6. Inclusive Infrastructure Design and Planning: From Technology Systems and the Built Environment to Procurement

NSA 2022 - panelist images: Inclusive Infrastructure Design and Planning: From Technology Systems and the Built Environment to Procurement

The third session looked at a range of services related to technological and physical environments. It focused on accessible digital technology, current and emerging trends in digital technology and the built environment, and how these create barriers to full participation among students, faculty and staff. The panelists also explored the importance of developing and adopting accessible procurement policies, to ensure institutions are creating working and learning infrastructure and spaces that are accessible. 

Accessibility challenges in technological environments

The use of technology can make learning more accessible and flexible. Assistive Technology (AY) are tools and devices used by persons with disabilities to access information and perform tasks independently. 

There are plenty of examples of mainstream technology and software that has built-in accessibility features so they are not an add on or specialized technology. This includes those found in Office 365, Adobe Acrobat Pro, audiobooks, electronic publications and mobile technologies. In recent years there has been an increase in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in general use technologies that help with accessibility. These include video captioning, captions for Teams and Zoom, text-to-speech and voice prediction in Office 365, voice for search engines in Google, control of computers using voice commands, Google search adapted to use cameras on smartphones and AI-based psychological support apps. 

However, technological barriers continue to exist for the post-secondary sector, including data analysis software and peer-reviewed journal databases that are inaccessible, especially for students in science, technology, engineering and math. AT software and hardware continue to be expensive. Additionally, academic evaluations can create barriers (such as timed tests), there continues to be inaccessible documents and course materials prepared by faculty, and French language software is often out of date. 

There have also been developments in virtual and augmented reality, but how well they will work for students with disabilities is still unknown. Telecollaboration, where students can take virtual field trips to real world locations, are becoming more common. Smart glasses have heads up displays that show data and respond to voice commands, while they will soon be sign language compatible. Smart gloves are improving to help with sign language. There is also potential for students with disabilities to use robots to run experiments. While all of these technologies are in various stages of development and adoption, there is potential to assist students, faculty and staff with disabilities. The important thing to consider is whether these technologies are being developed with the guidance and input of people with disabilities. 

Technology tools such as accessibility checkers (such as in Office 365) are good at catching certain inaccessible practices, including errors to alternative text or image descriptions. They are not good at catching screen magnification or screen colour and contrast errors. Also, accessibility and usability are not the same. Existing systems are often developed by the non-disabled community and often rely on automation for accessibility testing. This creates technology that will pass an accessibility test but fail a usability test by someone in the disability community. Survey platforms are a good example; if they are not vetted for accessibility, they will miss feedback from users with disabilities. 

French software also often lags English software, particularly on accessibility features. This is because these features are often developed in the US, not Canada. Another problem is that students with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments, can get textbooks (albeit often late into the semester) but must buy their own reference materials because they require an accessible version. This can be very expensive. 

There continues to be adaptive technologies that make assumptions about users (such as text-to-speech technology that only uses white male voices). There have been issues in properly training AI for facial recognition of Black and racialized people, or self-driving cars that fail to recognize people using wheelchairs as they cross the road. The reason often comes down to a lack of diversity in the staff developing these systems. It is therefore important that people of all backgrounds and abilities are involved in training AI systems. It is also the reason why the perspectives of people from different genders, races, ages and abilities are important in developing an accessible procurement policy. 

What we’ve learned in terms of accessibility within our own institutions is that real change towards inclusion still requires more voices from people who are currently excluded. – Kate Clark

Accessibility barriers and planning gaps in the built environment

Barriers to the physical environment also continue to exist. Many campuses have buildings that are a few hundred years old. These were built at times when the users were white, non-disabled men and are not inclusive of the diverse community of people who use post-secondary institutions today. Buildings are still not equipped for mobility devices such as wheelchairs. This means students, staff and faculty still cannot enter buildings, classrooms, washrooms, floors or paths between buildings. Building design must also be designed for those with mobility, sensory and learning disabilities. 

There tends to be a gap in accessibility scholarship, planning and practice. Best practices are more common in health fields, particularly a focus on physical disability through occupational therapy, as well as engineering and architectural fields. These fields often address accessibility through individual buildings and technology, and usually through a lens of accommodation. However, these fields often fail to consider accessibility on a community-wide scale. In other words, they often fail to consider the individual personal experiences of those who are most impacted by accessibility considerations. 

Critique of procurement policies and practices

The panelists urged that institutions must have a robust accessible procurement policy if they do not have one already. The purchase and implementation of technological systems and platforms is something that post-secondary institutions need to pay closer attention to. Learning Management Systems (LMS) for example are meant for students to use, but it is often left up to faculty and staff to enter information into these systems. However, many of these systems lack a robust training process for faculty and staff who need to use these systems. Likewise, these systems are often vetted for accessibility by students, but not by faculty and staff with disabilities. One panelist noted this process is an example of ableism. When purchasing services and technologies, it is important to consider all who will use those products. 

An accessible procurement policy includes all paperwork and compliance materials as part of the application process. These products should also be audited by an organization first. In other words, anything purchased by an institution should be checked to make sure it meets accessibility requirements for students, faculty and staff. 



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