Photo (Left) Heidi Pettyjohn, EIT accessibility coordinator and (Right) Dave Rathbun, instructional technologist and Blackboard Certified Trainer at University of Cincinnati

Bringing People Together: The Secret to UC’s Accessibility Success


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on June 21, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

“Start small,” says a banner on the University of Cincinnati Accessibility Network website. By clicking on the banner, a new page opens up with detailed instructions on how faculty and staff members can start making their electronic files, digital course content, websites, software and applications accessible.

“You may be wondering—where do I start? We encourage you to begin with one technique, like using headings, and learn how to incorporate that into all your materials. This will start you in the right direction for making content for a broad range of learning styles,” says the introduction on the page.

The University of Cincinnati, founded in 1819, is committed to providing students with an accessible electronic experience that supports their success. In the Accessibility Network website, everything can be easily found within a few clicks: guidelines, checklists, tips and best practices, and the university’s accessibility policy. In addition, an eAccessibility introductory course is available in Blackboard Learn for faculty and staff members.

“This is a wonderful generation of students that are coming to college right now. They are activists, they speak out, they know what their rights are. Campuses need to be aware that students will make their expectations clear and we need to be ready to meet those expectations. This is at the core of our values, especially as a public institution,” notes Heidi Pettyjohn, UC’s EIT accessibility coordinator.

A Fresh Approach to Accessibility

UC’s current approach to accessibility began to be implemented over two years ago. According to Pettyjohn, it can be defined by three words: proactive, integrated and accountable.

“We have created 18 full-time positions in our university across four units: IT, University Communications, Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. In creating those positions, we were trying to integrate accessibility into the practice of offices, as opposed to thinking of it as something that is done only by a few, or only in special circumstances. So, by doing that, we have been able to incorporate accessibility into processes and procedures,” Pettyjohn explains.

One example of that is the university’s Central Purchasing Department, which has embraced the need to learn about accessibility and was able to incorporate it into existing and required purchasing processes.

UC’s Blackboard Learn ecosystem, called Canopy, was refreshed with the launch of several new features that could help create more interactive and engaging experiences for the students. In order to do that, the university invited instructors and designers who were interested in being early adopters and help build a digital learning environment that was student-centric from the start.

Accessibility Network

At that time, according to Dave Rathbun, Instructional Technologist at UC, there were several faculty and staff members on campus already working on accessibility and Universal Design for Learning within their colleges and programs. The evolution has come in developing a support network across the institution and incorporating influential faculty members that have a big impact on their colleagues.

“We brought together everyone on campus who was supporting these projects, from Purchasing to IT, faculty and staff who interacted with students day to day, and put them together in a partnership where we shared information and best practices, and we thought about the challenges that we were facing,” Rathbun explains.

According to Rathbun, this “bottom-up, top-down” approach, having support and enthusiasm from faculty and staff, along with decision-makers, has been the key to the success of this initiative.

“We are actively working to raise awareness and then put that plan into action. There are a lot of great people working very hard. The Accessibility Network has connected us all, and together we can make profound, powerful, institutional-wide changes,” he says.

These institutional-wide changes can be difficult to implement in a university as large as UC, with more than 44,000 students. To Pettyjohn, communication, coordination and agreeing on priorities are significant challenges.

“Another big challenge, and I think it is a universal one, is how overwhelming accessibility can be when you first dive into it,” she says. The way they found to help people take part in this huge change of culture is to break it down into pieces that are more manageable (think back to the start small strategy).

Rathbun explains that the Accessibility Network, in partnership with UC’s LMS System Administrators, conducted a comprehensive accessibility review of course content and determined what the 12 most used tools were using information gleaned from Blackboard’s Activity Accumulator.

“With a baseline established, the team could identify and address significant accessibility concerns and track the progress of accessibility improvements within the LMS,” says Rathbun.

The Network also collaboratively developed a self-paced Blackboard training course called “eAccessibility: An Introduction,” which was heavily focused on awareness and initially deployed to more than 7,000 faculty and staff members who publish content within the LMS or to the university’s web presence.

“With the second iteration of this course, we have shifts from awareness to empowerment, equipping faculty and staff with the knowledge and resources to create accessible content from the start,” says Rathbun. The updated course has been deployed to nearly 12,000 users and has enjoyed the support of the Accessibility Network’s executive sponsors.

Implementing Blackboard Ally

UC piloted Blackboard Ally during Spring Semester 2018 with 25 faculty members and instructional designers participating. “This semester-long pilot was an overwhelming success. A comparison of courses from Spring Semester 2017 and 2018 showed marked improvement, with an overall increase of 20% in the levels of accessibility across all courses,” says Rathbun.

UC’s lead Accessibility Instructional Designer, Megan Wuebker, coordinated training between Blackboard, faculty and instructional designers, and met with the pilot participants throughout the semester to gather feedback on the tool.

“Overall, our faculty were very happy with it. The biggest win Blackboard Ally gave us is that, in the process of fixing existing documents, faculty reported that they actually learned enough about accessibility that they’ve now begun to create new documents for courses to be accessible,” adds Pettyjohn.

Supporting Faculty

To help faculty and students make use of all the resources that are provided by the university, different support mechanisms are offered.

“Instructional technologists and designers from the Center for Excellence in eLearning, in collaboration with the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, regularly partner with instructors from all of our colleges to provide support and guidance. One example of this partnership is Open Consultation Days, professional development events offering faculty opportunities to receive advice on technology resources, course accessibility, and strategies for improving teaching and learning on a walk-in basis. These one-on-one consultations help faculty members ensure that their materials are pedagogically sound and appeal to students of all learning needs and types. These partnerships have become key to the way we support faculty in an institution this large, with so many disciplines and colleges,” says Rathbun.

To Pettyjohn, what makes the difference is getting people to care enough to invest the time to do it. “We help people understand that this is about student success, that a student with a disability simply expects to be able to sit down and do their work with their peers. That is not an unreasonable expectation, and we remind people that our number one obligation is teaching and learning. We help people understand that students with disabilities are not the problem, that students’ assistive technology is not the problem; The problem is in the barriers that we have built and that we must get out of the way, so our students will be able to achieve success,” she notes. “We had an overwhelming support from our faculty, staff and administrators on campus as we framed what we are doing in that light.”

When it comes to students having an inclusive experience, according to Pettyjohn, one role for faculty is responding to requests for accommodation for students with declared needs.

“Our Accessibility Resources Office received additional staff through our Network funding, and they are our first line of defense in ensuring students have access to course content when they have declared needs,” she explains.

Another role for faculty, which is becoming more and more important, is learning to create their content in a way that makes it as accessible as possible from the start. This can be done, for example, by applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to course content.

“Sometimes this will eliminate the need for accommodation, but most often it creates a partnership between faculty and our Accessibility Resources Office to make sure that, when a student with a disability finds a barrier, we remediate it and, ideally, that they do not run into any barriers,” Pettyjohn says.

It is important to keep in mind that many students do not declare such needs, sometimes because they are not aware that they must do so, and in other cases, because disorders such as dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be left undiagnosed.

“I was one of those students, many years ago, who did not declare a need despite having a learning disability since I was in elementary school. I am also an Army combat veteran with all sorts of needs related to my service. It never occurred to me to say that to anyone,” says Rathbun.

He also notes that the way UC courses have been designed in the past could create obstacles for students. The university, however, accepted the challenge to change that scenario.

“Our faculty — at least every member I have ever met — has a passion to share their knowledge with their students. If we can provide instructors with the tools to do so in a way that works for everyone, I believe that we are better as an institution and better as a society,” concludes Rathbun.

Learning From the University of Cincinnati

Start small: Implementing an accessibility plan is a massive effort that can be overwhelming. Break your strategy into smaller, manageable pieces.

Build a network: Bring together people who believe in the project and are enthusiastic about it.

“Nothing for us without us”: Students with disabilities must be a part of the process.

Sharing Excellence

In 2018, the University of Cincinnati was awarded the 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Inclusive Education. The award recognizes and honors innovation and excellence in the Blackboard global community of practice.

Heidi Pettyjohn and Dave Rathbun have shared their experience with accessibility in a number of presentations, including sessions in BB World and the Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Why Should Accessibility Be a Strategic Priority for Institutions?

“Accessibility can be considered both a strategic priority and a strategic pathway toward other priorities. An accessible campus environment is something that we have to provide. It is a civil right to our students, faculty and staff, potential students, guests, and visitors. Accessibility also improves the student experience; It can be a key strategy in increasing equity and inclusion commitments on campus, and it promotes students’ commitment to the institution. So, I think that it is a value added to the institution, both as a means to other ends and as an end in itself.”

Heidi Pettyjohn, EIT accessibility coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.

“Inclusive education enhances learning outcomes for all students, not just those with disabilities. This can be illustrated by closed-captioning, which benefits all students by improving attention, vocabulary, and comprehension, hence creating a better learning experience regardless of one’s abilities. Addressing the needs of students is our legal obligation, and it’s the right thing to do. By doing so, we address the needs of all learners.”

Dave Rathbun, instructional technologist at the University of Cincinnati.