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Amit Shai

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Ableism Biases in Higher Education - Research Study

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At a time that G3ict is working to integrate its joint (with ITU-D) e-Accessibility Toolkit for Policymakers, it is evident that a similar toolkit is needed for policymakers in higher education to achieve analogous outcomes, specifically to: ”facilitate the design of effective policy frameworks responding to the needs of e-inclusiveness principles” covering higher education in general and Web-mediated teaching and learning in particular. Recently, I published my research study “Ableism Online: Analysis of Web Accessibility Policymaking and Implementation in Higher Education.” My research study can illuminate some of the background that informs the need for such a toolkit and provide the framework for implementation through collaboration of related stakeholders.

Several implications for practice derived from the study and serve as the basis for future recommendations. These implications involve the following:

1. The need to address the shortfall of the current procurement directives;

2. Recognizing that the intended audience of Web accessibility policies in higher   education includes non-technical content authors;

3. Players’ at all level challenge their roles in the implementation process and pass key responsibilities on to other players;

4. The limited scope of federal standards, which legitimizes confusion regarding applicability at various levels;

5. Understanding that accessibility does not stifle innovation but rather makes an important part of innovative ICT products;

6. The cost in retrofitting products to ad accessibility features, is much higher than the cost needed for built-in accessible features planned for during the core architecture and early design of ICT products;

7. The concept of hope as lessons learned from past experience.

The study extracted four concluding recommendations for future practice; all recommendations were made in the spirit of constructive analysis, hoping that stakeholders at all levels, and particularly policymakers, can benefit from these remarks and use them as needed to promote Web accessibility and equality online:

a. Federal Accessibility Standards for Higher Education and Curriculum Integration

For Web accessibility to be implemented in the various U.S. states and, consequently, in higher education institutions around the country, considerations and specific related language regarding accessibility in higher education curriculum integration must be included in federal law, such as the Higher Education Act. 

b. Institutional Dialogues on Accepting Difference Associated with Web Accessibility

Higher education and the CCC would benefit if engage in more meaningful external and internal dialogues regarding their response to difference in general, and difference as associated with Web accessibility in particular, in an effort to engage in process of accepting difference rather than attempting to dissolve it.

c. Redirecting Government Policy to Include the ICT Industry

Serious consideration should be given by the government to take the lead and find a feasible course of action to ensure that the ICT industry assumes its responsibility in producing fully accessible products with built-in accessible features. This effort will also eliminate the need to predict future technology and to update policy and guidelines every time new technological innovations are released to the market.

d. Active Involvement of Higher Education and the CCC in Future Related Policymaking

The CCC system must take an active role in informing state and federal government policymakers of challenges experienced by the system and individual colleges when attempting to implement portions of the policy, and be truthful regarding existing barriers that still prevent full access to e-courses and learning material, thereby continue to cause inequality online.

In light of the new administration at the U.S. government level, the growing international interest in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the planned updates in Web accessibility policy in the U.S. and at the CCC level, future research is needed to assess how these momenta may have affected dynamic Web accessibility policy implementation processes in higher education. Furthermore, studying Web accessibility matters in higher education requires more attention in order to assess the extent of ableism and social inclusiveness related to Web accessibility at the CCC outside the policy realm.


Following is a description of the study and its finding. More highlights from this study are available on the Ableism Online blog at

Federal and state laws regarding the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as guidelines mandating Web accessibility in higher education, have not assured full access to Web information and materials for persons with disabilities. In fact, the more social and dynamic the Web becomes, the more likely it is for accessibility barriers to be encountered. In higher education, a pivotal problem in providing students with disabilities with fully accessible e-learning environments and materials involves ableist biases in Web accessibility policies and policy implementation practices.

The pivotal issue regarding Web accessibility and students with disabilities does not involve lack of federal, state, local, or global laws mandating accessibility. In spite of existing laws and policies that were written to protect the rights of persons with disabilities to be included in the mainstream of our society, underprovided implementation of the law prevents students with disabilities from participating fully in e-learning activities integrated into their course curricula; consequently, they are still not treated equally. Moreover, although the making of policy and its implementation are woven together and considered one process that cannot be separated, critical barriers are encountered while implementing existing Web policies in institutions of higher education such as the colleges in the CCC system. Additionally, since policies lag behind the fast pace in which technological innovations are created, there is a lack of a common understanding that the current comprehensive laws also apply to new and future technologies.

Through my study, I expected to increase the knowledge and understanding of societal barriers associated with the making and implementation of Web accessibility policies in higher education as evidenced in California Community Colleges. The critical analysis in this study can help bridge the gap between persons with disabilities and temporarily able-bodied people. In light of the fact that the common practice in implementing the existing policies put the compliance responsibilities on content authors (who, in higher education, are mainly the faculty), this study also examines the background and context of accessibility policymaking and implementation practices in order to illuminate how the Web can be more usable for students with disabilities. During this process, the study explored the ideological perspectives of norms embedded in the existing policies, in those who influence policymaking, and in those who are charged with policy implementation.

Furthermore, the study also contributes to current international efforts to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities through harmonization across physical and geographical borders. As information and communication technologies pose similar usability barriers in their accessibility to persons with disabilities wherever they are, the significance of this study lies in its worldwide applicability and potential contribution to the implementation of inclusive accessibility policies in institutions that offer e-learning around the world.

Using qualitative research methodologies, this study examined the extent of ableism and social inclusiveness in Web accessibility policy and its implementation in higher education institutions as evidenced in the California Community Colleges. The study’s findings were presented through a dialogue introducing the perspectives of sixteen interviewees, as well as perceptions included in thirty policies and policy-informing documents from seven stakeholder groups. Stakeholder groups included the U.S. government policymakers, state higher education representatives, California Community College policymakers and implementers, leaders and developers in the information and communication technologies industry, persons with disabilities, textbook publishers and e-content providers, and advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities.

The findings of this study revealed that ableist biases in Web accessibility policymaking and implementation practices are widespread; they exceed indications of social inclusiveness at all levels examined. New knowledge in this study demonstrated how, in spite of inclusive intentions and commitment to civil rights, ableist biases of players in various stakeholder groups at all levels interfere with successful Web accessibility policymaking and make it difficult to implement.

Ableist biases were reflected in the policymaking matters that involve assistive technologies; environments that are designed to accommodate; the lack of commitment to built-in accessibility at the ICT industry; additive policymaking; a political climate that strives for efficiency over equality; lip service in policy statements; and the lack of institutional discourse regarding accepting difference. The prevalent biases in Web accessibility policymaking involve treating persons with disabilities as a marginal minority and as a population that needs managing; addressing matters related to Web accessibility only under pressure of the law; policies’ focus on the individuals and their impairment rather than on the social response to disability; considering the norm’s need first; norm’s dictation of the scope and form of policy; pretense advocating that is not materialized in reality; and exclusion and avoidance of persons with disabilities. The exclusion of persons with disabilities revealed in Web accessibility policies involves dissolving differences, perpetuating disadvantage, and politically disempowering persons with disabilities. At the CCC level, it is noticeable that guidelines created by the CCC system are merely a reflection of policies made at the federal level along with their ableist biases. The prevalent ableist biases in Web accessibility policy implementation practices involve attitudes and responsibilities; implementing policies only under pressure of the law; treating persons with disabilities as a marginal minority that needs managing; considering the norm’s needs first; the norm’s dictation of the scope and form of implementation; and policies’ focus on the individuals and their impairments rather than on the social response to disability. The abovementioned ableist biases were reflected in the procurement process and the selection of procurement as the main implementation method to promote Web accessibility at all levels; implementers’ dispositions at all levels; the lack of accountability practices; stakeholders’ questioning applicability of the law and shifting responsibilities during implementation processes; training efforts and resources allocation made to comply with the law rather than promoting the inclusiveness that is needed.

It is important to note that several social inclusiveness elements were also found in Web accessibility policymaking: inclusive intent and commitment to civil rights; understanding of the critical need for inclusiveness in ICT product development; aiming at harmonization across policies and emphasis on usability in Web accessibility; and, finally, attempts to empower persons with disability as a community. These elements of social inclusiveness were reflected in the active participation of persons with disabilities in policymaking processes at all levels, and the recognition of accessibility as an essential component of civil rights. A certain degree of social inclusiveness is also reflected in some policy indications that accessibility needs to be firmly integrated into e-learning, and that accessibility features can potentially benefit all users. The social inclusiveness elements found in Web accessibility policy implementation practices include: inclusive intent, commitment to civil rights, as well as some inclusive ICT product development efforts. Such social inclusiveness is reflected in resource allocation practices and stakeholder training particularly at the CCC level. Additionally, a certain degree of social inclusiveness is reflected in the idea of the procurement process as a means for reaching accessibility, in recognizing students with disabilities as part of the overall Web end-users population, and in isolated cases of ICT products that were designed with built-in accessibility features beginning at the early design stages.

The knowledge gained from this study can be used in redirecting future practices to focus on federal accessibility standards for curriculum integration in higher education, the inclusion of ICT industry in government initiatives and directives, and the active participation of higher education and the California Community College system in future global policymaking processes to promote the successful implementation of inclusive Web accessibility policies.