Considering the Full Spectrum of Your Audience: An Interview with Terrill Thompson

by Kristina Wilson


What can be done to improve web accessibility practices? I spoke with Terrill Thompson, the chairperson for the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) Technology Special Interest Group, to find out. In addition to his role with AHEAD, Thompson is a Technology Accessibility Specialist with DO-IT Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington, leaders in the field of accessible technology and advocates for equity in technology.

The theme of the next AHEAD conference is Equity and Excellence: Access in Higher Education. What does that mean to you?

Thompson noted that disability is treated differently in higher education than in other contexts, and that the last thing students need during the transition to a university–whether straight out of high school or as an adult student, attending classes face-to-face or online–is for inaccessible technology to “stand in the way of getting something done.”

“We think a lot about equity,” he said. “If you build something that everybody can use with equal effectiveness, then it’s just generally a better product.” In development, that means “considering the full spectrum of your audience.” Thompson suggested trying not to view accessibility as a checklist, but to think more holistically along the lines of curriculum, tools, and quality to develop courses that work well for everybody and do what they are intended to do. He also noted that “there are lots of parallels between good mobile design and good accessible design.”

What should we consider when selecting technology?

Much of our conversation centered around selecting accessible technology to accompany online courses. One common concern, he said, is cost. “Most accessibility really doesn’t cost more,” he noted, when responsibility for accessibility is shared by all the key stakeholders. Frequently, responsibility falls on information technology or disability services, but the reality is that anyone who plays a role in the delivery of an online class–”from distributing a PDF to making purchasing decisions”–should be involved. “You have to look at the big picture,” he emphasized. “How much is it worth to improve it for everyone?”

That said, he noted that vetting web apps and LTIs for accessibility is “a specialized skill.”

“We find that really, more and more, we have to be at the table,” when selecting accessible technologies, he said. That might mean asking for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), or developing a checklist to include in Request for Proposals (RFPs). Thompson pointed to the University of Washington’s excellent three-step method for procuring accessible IT. First, ask for information about product accessibility Then validate the information provided and conduct an independent evaluation of accessibility. Finally, request accessibility assurances for any accessibility features that are not already provided.

He emphasized the importance of the final step, in particular. “Talking about improving accessibility with vendors leads to innovation,” he said, noting that DO-IT staff have had the opportunity to work with vendors from their headquarters to improve their software products.

Who are the legal players in accessibility?

Thompson noted that there are many organizations advocating for web accessibility in higher education, including EDUCAUSE, which has an IT Accessibility Constituent Group, and the Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN), which has a close collaborative relationship with AHEAD. The diverse participants include Chief Information Officers and IT administrators in addition to faculty and disability services staff: basically, anyone “on board with accessibility and trying to get their peers on board.”

“The fact is, and we can’t really deny it, all the case law is starting to have an influence,” Thompson said. As more institutions of higher education face legal challenges, they are “trying to be proactive.” You can be proactive about web accessibility in the development of your online class and in the careful choice of instructional technologies you select.

For more information, Thompson also recommended an excellent video called IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have to Say. If you have any questions about implementing web accessibility in your online class or what you can do to advocate for web accessibility, please contact Learning Designer Krissy Wilson or Content Editor Christine Scherer.