Digital access resources growing, with policy coming soon

A growing collection of training and tools are available to help faculty and staff keep digital communication barrier-free, resources that will be useful as Iowa State prepares to adopt a new policy on digital accessibility.

Cyndi Wiley, digital accessibility lead in information technology services (ITS), told the Professional and Scientific Council at its May 6 meeting that a draft of the university's first-ever digital accessibility policy, written over a 6-month period beginning last August, will be released soon for public comment. The policy will mandate that all ISU digital communication -- including websites, software, course materials, emails, publications and videos -- be inclusive and accessible, as required by federal law.

"We need some sort of cohesive policy to provide consistency and clarity to a very critical dimension of student operations that affects retention and attrition -- and also for faculty and staff," Wiley said. "This will affect everyone on campus."

The policy will allow five years to begin implementing needed changes, with a timeline for certain benchmarks and possibly incentives for early adopters, Wiley said.

"We wanted to make this attainable," Wiley said.

Much of the work to make digital accessibility the standard across campus will build on existing resources, Wiley said. ISU Extension and Outreach's e-accessibility initiative offers free courses on document design, accessibility is a key feature of the Quality Matters online course certification workshops from the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and ITS opened a digital accessibility lab in 2019 to provide a space for demonstrations, testing and research.

Services have been added in recent months, too. Last year, in a contract coordinated with other state Board of Regents institutions, Iowa State began offering all university units a reduced rate on captioning services from Rev. Starting this month, faculty and staff who operate ISU websites can sign up to use the Siteimprove platform to identify ways to make web content more accessible. Siteimprove flags issues such as broken or insufficiently descriptive hyperlinks, a lack of alternative text for images and color contrast concerns, Wiley said.

"Those little changes can really make a big difference," Wiley said.

Faculty and staff who are just getting started with digital accessibility may want to consider taking a four-week course Wiley will offer this fall. The Canvas-based class on digital access basics meets for an hour once a week and includes some asynchronous instruction. To request to enroll in the course, email Wiley at

Fall plan feedback

The council asked P&S staff to provide feedback on the fall plans senior leaders announced in April, which call for employees who have been working remotely to return to their pre-pandemic workspaces by Aug. 2 (staff) or Aug. 19 (faculty) -- return-to-office deadlines that were moved up to July 1 in a May 20 announcement by the state Board of Regents.

Council president Sara Parris said the council received about 100 responses for feedback, many who shared similar concerns about safety, arranging for child care and maintaining work-life balance. She also said a significant number of responses supported the plan. The council provided senior leaders with a summary of the feedback.

Parris said angst about returning to the office is understandable, but as a staff member who has worked on campus throughout the pandemic -- as associate director of the Thielen Student Health Center, she's been heavily involved in the university's COVID-19 response -- she's confident staff will be safe.

"We've proven that mitigation measures work. None of us can say with any certainty what measures will be necessary in August, but I am certain that the university's approach will be rooted in science and good public health policy, as it has been thus far," she said.

Some staff were disappointed that guidelines on flexible work arrangements in development before the pandemic won't be complete until mid-fall. Parris noted that in her experience, day-to-day matters were often all-consuming during the pandemic -- pushing long-range initiative planning to the back burner.

"We have asked for grace for ourselves from our leaders and our students this past year and a half. I ask that we extend the same grace to university leadership," she said.