Digital accessibility: meeting our ethical and legal obligations in the inter- and post-pandemic university

Richard de Blacquiere-Clarkson


The question of how to apply the relatively recent web accessibility legislation to teaching materials is complex, as it was seemingly written without Higher or Further education in mind, and several key terms in the legislation are undefined. At University of Leeds we have rapidly developed an approach and guidance for colleagues regarding accessible teaching materials which we believe meets – and exceeds – the legislative requirements as well as modelling pedagogic good practice, and which has been received well within the institution. Our approach is by no means the only valid one, or even suitable for all contexts, but may prove helpful to those in the early stages of developing their own guidance or who wish to compare approaches across the sector. This blog post will give an overview of key decisions behind this work, which I was fortunate to be involved in.

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations (2018) are best understood as a continuation not only of the Equality Act (2010) but also the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), whilst adding some new elements. Reasonable adjustments remain, but are intended to be minimised by proactively developing more accessible materials in the first instance. Specific standards (WCAG 2.1 AA) for content were set, as well as deadlines for compliance and the need for an accessibility statement. Whilst one of the University of Leeds’ cores values is inclusiveness, and we have a policy commitment to ensure all learning and teaching practices, activities and supporting materials can be used by all, we face the same challenge all universities do in complying with the details of the new legislation.

Who benefits? Who loses?

Everyone, but in different ways. Students with diagnosed learning disabilities will hopefully already have been receiving reasonable adjustments, in practice there should be less of a burden on them to request changes. Students with undiagnosed learning difficulties are the biggest beneficiaries from this work, as more accessible materials should meet their needs better, whilst all other students will benefit from the greater flexibility and choice frequently offered by accessible resources.

Teaching staff have the opportunity to reflect on and develop their pedagogy, admittedly whilst needing dedicated support and development opportunities to do so. Not to mention the time commitment for learning new skills and updating existing content, hard enough when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic or (one day!) the aftermath.

What are we aiming for?

Compliance may be necessary but it is not sufficient for inclusive practice, and focusing heavily on achieving an arbitrary standard by a fixed deadline risks encouraging a tokenistic approach. Instead we hope to engage all teaching staff in a process of ongoing enhancement, albeit one which also meets our legal obligations in a timely way. Hearts and minds, not ticking boxes. 

That said, colleagues involved in the process of creating and revising teaching materials need something specific to work with, so we set a minimum baseline standard for all teaching materials which is a synthesis of the WCAG 2.1 AA standards plus good practice from across the sector and relevant professional bodies including JISC. This is expressed in FAQ style as a series of questions and answers based on issues raised by teaching staff in workshops, both for clarity and ease of comprehension and to incorporate more explanation than a list of rules. All teaching materials are in scope, including emails.

Our own legal advice is that this baseline exceeds legal requirements but it is essential that all institutions seek their own legal advice, not least because this legislation is so far untested in the courts.

Interpreting undefined terms in the legislation

Assuming that VLE spaces are treated as intranets, resources created before 23rd September 2019 do not need to be made accessible until they undergo “substantial revision”, whatever that is. Arguably this will vary by pedagogic approach and subject discipline, so we are interpreting this phrase at school level whilst providing a set of exemplars as prompts. Where the ideal balance between contextualised nuance and cross-institutional consistency lies remains to be seen.  It’s also worth asking if and when cumulative small changes to many documents trigger a substantial revision for a website or module. Do module or programme redesign processes trigger a wholesale substantial revision? I’d say yes, but there’s room to argue.

The legislation only applies to materials which are used for “active administrative purposes”, but what does that mean in the context of teaching and learning? Our view is that it applies to absolutely everything which a student is expected to engage with, or to be able to engage with. After all, if you are presenting material to a student as important but they cannot perceive or understand it, what message are you giving them? The exception would be module content from previous years which is available for students to look back on but is not being used in current teaching, this is classified as an archive and so legally exempt.

Difficult cases

By far the most common objection we have encountered is regarding alt text for complex diagrams – flow charts, scientific processes, mathematical expressions, graphs etc. This alternative text is required for students who cannot visually access the diagram, but it seems impossible to include all relevant details succinctly and proactively creating detailed explanations for every diagram seems onerous and inefficient when they may not actually be accessed by any student. Our baseline requirement is to give a short description plus a standard statement to contact the module leader if they need further explanation. Compared to nothing this is an enormous improvement, and we think it is legally compliant, but is it good practice? There seems to be nothing like consensus across the sector here, with a fair few intellectual ostriches ignoring the issue entirely.

Pdfs are also problematic, challenging to edit even with suitable software and copyright issues abound where they are provided by publishers or other external bodies. Where the university or its employees own the copyright we are asking them to edit or re-create documents, ideally moving away from pdf due to its limitations for accessibility. Where copyright is held externally we are using links as far as possible, though this likely does not absolve institutional responsibility. As to how the conflicting demands of copyright and accessibility legislation will be resolved, it seems impossible to say and might just play out in court at some point.

Captions for audio-visual content including lecture capture are now automatically generated by software, and teaching staff are only expected to correct these in response to student requests. There’s potential for significant and inconsistent demands on staff, not least because some accents are better recognised than others. Some colleagues also feel the need to at least correct egregious errors up front, which has its own workload implications. No easy solution here either.

Looking forward

Facilitated workshops where colleagues bring examples of problematic teaching resources and work through them together have been exceptionally well reviewed. We are recruiting student accessibility interns to work in a number of faculties, with eight in place and already having a noticeable impact within weeks. Getting everything accessible is a slow process, realistically measured in years, but it’s good to have got the ball rolling. 


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Richard has taught in inclusive educational settings for 13 years, with a particular focus on use of technology and supporting students with specific needs including dyslexia and autism. In his current role at the Lifelong Learning Centre, University of Leeds, he is responsible for the strategic development of digital pedagogies and hybrid/online learning, as well as accessible teaching materials.

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