Students at UTS Explain Digital Accessibility
There are few resources so valuable as lived experience. Imagine if you could capture that for your own organisation and use that experience to improve those of others in future – that’s exactly what staff at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) did.
The Students Explain Digital Accessibility project, which ran in 2020 and was part of the UTS LX.lab (Learner Experience Lab), saw a group of UTS students share their learning experiences to educate teachers on how to ensure their classes were accessible and inclusive for all.
It’s the brainchild of Katie Duncan, LX.lab Inclusive Practices Coordinator, and Rhiannon Hall, Digital Content Officer.
The pair has extensive experience in digital content; Katie has worked in the LX.lab for just over two years, and previously was a Learning Design and Technology Specialist. Rhiannon has been the Digital Content Officer for around 4.5 years, and has a “really strong interest” in accessibility. As part of her role, she writes and edits content for the Futures blog and the LX Resources section of the organisation’s website.
Katie said she “fell into the accessibility space” after teaching academics about how to input content in the Learning Management System.
“I would always mention things like heading styles and descriptive links but didn’t know what the experience was like for a screen reader user. So, I went to a workshop on how to use NVDA and here we are,” she said.
Meanwhile, a UTS colleague taught Rhiannon about the core concepts of accessibility, and her interest has only increased since then.
“I’m attracted to the equity and inclusion that accessibility creates – removing unnecessary barriers and creating more open, quality experiences that everyone can be part of,” she explained.
The idea for the digital accessibility ambassadors was born in part from Katie’s experience at the NVDA workshop.
“After I attended the screen reader workshop, I ran one for the LX.lab team so they could also feel the frustration of badly formatted online content,” she explained.
“Afterwards, one of my colleagues said that he finally ‘got it’. He finally understood just how big of an impact accessible content could have for students. That got me thinking. The opportunity for that ‘got it’ moment – that comes from first-hand experience or learning directly from people with lived experience of disability, and was missing for many academics. I wanted to find a sustainable, scalable and time-effective solution to share this ‘got it’ moment.”
She and Rhiannon embarked on a mission to create that solution. Initially, the pair mapped out the project with assistance from Kim Neville from the IT department.
The UTS Centre for Social Justice & Inclusion provided funding to appoint five Digital Accessibility Ambassadors, all of whom were students with lived experience of disability.
“While disclosing the details of their disability was not mandatory, they did need to be able to reflect on and share their experiences of accessing digital content. They also needed to be able to work collaboratively with us and the other ambassadors. We were extremely lucky with the five ambassadors we appointed – as they were so generous with sharing their lived experiences and are fantastic advocates for accessibility,” Katie said.
The students then helped to co-design and create a video series called Students Explain Digital Accessibility. In the series, students speak about how important accessible content in their subjects is and give tips on how it can be achieved.
“Kim assisted us in structuring the project and the roles for the ambassadors, as well as advising on accessibility, so we were really grateful for her guidance throughout,” Rhiannon said.
After the ambassadors joined the project, a number of co-design sessions were held where the team created the content. Students began by using the LX Accessible Practices to reflect on their experiences of and opinions on digital accessibility. Then in the next session, students began to draft the project script. Katie and Rhiannon created a series of questions for the ambassadors, who were asked to write their responses.
Once the script was done, filming began.
“Working with Matt Vella (Educational Media Producer for the LX.lab), we set up individual filming sessions for each ambassador and shot the videos over three days. We were really lucky to have Matt as part of the team to capture and edit the videos, his expertise in video was hugely valuable for the project. During the editing process, Katie, Matt and I continued to work closely together to shape the videos into the final product,” Rhiannon said.
Once filming was finished, ambassadors were debriefed and shown a preview of one of the videos. Over the next month, students wrote a series of blog posts for the LX Futures blog , which functioned as a companion to the videos. A launch event was also held to officially premiere the videos.
So far, the project has seen a positive response from UTS staff. Staff have enjoyed the practical tips the videos provided, while others have committed to making time to correct their captions. Others have told the project team how much they enjoyed hearing the student perspective and the diversity of the students and alumni involved in the videos.
“The wonderful unexpected effect of the project was creating connections between the students. They’ve been working on side projects together, getting advice from each other and that has been really lovely to see,” Katie added.
Katie, Rhiannon and the rest of the team are now promoting the videos to ensure they’re seen by a wide audience.
“We want for as many people as possible to see them, and to embrace making accessibility part of their own regular practice. We’ll also be running more workshops for academics at UTS on accessibility, and the videos are a big part of that – bringing in the voices of the ambassadors and making sure that they are heard. Everyone has a role to play in accessibility, and we hope to normalise that and help learning and teaching staff to build their knowledge and understanding of accessible practice by hearing directly from students with accessibility requirements,” said Rhiannon.
“I hope that the videos make everyone more mindful of accessibility when putting together the content. After watching the videos, if you’ve got our ambassadors voices in the back of your head when you’re adding content, so that you’re more conscious of making things accessible then I think we have done our job,” said Katie.
Rhiannon said she hopes the ambassador-creators know how vital they were to the project. She hopes that users take on board the ambassadors’ advice and use the videos as a prompt to “create more accessible and inclusive learning experiences for their students."