Views at dusk of the Charles River, the Weeks Footbridge,

The Weeks Bridge links Harvard’s Boston and Cambridge campuses.

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Campus & Community

A year in, University Accessibility Committee outlines progress, goals

5 min read

Student experience, digital tech, and campus facilities are key areas of focus

Last fall, Harvard’s Office of the Provost convened the first meeting of the University Accessibility Committee (UAC), a forum that brings senior leaders together to evaluate and promote accessibility on campus, and to share successful practices from across the University. In its inaugural year, the UAC focused preliminary efforts on initiatives that span the Harvard community, identifying three main areas for its work: the student experience, digital technology, and on-campus facilities.

“We have convened this critically important committee in order to provide an opportunity for University leadership to come together with those who are working assiduously to build a Harvard that advances accessibility across departments, Schools, and our campus as a whole,” said Provost Alan Garber. “I’m pleased that the UAC already has begun to make recommendations that have led to meaningful improvements, and I look forward to ongoing progress in our commitment to support students, faculty, and staff with disabilities.”

The UAC is designed to complement and bolster the efforts of University Disability Services (UDS) to promote an accessible and welcome working and learning environment for individuals with disabilities, while providing guidance for collaboration across the University. Its work also dovetails with the mission of Harvard’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, which was established in 2016 to identify ways to support the academic and professional success of all members of the University community.

“Our office has begun the years-long process of moving Harvard University toward a culture characterized by ‘inclusive excellence,’ and the work of the UAC is critical to these efforts,” said John Silvanus Wilson Jr., senior adviser and strategist to the president, who oversees implementation of the recommendations of the task force. “As a community, we are charged with building a Harvard that fully embraces the life experiences of people from all backgrounds. This includes ensuring that people living with disabilities have access to opportunities on campus that allow them to fulfill their potential and achieve their life goals. I’m grateful that leaders from across the University are so engaged in and committed to this work.”

The UAC has appointed three working groups of Harvard staff members with relevant expertise to consider various topics and propose recommendations related to student experience, digital technology, and on-campus facilities. Last June, the groups presented their first round of findings and outlined opportunities and potential next steps. The UAC’s structure, which allows senior leaders to benefit from the knowledge of practitioners from across campus, is intended to streamline the process for implementing new measures. As a result, many of the first round of recommendations are already being instituted. These include:

  • Cross-Registration. Students with disabilities must ask about accommodations when signing up for classes. For courses offered outside a student’s home School, or in a cross-listed course, additional steps and coordination may be required. This fall, the student experience working group helped implement updates to School, UDS, and local Student Disability Coordinator websites, and established best practices to better share information between home and host School registrars. Looking ahead, the group hopes to establish a “check-in module” within the online registration process to handle accommodation requests during cross-registration. It is also exploring centralized data collection to enhance communication between Schools.
  • Digital Access. The digital technology working group has focused its efforts on big-picture recommendations for improving access. A starting point involves expanding resources, similar to those on the Harvard University Information Technology’s online accessibility website, to help web developers and content creators put together and promote widely accessible materials. In the past two years, the User Research Center at Harvard Library and digital accessibility manager Kyle Shachmut have used grants from the President’s Administrative Innovation Fund to build a pool of assistants to test speech-to-text technologies in places such as Lamont Library and on HarvardX and to create a comprehensive database of all accessible technology purchased University-wide. The working group hopes to use this data to standardize and streamline how accessibility is built into procuring digital technologies.
  • The on-campus facilities working group has established two principal tasks: to enhance consideration of accessibility issues in the University’s construction projects, and improve “welcoming and wayfinding” with respect to its physical plant. The group is working to improve Harvard’s delivery guidelines for capital projects so they include accessibility considerations early in the development and construction processes. It also has made recommendations on how to help people with disabilities best navigate the physical campus, and has begun exploring products such as tactile maps and augmented reality technology for the visually impaired.

The UAC will meet again early in the new year to hear a second cycle of recommendations from the three working groups, and to identify next steps.

“It’s an exciting time at Harvard, as we celebrate the diversity of our students, and find new and improved ways to serve the needs of a community that continues to change demographically,” said UDS director and committee member Michele Clopper. “We’ve taken a critical step forward in engaging senior leadership in creating a welcoming environment across the University, and I look forward to ongoing projects that enhance accessibility at Harvard.”

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