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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2021 / Winter 2022)

Colleague 2 Colleague, Author

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Accessibility: Who is responsible?

By Ed Lovitt, Johnson County Community College

The recent passing of our Kansas Senator Robert Dole reminded me of the progress that has been made for our students with disabilities.   Senator Dole was a champion for disability rights and was a key player in helping to pass much of the ADA legislation we see today.  Dole often called his proudest legislative accomplishment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (Morris, 2021).

Disability Rights legislation in this country have become part of our culture and we see this when we look at physical access to buildings and architectural designs.  As early as June of 2010 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all college presidents to make the point that inaccessible technology required in a course is considered discrimination under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Figure 1.  Accessible Lock (by neshom on Pixabay)

Even with these early warnings, it has only been in the last four to five years that digital access has caught the attention of higher education leadership.   For a very long time at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) many of us have looked to our Access Services department as having the sole responsibility for accessibility and working with students and faculty with disabilities.  Recent litigation and suits filed by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) have really forced college and university leadership across the country to pay attention and rethink the priority of accessibility (Cullipher, 2017).  So, with all the changes and interest in accessibility who is responsible for taking charge?

Starting at the top

The mention of litigation or letter from the OCR will move any initiative on a college campus to the highest levels of administration.  The success of any major effort needs the attention and support of the institutional leadership including your Governing Board, President, Provost, Deans and Chairs.  There also needs to be policies in place that are consistent with disability and civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on disabilities.  Many institutions are combining the efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to focus on students with disabilities (Burke, 2020).  Some groups have suggested adding accessibility to DEI to stress the importance of this need on college campuses (Shaewitz, Crandall, 2020). 

Leadership is tasked with developing a larger picture of where within the institution change needs to take place.  Policies need to be developed and resources need to be allocated to address the accessibility needs on campus.

Educating faculty

For many faculty the task of making digital content accessible for students is a daunting obstacle in part due to the amount of time and effort required.  Many instructors who teach online may have dozens if not hundreds of pages and documents that contain images, graphs and tables that do not meet current accessibility requirements.  There is a feeling of apprehension when tools like Blackboard Ally at JCCC generate accessibility reports and list accessibility issues with the content and attached files.  Faculty feel overwhelmed with yet another compliance requirement coming from the administration. 

We need faculty champions who are able to help pave the way for others and provide a model for efforts on your campus (Lieberman, 2018).  One of the incentives for these champions is providing access to a variety of training resources and tools.  At the University of Washington all faculty and staff have access to a long list of free tools and resources on their Accessible Technology Website.  In addition to free tools, it is important for faculty to know how to reach out to instructional design teams like we have at the Educational Technology Center (ETC) at JCCC.  These teams can be found on most campuses and will provide feedback and consultation on ways to make courses more accessible.  The review of accessibility reports found in Ally is also something the ETC team will use as a first step to improving accessibility of courses.

Instructional design teams

The concept of creating and modifying content for accessibility is not new for staff and faculty trained in the practice of Universal Design (UD).   The ETC team at JCCC has been trained in UD and have completed training in Applying the Quality Matters Rubric and the SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric (OSCQR).  Both online quality checklists provide several standards that take accessibility into consideration in the design and course review process.  The instructional design team works with the Subject Matter Expert (SME) to provide clear easy to navigate courses that address all the learning objectives while meeting the needs of potential students with a wide variety of characteristics (Burgstahler, 2013).

With additional tools like Ally and UDOIT for the Canvas LMS the ETC team has been able to quickly review the inventory of any Canvas course and begin to develop an action plan for accessibility. 

Shift to vendors and procurement

Digital content is not always developed and reviewed by instructional designers and faculty.  Much of the content and digital resources used today is accessed with links to publisher websites, library databases and software applications.  Do all the third-party vendors hold themselves accountable to the same set of standards?  Does your institution have a standard and does it apply to facilities, your website and content delivered in classrooms (Dass, 2019)?

For years institutions have used the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) to collect information on accessibility.  But these templates are often incomplete and do not always contain the details needed to view the standards established. 

At the Accessing Higher Ground conference in November 2021, I learned about a new “Higher Education Community Vendor Assessment Toolkit” (HECVAT) as something that would combine both IT Security and Accessibility with one form that could be used by Procurement.   Several people attending the conference were involved in the framework of this new tool and promoted the use to help the procurement process by combining both IT security and accessibility in one tool.

Student awareness

Another major player in the responsibility for moving accessibility forward is the students we serve on our campuses.  For many students having the courage to step forward or ask for assistance takes time.  Unfortunately, in many courses time is not something they can afford to waste.  Dropout rates are exacerbated when students with disabilities feel they are not being supported by their institution (Becker & Palladino, 2016).  We as an organization need to identify ways to make our student feel comfortable in self identifying themselves and asking for help. 

One easy way to help our student is to include a variety of assistive technology tools in various resource centers around campus. These tools like Blackboard Ally, Texthelp read&write, Equatio and others can be included inside the campus LMS and located on the desktops of computers on campus.  We are also identifying specific locations in all our resource centers with adjustable desks and assistive technology.  This approach allows students to take advantage of all the resources without making a special visit or request.


Figure 2.  Accessibility (by renma on Pixabay)

The answer to the question about “Who is responsible?” is "Everyone!"  The need is great from our students and regardless of any law everyone on campus needs to play a part in student success.   We are living in exciting times where plans are being made to break down barriers to student success at every level.  Be part of the movement to make digital content accessible for everyone!


Becker, S., & Palladino, J. (2016). Assessing faculty perspectives about teaching and working with students with disabilities. Journal of Post-secondary Education & Disability, 29(1), 65-82.

Burgstahler, S. (2017). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Burke, Lilah (2020, November 12) Could disability be further included in diversity efforts? Retrieved from

Crawford, C., & Burgstahler, S. (2013). Promoting the design of accessible informal science learning. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from

Cullipher, Vivian (2017, November 28) OCR Website Accessibility Complaints Hit Schools and Universities Retrieved from

Dass, Haylee R. (2019) "Six Questions Colleges Should Ask Themselves regarding Accessibility and Procurement," C2C Digital Magazine: Vol. 1 : No. 10 , Article 2.
Available at:

Lieberman, Mark (2019, February 20) Guide to accessibility practices aim to help institutions develop formal policies. Retrieved from

Lieberman, Mark (2018, August 29) Faculty champions of accessibility shed doubts about investing time and money. Retrieved from

Morris, Frank (2021, December 6)  Former Sen. Bob Dole, who fought for disability rights, has died Retrieved from   

Shaewitz, Dahlia & Crandall, Jennifer (2020, October 19) Higher Education’s Challenge: Disability Inclusion on Campus Retrieved from


University of Washington Accessible Technology Website

Higher Education Community Vendor Assessment Toolkit (HECVAT)

About the Author

Ed Lovitt is the Director of Distance Learning and Educational Technology at Johnson County Community College. He has worked for over 35 years in education and has provided leadership in the selection and implementation of three major LMS reviews in the past 15 years.  He has a B.S. in Management and B.A. in Education from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, M.S. in Vocational Education from Pittsburg State University and a Ph.D. in Computer Technology in Education from Nova Southeastern University.  Ed has been recognized for his leadership with Colleague to Colleague, NCSPOD and KCREACHE along with his certifications as a Quality Matters- Master Reviewer, Facilitator Trainer.

His email is  
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