Is this “Accessibility” or “Accommodation”?

Accessibility is THE hot topic in higher education. And what is the one question all accessibility trainers must be prepared to answer? “Why do I have to do this if I don’t have a disabled person in my classroom?”

This question makes sense because higher education has historically used an accommodations response to address the needs of students with disabilities. Accommodations are those actions we take to tailor an educational opportunity to an individual’s needs. A classic example would be providing ASL translation for a student with a hearing impairment.

Accommodations are always and necessarily individual decisions based upon individual needs. Not all students with hearing impairments need or want ASL translation for example. Not all students who are blind need or want Braille.

Waiting until there was a specific and identifiable need for accommodation made sense in higher ed for a long time. Doing so felt efficient and personal, and because accommodations served individual people, providing them probably also felt good.  Accommodations help real people at the moment of need.

But the accommodations model, on its own, failed many students. The problem wasn’t that students were being denied accommodations, but instead that students didn’t always receive their accommodations in a timely and equally effective manner.

What is “timely“? Historically, that’s been hard to define. Because accommodations are always individual, the measure of timeliness has also been individual. A delay of three days because a student required a special testing environment might not have been significant in one class but could well have been devastating in another. Waiting one day for a notetaker to provide class notes may be fine for some content and completely unacceptable in a different class.

Unfortunately, “equally effective” has also been a challenging concept.  For one thing, equally effective is not clearly benchmarked.  Equally effective as compared to what? As compared to whom? And, given that accommodations are individualized, how to we extrapolate from one person’s particular experience to know anything about how the population of students with impairments are experiencing the quality of their own accommodations?

You can see the problem.

For various legal and social reasons that are outside the scope of this article, the accommodations problem came to a head early in the twenty-first century, when regulatory decisions, court cases, and private agreements began to define a more complete and standardized way to think about serving all students, including those with impairments.

We now have more uniform ways to think about providing services to students with impairments. The definitions included in such agreements as the one between Wichita State University and the National Federation of the Blind are typical:

  • Timely: “[S]ufficient time for the … to have an equal opportunity to obtain the same result, to gain the same benefit, or to reach the same level of achievement as … [other] persons.”
  • Equally Effective: “[T]he alternative format or medium communicates the same information in as timely a fashion as does the original format or medium.”

Putting these two concepts together helps describe the central challenge: colleges and universities are being charged with providing accommodations that allow for students to have an equal opportunity in as timely a manner as any other student.  It is essentially a “same-time” standard.

In the Office of Instructional Resources (OIR) at WSU we have turned this standard into a mantra:

All students. Same information. Same time.

But how is it possible to for accommodations to meet this standard?  Accommodations are, by definition, individualized.

This is where accessibility comes in.  Accessibility is not the same thing as accommodation. Where accommodation happens at the point of individual need, accessibility happens before need.  Actions taken to improve accessibility happen ahead of time with the intent of improving the experience for populations of people.  Done right, accessibility sets accommodation up for success.

But how do we draw a distinction between accessibility and accommodation on our dynamic campuses?  After all, once we factor in timeframes, audiences, types of content, types of accommodations, and timely expectations, the two concepts can get intertwined fast. Here are five things to consider as you draw these distinctions on your own campuses:

  1. Audience: Because the discussion about accommodations and accessibility comes out of the classroom experience, we tend to make the assumption that audience is always clear. That is a mistake. As you develop materials ask yourself whether you know exactly who will be receiving the content.
  2. Durability of the content: Content that is created in the moment to be used just one time may have to meet a different standard than content that is intended to be reused. As a rule, the longer you hope to use your content, the more accessible it needs to be.
  3. Cost to retrofit: Although it is tempting to see cost as a “now versus later” argument, it is better to think of it as an amortized debt. If it would cost $10,000 and 40 hours of intensive consultation with a professor to to retrofit lecture notes and handouts to print in Braille but would cost $100 in training and 40 hours of work for a professor to create Braille-ready notes as part of their initial production, suddenly the upfront cost and effort associated with creating accessible materials seems small in comparison to the costs associated with waiting.
  4. Risk tolerance: Every institution has to consider their own tolerance for risk, and there are no easy answers. Smaller schools may feel they have less exposure because the number of students with impairments that lead to high-impact (more expensive in terms of money and time) accommodations is likely to be lower, but at the same time the high costs, when incurred, are likely to be a much larger portion of the available budget. And the reverse is true: larger schools may decide to accept the high costs of these accommodations as needed rather than take on the huge training burden associated with training a large faculty. Viewed from this perspective, accessibility becomes a question of legal exposure versus monetary cost.  Not all institutions will choose to view accessibility this way.
  5. Existing student population: Some institutions simply have more students who receive accommodations than others. If the nature of your programming, your institutional recruitment, or your history of past success with high-impact accommodations means your are one of these institutions, you may need to define accessibility more broadly than other schools do.

In my experience dealing with accessibility issues at Wichita State, the most important considerations are audience and durability of content. When I’m asked if a particular learning object needs to be made accessible, for example, if a video needs to be captioned, I’ll ask  whether anyone in the audience has requested or is receiving accommodations such as captioning. If the answer is no, then I’ll ask whether the video is likely to be reused at a later date.  If the answer is no again, then I feel comfortable advising the faculty member they do not need to caption their video.  But if the answer to either question is yes, then the video needs to be captioned.

As you consider your own decision tree, it’s important to note what is not on the list above.  It is not important whether the content item is required, suggested, or for enrichment.  Class content needs to be equally available for all students to use, even if it is optional.

There is much more to be said about the distinctions between accessibility and accommodations, and I believe the definitions I used here will change over time. It is important for all colleges and universities to engage in this conversation so we can maintain academic freedom, integrity, and equity while also protecting our ability to provide educational opportunities for our students within the budget and time constraints we all face.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash