As part of its ongoing efforts to ensure the accessibility of its digital systems and communications to persons with disabilities, Harvard University today announced the adoption of a new, University-wide Digital Accessibility Policy. This policy is intended to increase the accessibility of Harvard’s public-facing websites and web-based applications, as well as the digital content Harvard creates and posts on those sites. While effective immediately, the policy is forward-looking, and allows time for the community to plan for and incorporate practices to ensure that covered sites come into conformance by Dec. 1 of this year.
“Harvard is deeply committed to expanding access to knowledge, information, and learning opportunities for people with disabilities,” said University President Larry Bacow. “This policy underscores that commitment and extends it to Harvard’s online presence, enhancing the ability for people within the Harvard community and beyond to better work and learn together.”
The policy calls for Harvard to apply the generally accepted best practices for websites, the Worldwide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1 AA (WCAG 2.1 AA). The policy also establishes Digital Accessibility Services (DAS), a new team within Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT) that will provide in-house expertise, training, and information to Harvard faculty and staff. HUIT expects the DAS team to be staffed and ready to provide training and information over the summer. In addition to this central resource, Schools and units soon will be appointing at least one Digital Accessibility liaison to engage with DAS and help coordinate local efforts and resources.
As provided in the policy, the University also is in the process of convening an Accessibility Steering Committee (ASC). Among other things, the ASC periodically will review the policy and ensure that it continues to align with the University’s commitment to accessibility. In addition, the ASC will identify high-priority sites for accessibility remediation.
“The power of technology allows us to make information and resources more easily available to those who need it,” said Anne Margulies, vice president and chief information officer. “We must ensure that means everyone, including those with disabilities. Harvard’s IT community is deeply committed to providing the platforms, tools, and training to make Harvard’s content as widely accessible as possible.”
“Many areas throughout Harvard have been prioritizing this issue for years now, and with this policy everyone in the Harvard community will be encouraged to update their content to the latest standards,” said Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning, who oversees HarvardX, the University’s primary content creation arm for online learning. Since its inception six years ago, “Accessibility has been one of the dimensions we consider in creating high-quality online learning experiences at HarvardX. Sharing the expertise of Harvard faculty with the world does not require a choice between creating rich interactive experiences and accessible ones. With the right attention and support, we are able to do both.”
HarvardX has always included transcripts alongside videos as a matter of course, and HarvardX team members also routinely ensure that interactive elements can be easily navigated by those who use screen readers, include alternative text for images so visually impaired learners can more easily interpret information, and carefully consider color contrast in video presentations to make content easier to read. Moreover, they work closely with faculty in advance of filming HarvardX online courses, to consider universal design principles that, like the technical enhancements, make content more accessible to a variety of audiences.
“Improving our digital accessibility will ensure that everyone in our community is able to engage with the administrative and academic digital resources available at Harvard,” said John Silvanus Wilson, senior adviser and strategist to the president. “The recommendations of the Presidential Taskforce on Inclusion and Belonging, which my office is working to implement, signaled the need for the thoughtful academic, professional, and social inclusion of all community members. Adopting this Digital Accessibility Policy is clearly pursuant to realizing this vision at Harvard.”
The policy applies to public-facing websites or web-based applications used to conduct University business within a Harvard-controlled web domain, including harvard.edu and any other web domain registered by someone at Harvard in connection with University business. Any activity carried out under the auspices of Harvard University is considered University business, with the exception of activities organized or conducted by students or student organizations. This means that the policy covers Harvard School, unit, center, and faculty websites on Harvard-controlled domains.
“The University’s various websites provide an important means for members of our community to communicate and share ideas,” said Provost Alan Garber and executive vice president Katie Lapp in an email to the Harvard community announcing the policy. “We want our websites to reflect the University’s commitment to accessibility, so that everyone has an opportunity to access content that Harvard creates and posts.”
HUIT has compiled a list of FAQs to help the Harvard community to understand what will be required with regards to Digital Accessibility, both in the coming months and after Dec. 1.