that includes content from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Disability Resources and Services, Pitt IT and LinkedIn Learning.
As executive director of online learning at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS), Cochenour led the launch of SHRS’s completely digital master’s degree in health informatics in January; another program will be in place the fall.
“It’s general best practice, and of course complies with the law, but it’s the right thing to do for our students,” said Cochenour. “It can help to reframe the idea of accessibility from being just something for students with disability to the advantages that everyone encounters when it comes to accessibility.”
The University’s pivot to online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of providing digitally accessible content, including accommodating the needs of people with disabilities and fostering different learning styles.
To help guide this approach, the University’s Electronic Information and Technology (EIT) Accessibility Policy established standards for accessibility of EIT to meet the goal of providing equitable access to services and making content available to everyone. Additionally, it establishes roles and responsibilities for meeting requirements and monitoring compliance.
“Schools, units and departments will have assistance on how best to meet the requirements of the policy,” said Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees. “The Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) will support implementation of the policy by coordinating and reviewing the compliance program as well as providing training and support to meet the goals of that policy.”
Angie Bedford-Jack, digital accessibility coordinator in ODI, said the policy will take on even more importance now that much of what is done day-to-day in in teaching and learning is digital. Bedford-Jack worked with the Office of Policy Development and Management and an ad hoc committee set up by Humphrey to draft the policy; it was then reviewed by members of the Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy and the Computing and Information Technology committees in the University Senate before it was passed by the Faculty Assembly.
“We didn't have to make large changes to the policy as we drafted it, but we put in language that made it much clearer that people who are responsible for ensuring accessibility have resources and support,” Bedford-Jack said. Additionally, wording was included to make clear that decisions will result from a collaborative process that includes necessary stakeholders.
With the formal adoption of the policy, an implementation plan has begun—though the rollout has changed slightly in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Basically, we’re asking schools, departments, organizations and units to identify their fundamental electronic information and technology and how they might begin to foster accessibility of those resources in the first year,” said Bedford-Jack.
The University Center for Teaching and Learning played a role in developing the approved policy and will continue to support accessibility during its rollout, including providing resources for creating accessible instruction.
“The policy will help to support the work that the Teaching Center does, often in close collaboration with the Office of the Provost and ODI, to support faculty in learning how to make courses and course materials accessible to everyone,” said Cynthia Golden, associate vice provost and director of the Teaching Center.
Golden said the University’s obligations—and the accessibility policy—are greater than just compliance.
“We have a moral and ethical obligation to do the best we can for our community. Accessibility needs to be part of our everyday lives at Pitt. Technology is an integral part of how we teach, how we learn and how we work. We all have to recognize that accessible electronic content benefits all students, faculty and staff.”