Skip to main content

Advancing digital accessibility at Northwestern

Policy requires new and updated websites follow accessibility standards

With so much of Northwestern University’s core mission moving online in the last year, students, faculty and staff are more reliant than ever on digital content, and it’s clearer than ever that accessibility is crucial to making the remote working world more inclusive.

Like many inequities exacerbated or brought into sharper focus by COVID-19, the pandemic has raised awareness of issues people with disabilities face in accessing and engaging with content in the digital world, particularly as the remote work — and study — became the norm for most. It has energized an initiative many years in the making at Northwestern to establish the Digital Accessibility Policy.

The new policy, which takes effect in September, is a testament to Northwestern’s commitment to academic excellence and the personal and professional growth of its students in a diverse, inclusive and supportive learning environment, whether online or in person, said James Stachowiak, director of Assistive Technology at AccessibleNU.  

“A lot of times, with a lot of universities, issues of digital accessibility are not sufficiently addressed until there’s a compliance problem or a formal complaint that elicits action. In this case, I am happy to say we are making advances in digital accessibility because it’s the right thing to do,” Stachowiak explained.

Under the new policy, University websites and web-based applications that are created or undergo major revisions will be expected to follow accessibility standards with respect to their infrastructure and content. Digital accessibility liaisons within each school and unit will be responsible for coordinating efforts to update content.

People with disabilities represent approximately one out of four U.S. adults and 15% of the overall global population.

Disabilities can exist at birth or can be acquired or developed later in life, and any person can be impacted on a physical, emotional, behavioral, learning/intellectual or psychological level at any time. Societal barriers, including those in the digital world, can compound the impact of the disability.

The Office of Equity, AccessibleNU and the Office of Global Marketing and Communications, with a growing number of advocates from across the University, have been working to raise awareness about digital accessibility for the last 10 years, developing tools and trainings and promoting best practices. SensusAccess, an online document conversion service, is designed to convert text into more accessible formats, including audio, Braille or e-text formats.

“We have made steady progress,” Stachowiak said. “But this new policy is much more of a mandate than we have had in the past.”

While the aim of the new policy is to improve the user experience for individuals with disabilities, accessible digital content generally enhances usability for everyone.

“Students may need to access text in different ways depending on the circumstances they are working in. If the text is created with accessibility in mind, any student can turn it into an MP3 and listen to it while someone else is using the computer at home or while they are making dinner, for example,” Stachowiak said.