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The University of Michigan’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) hosted the first of four events in their virtual conference about digital accessibility on Oct. 20. Panelists discussed the University’s updates to its Standard Practice Guide (SPG) on electronic and information technology accessibility, which promotes complete and equitable participation of individuals with disabilities. 

Tabbye Chavous, vice provost for equity and inclusion, began the event by outlining the Office of DEI’s goals for the conference. 

“We hope conference attendees will take away a better understanding of the subtle and overt challenges faced and navigated by our disabled community,” Chavous said. “We hope attendees will learn about and be inspired by advancements being made due in large part to the presence and leadership of disabled community members — advancements that are critical steps to becoming the diverse, equitable and inclusive university we strive to be.” 

Referenced within the SPG are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a standard published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The SPG also defines Electronic and Information Technology (EIT), and highlights certain technologies commonly used at the University such as Canvas, Microsoft Word and digital textbooks. 

The revised policy focuses on three main areas: procurement, compliance and accessibility. The procurement element refers to acquiring accessible EIT from external providers. Procurement Services at the University will incorporate specific requirements in line with the policy when purchasing EIT and will periodically update and review these requirements to better ensure accessibility. The second section ensures that internally developed EIT is in compliance with the new policy. The third section addresses accessibility and refers to an adaptive technology computing site, which assists students with disabilities by providing accommodations such as remote classes.

The panelists highlighted how digital accessibility can be an anti-ableism tool. Jane Vincent, assistive tech manager at Information and Technology Services (ITS), said online spaces are important modes of communication for disabled people. 

“The digital environment has long been a way for disabled individuals to communicate with each other,” Vincent said. “The digital environment allows rapid communication on critical advocacy issues, including voting, responding to COVID policies (and) other issues of concern for disabled individuals, and it also provides an option to reduce social isolation.” 

While digital accessibility promotes social opportunities and reduces isolation, Vincent said it also benefits digital providers by growing their base. Vincent added that digital inclusion also takes into account other factors that may affect disabled individuals, such as race and income.

“There’s long been talk of the digital divide, among other things, talking about how cost barriers to the technology and internet access disproportionately affect many individuals including people with disabilities,” Vincent said. “We know that individuals with disabilities are not the only ones affected by bias in technology.”

The new policy works to implement a common set of guidelines regarding EIT accessibility across all three U-M campuses. Implementation of the new U-M policy is required for employees in administrative and academic units at the University, such as faculty and staff. It is also encouraged for students and student groups who may be using technology for in-class presentations or to create websites. 

Phil Deaton, digital information accessibility coordinator at the Office of Equity, Civil Rights & Title IX (ECRT) and a panelist at the event, highlighted the ways in which ECRT and ITS can help academic units implement the new policy. 

“We believe that a goal with the policy is to create a sustainable framework for ensuring that people with disabilities have access to all the University of Michigan has to offer,” Deaton said. “We think that needs to happen through engagement and education.”

ECRT will provide methods for units to comply with the policy, such as internal audits, while ITS will offer the technical components of the policy, such as University-wide tech. The academic units should also be accountable for ensuring compliance, Deaton said. 

“One thing that we really want to make clear in these types of presentations is that this is not a policy that ECRT and ITS can carry alone,” Deaton said. “Every unit has unique teaching, technology (and) communications concerns and we need to think independently about how best to support accessibility within their ecosystem.”

Daily News Contributor Luke Jacobson can be reached at lukejac@umich.edu.