Digital accessibility tools prioritize inclusion

July 26 marked the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a revolutionary civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability. Awareness and action around accessibility have expanded in the years since the ADA was signed, most recently in the realm of digital accessibility as technological platforms and tools grow in popularity and use.

"Some people may have heard about digital accessibility but don't quite know how to connect it to what they're doing," said Cyndi Wiley, digital accessibility lead for Information Technology Services. "We encounter digital accessibility every day."

Resources for employees

Though digital accessibility and accommodations both involve disability, they are not the same. Accommodations are arranged with university human resources (UHR) and can include a modification to a job or work environment that ensures employees with disabilities can successfully perform their tasks. While utilizing assistive technology and prioritizing digital accessibility may be included in the accommodation process, the digital accessibility team focuses on providing tools and education at an enterprise level while working closely with campus partners to answer questions about available resources.

"Our team can be helpful with identifying tools, working with procurement and piloting programs," Wiley said. "We often collaborate and talk about what we have tested and what's included in software that people might not know about already."

The digital accessibility team also provides support and consultation for employees looking to make their course materials, websites and other digital media more accessible. The digital accessibility toolkit -- an online collection of easy-to-use accessibility tools and resources for faculty, staff and students -- can help departments improve the accessibility of their materials, request additional services and learn more about the importance of digital accessibility.

Wiley said they are always looking for new resources and partnerships -- like with fellow regent universities who worked with ISU on the request for proposal for a web accessibility checker -- to identify opportunities to bring more digital accessibility tools to the university.

Wiley said Siteimprove, the web accessibility checker software that launched in May 2021, has been invaluable as their team works to make digital accessibility more attainable for content managers across the university. Site owners and editors can add Siteimprove to their Sign On Dashboard and submit a request form to have their websites loaded into the system to be scanned. Some of Siteimprove’s capabilities include quality assurance for common accessibility errors like broken links, misspelled words and lack of alt text for images, and the platform can also evaluate search engine optimization and produce heat maps of user clicks. 

Another helpful resource for faculty and students is Ally, a tool integrated directly into Canvas to improve the accessibility of digital course content. To help make course materials more accessible, Ally generates alternative formats and provides detailed instructor feedback on fixing accessibility issues

"If we aren't making things digitally accessible, not only are we leaving people out but we're also not in alignment with the strategic plan or living up to how the public views Iowa State," Wiley said. "We are innovative and part of innovation is being inclusive of as many people as possible in that process."

Innovation and inclusion are also the drivers behind the digital accessibility policy, a set of guidelines requiring all digital content and resources produced and purchased to be accessible. Wiley said after July 1, 2026, software that is not in compliance with the policy will no longer be purchased by the university.

"We are working to let people know if their software is currently compliant or non-compliant during the software review process since it will need to be before the deadline," Wiley said. "There are benchmarks between now and then to help with a smooth transition."

Shared responsibility

Though conversations and initiatives around improving accessibility have become more commonplace, Wiley said there still is room to grow for the campus community to understand the importance of digital accessibility for people with disabilities.

"There is a difference between those who use assistive technology on a daily basis because they need it and people without disabilities also benefiting from digital accessibility resources and tools," Wiley said.

Teach Access

Wiley recommends faculty investigate Teach Access, a nonprofit organization offering resources and programs to improve students' understanding of digital accessibility.

While many digital accessibility practices like having 99% accuracy in closed captions and using descriptive language when inserting hyperlinks instead of saying "click here" are also best practices in fields like marketing and design, Wiley emphasized the shared responsibility to keep people with disabilities at the forefront of conversations around digital accessibility. 

"When I started at ISU in this position, I focused on how digital accessibility is better for everybody -- and it is -- but in that mindset, we aren't being as intentional about listening to people with disabilities and centering them in the conversation," Wiley added. "We need to get away from looking at accessibility as an add-on and include people with disabilities throughout the entire process."