New Accessibility Standards Begin Jan. 1

U of G implements training for educators to ensure compliance

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It’s a simple change, but it can make a big difference: next time you start writing a Word document to share with students or colleagues, click on the “Heading 1” style box before you write the heading. Then click on “Heading 2” for any sub-heads, and before you type a paragraph, click to label that text as “Body.”

There you go; you’ve set up the document so it can be more easily read by a screen reader.

Knowing how to make documents and other elements of instruction accessible is important for educators, and the Ontario government is taking steps to ensure that universities and other educational institutions are responding to those needs. On Jan. 1, requirements for information and communications under the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation come into effect for universities.

The new standard moves away from accommodation for individuals with disabilities to one of universal design, where accessibility issues are considered at the point of planning. The standard recognizes that such a shift will take time and stipulates requirements over a number of years.  For instance, beginning this winter, the law requires that universities provide training related to accessible program or course delivery and instruction for faculty and others who are involved in program or course design, delivery and instruction.

If that sounds daunting, Laurie Arnott, a human rights advisor with U of G’s Human Rights and Equity Office (HREO), has some reassuring words. “Many faculty are already doing some or many of the things that are part of accessible instruction.” For others who may be wondering how they can implement these new expectations, given their busy schedules, she points out that incorporating just one or two new strategies at a time will soon lead to significant changes.

To support faculty, the University is providing a two-step process. The first part is providing access to an online tool kit of resources developed by the Council of Ontario Universities; it includes tips on everything from using PowerPoint to providing feedback. A letter will be distributed to all faculty and sessional instructors to provide information about the requirements and the resources.

The second step will involve staff from the Centre for Open Learning and Educational Support (COLES) and HREO who have developed a short module to introduce the main concepts of universal design for learning. During the 2013 winter semester, the module will be presented at departmental meetings, giving faculty the opportunity to ask questions and discuss any issues.  Beginning in the next fall semester, teaching assistants will be enrolled in an online training module so they will be able to incorporate these ideas, too.

Currently, more than 1,400 students are registered with U of G’s Centre for Students with Disabilities, and Arnott says that number has been growing every year. But these changes won’t just benefit that group of students, she adds. “One of the great things about universal design for learning is that research has found it helps all learners. The principle is to develop and deliver courses so that the materials and instructions are accessible to the widest possible audience. Not only is that helpful for people with disabilities, but it’s also responsive to the many different ways that people learn.”

These requirements are just one aspect of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA), first passed in 2005, which is being implemented in stages. An oversight committee chaired by Brenda Whiteside, U of G’s interim director of human rights, has been co-ordinating the University’s implementation of ODA components as they come into effect. While the compliance requirements for Jan. 1 first seemed daunting, Whiteside says that many individuals and committees have been working diligently for a number of years now, making the task much simpler. “I am so impressed with the thoughtful manner in which members of this community are responding to the act,” she says. “There is a strong commitment everywhere to make our campus, our classrooms and our information accessible for all.”