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UK Universities Need to Embrace Today’s Accessibility Standards

By: Sarah Roberts
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In the UK, more than one in 10 students starting their university education report disabilities. For these students to fully engage in their coursework and feel included on campus, they need the support of their universities. 

Additionally, it’s the responsibility of universities to make academic life better for students with disabilities. It’s not only the right thing to do, but accessibility laws create strict standards that institutions must follow. If they neglect them, the result can often become a costly and embarrassing legal battle. However, doing so can be easier said than done with the nature of education changing with the advent of new technologies. It can therefore be challenging to navigate evolving accessibility expectations.

Proactive universities are starting to go beyond meeting any legal obligations and working to promote more inclusive higher education experiences in the UK. While the guidelines might not always be clear, there are places to start when looking to improve online accessibility.

Here are some accessibility tips and considerations for professionals in the UK higher education system.

Understanding the Equity Act of 2010

Even before the Equity Act of 2010 (EQA), the UK had accessibility and anti-discrimination laws. However, they had more than a hundred different laws related to civil rights. Fortunately, the EQA consolidated these laws into one Act, making policies more straightforward and easier to follow. 

The EQA includes provisions protecting against discrimination based on disability in addition to sex, age, political affiliation, religion and other categories. The law requires that universities accommodate their students with disabilities. While this legislation sets standards for UK universities, the specific accommodations aren’t always listed in the law. When it comes to the growing trend of online education, the requirements are much less clear. 

Universities that offer hybrid learning or online course structures will need to find specific guidance outside the letter of the law. Fortunately, there are a few well-respected sources of information regarding online accessibility in an educational setting.

Students in caps and gowns

Diving into WCAG and online accessibility standards

Even without legal requirements, universities can find guidance for their accessibility policies. The British Standard 8878 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are two potential sources of this information. 

Referencing The British Standard 8878

The British Standard Institution published a guide that covers many online accessibility matters. This resource includes information on making websites, emails, apps and software more accessible. Although this isn’t a law, it’s a helpful place for institutions to seek guidance on their internal policies. 

Relying on WCAG

The WCAG standards are international guidelines that many top universities use when setting their internal accessibility requirements. Cambridge, for instance, uses the WCAG, as does Oxford. Like the British Standard, this resource isn’t a legal requirement. 

There are different levels under WCAG. Oxford, for example, strives to achieve Level AA of WCAG 2.1. Those standards include many requirements such as:

  • Captioning for all audiovisual content
  • Alt text for images
  • Screen reader-friendly websites
  • Appropriate structure, labels and order on webpages

Universities sometimes create stricter accessibility standards for newer pages than older ones. Understandably, many institutions didn’t have today’s accessibility standards in mind when they created web pages ten years ago. Still, universities will often work on updating their older pages, even if they can’t get them to match new standards. Also, more expansive WCAG 2.2 standards are now starting to roll out. It’s likely that these updates will soon influence the most proactive university accessibility policies. 

How UK universities can step up their accessibility

While many universities may view their academic accessibility as a top priority, inclusivity beyond the classroom is also increasingly important. For instance, large events such as orientations and commencement ceremonies should include captions. Even sporting events and other recreational activities should include accessibility features to provide a fully inclusive campus experience. 

When it comes to expanding captioning beyond the classroom, leaning on efficient technology may seem like an attractive option. It’s important to recognise the limitations of these solutions. For instance, while improving, automatic speech recognition (ASR) still lacks the accuracy levels that universities should strive to achieve. Top American universities like Harvard and MIT even faced lawsuits after their ASR produced confusing and inaccurate captions. 

Better captioning and transcription options include those that use human transcribers or human editors who proofread the ASR’s transcripts. These solutions can offer equity for students with disabilities where ASR alone cannot. 

Another consideration is that institutions in the UK should be seeking captions in British English. First off, it’s important that any technology and transcribers understand British English and speakers’ accents to caption content correctly. Additionally, the captions should use UK spelling to avoid distractions or confusion that could occur if the captioners’ default was American English. AST considers these differences and works to provide the right solutions for UK universities. 

University building

Accessibility beyond captioning

Offering universal captioning is a great step UK universities can take to improve accessibility and inclusivity. However, creating an accessible culture means making the campus welcoming for all students, including those with varying needs.  

Audio description (AD) is, therefore, another solution universities are implementing more widely to support learners who are blind or have low vision. 

AD involves a speaker who describes visual aspects of video recordings or live feeds. For standard AD, the speaker offers descriptions during breaks in the original audio or dialogue. AST offers extended AD as well, which involves a more in-depth description. In extended AD, the video pauses to allow the audience more time to listen to the descriptions. 

Context is often essential when it comes to AD in an academic setting. For instance, two professors may use the same video clip, one for a history course and the other for a fashion design course. However, the purpose of that video might be entirely different in each case. As a result, the AD should, ideally, focus on what’s relevant to the audience in each course. 

AD is becoming increasingly common in universities around the world. It’s likely that this solution will continue to grow in popularity and that students and others will start to expect universities to offer AD. 

Even live AD is now an option universities should consider for their events. In fact, the University College London (UCL) offers a short course on making theatre accessible through AD. The program focuses on how to provide meaningful descriptions of on-stage events, costumes, characters and settings. Universities should look for areas where AD can increase accessibility and improve in-person and online student experiences.

Embrace the new era of accessibility

While the UK has accessibility and anti-discrimination laws, the new focus for many educators is broader than compliance. Now, universities are looking to proactively build inclusivity into their campuses to offer greater access without students needing to make requests. Captioning and audio description are two solutions that UK universities can employ now to serve their students better.

AST is an essential partner for UK institutions, helping universities like the Royal College of Art, London Business School and many others with their accessibility initiatives. Contact us to learn how our captioning, transcription and audio description solutions can seamlessly fit into your workflow to support your university and students.