How should a faculty member, campus, or publisher approach the goal of providing accessible materials? The Norton Learning Blog sits down with Evan Yamanishi, Norton’s director of accessibility and standards, to discuss how his experiences working in a campus disability office informed his work at Norton on accessibility standards.
You used to work in a college disability office. How did you get into that field, and what was your experience like?
I never actually intended to work in disability or accessibility but looking back, it’s not a surprise that I ended up here. As a college student, I was registered with the disability office due to a chronic illness that started in my junior year of high school. I had a rough time in college because of it and only really made it through because of the support of the disability office. But ultimately, a relapse in my final year as a music education major forced me to reconsider my plans to be a music teacher.
After college, my mom, a K—12 special ed social worker, was in a quilt guild with the woman who ran the reader program at the local community college (a “reader” is a human aid who reads inaccessible materials aloud to students, typically to support blind and low-vision students). As I can only imagine happens at a quilt guild, they got to talking about their kids and work, and it surfaced that I was looking for work and the community college sorely needed a reader for a blind musician.
I ended up taking over the reader program in the disability office after the woman who hired me retired (this was her plan all along!). I really loved the opportunity to work directly with students, parents, faculty, and staff to ensure that students with disabilities had an equitable college experience. And since I was good with technology, I spent a fair amount of time making materials more accessible and learning a ton about accessibility in the process.
And when Norton posted their first ever accessibility specialist position to a disability professionals’ listserv, I sent in an application on a whim. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot at Norton in the six years since, but I’ll save that for later.
In your role at Norton, you’ve been in touch with colleges and universities of all stripes as they address accessibility concerns. What have you learned? Are there any institutions or approaches you particularly admire?
When I started at Norton six years ago, it was very common for schools to either have no procurement policies or standards around accessibility, or to have their own bespoke policies and standards. Both scenarios are less common now (thankfully!) but there are still huge differences among schools’ approaches and resources.
I often think back to when I worked in disability support and briefly served on the board of Michigan’s AHEAD chapter, where I worked closely with schools from all over Michigan. There were smaller schools with one person in charge of all student support where disability was almost an afterthought, big research institutions that had major funding and specialists for every type of disability, and everything in between. That’s still true all over the United States and Canada, never mind the radically different models of disability support abroad, where we’re doing more and more business. This ultimately means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and is exactly why we address our adopters’ needs individually and personally while also always engaging closely with the major international standards for accessibility.
But if I had to choose an approach that I admire the most, it would be one influenced by the “best ensures” standard for disability equity that began to be used by the U.S. courts around 2011. Prior to this, accommodations for people with disabilities in all settings focused on the “reasonableness” of the accommodations as determined by the accommodation provider, not the person with the disability. This standard started to show its cracks in the Enyart v. National Conference of Bar Examiners case, where a blind law student was given a variety of accommodations for her bar exam but wasn’t allowed to use the assistive technology that she used throughout her education. The courts ruled in Enyart’s favor, as the accommodations provided—while reasonable—didn’t “best ensure” that the exam results reflected her aptitude.
This “best ensures” standard has since been cited a number of times in the courts but is also being used by some schools to gauge a solution’s efficacy based on its ability to meet the student’s needs rather than its reasonableness. Schools that take this standard to heart recognize that a solution that works for one student won’t necessarily work for every student. That will then be reflected in a procurement policy that allows for a variety of ways that a third party can comply, not just one. I especially like this approach because it’s in line with how Norton has approached accessibility with an eye for inclusion and equity. The best solutions meet the student where they are, not where we or the standards think they should be.
How did your experiences working in higher ed shape your approach to making Norton’s products more accessible?
Even six years later, I often think back to specific students I worked with in Michigan, what worked for them and what didn’t work. For instance, I worked with one student who was a whiz with technology and helped me learn a lot about how to navigate web content with a screen reader, but I also had blind students who were just learning how to use assistive technology or who were outright resistant to using it.
It’s tempting to focus my efforts these days on creating a great experience for that tech whiz, because I know they would get a lot out of it. But accessibility is fundamentally about confronting our biases—a bias toward visual content or a bias toward text over audio—then recognizing that there is no one universally “correct” way to learn, and finally figuring out how to present information in a more equitable way.
This has all resulted in a healthy skepticism for the word “universal,” which has a long history in accessibility via “universal design,” the concept that content and environments can be designed for everyone. I still believe in designing for everyone but find it much more effective to design first for the lived experiences of people in the margins and then build out for everyone else, also known as “inclusive design.” The end goal is the same as universal design, but they have different starting places, and inclusive design makes the point of recognizing and celebrating intersectionality rather than disability in isolation.
What advice do you have for faculty put into the position of needing to ensure course materials are accessible?
First and foremost, I would encourage faculty to recognize the ways that they are already working toward creating accessible materials and then do more of that. Effectively chunking and structuring content, for instance, has a huge impact on accessibility. Content that hasn’t been broken up into smaller pieces can be incredibly difficult and fatiguing for lots of people—if you’ve ever read something that didn’t have a sense of a paragraph or that was full of run-on sentences, you probably know this feeling. But that’s exacerbated for people with cognitive impairments that affect short-term memory or temporary disabilities like having a head cold. Thankfully, chunking and structuring is something that teachers usually spend a lot of time thinking about. We don’t always think of that kind of thing as accessibility, but it absolutely is.
Second, and probably the most important, is to learn more about the myriad ways people experience the world. This puts the focus on what people with disabilities experience, not on their impairment. For instance, when someone uses a tactile graphic to feel the shape of a line chart, they are experiencing the same spatial relationships that a sighted person experiences—both see trends, inflection points, intersections, and other points of interest at a glance and then can delve deeper if they choose.
Third, I would encourage faculty to think of accessibility as a lens for teaching and learning that focuses on transparency and meaning. This is more or less impossible to do without first taking the time to understand how people with disabilities experience the world, but it ultimately helps us avoid ambiguity and focus in on how meaning is transmitted and perceived, something that is at the heart of teaching and learning.
And critically, ambiguity forces learners to make mental leaps that create opportunities for misunderstanding for everyone but disproportionately affects people with disabilities. I like to tell my colleagues to speak up when something isn’t clear for them even if they can’t articulate why, because that ambiguity may mean that it’s completely inaccessible to someone. The accessibility goal is to be clear and deliberate, divorcing meaning from modality as much as possible so that you can be sure that a student’s misunderstanding is in fact a misunderstanding rather than a reflection of the student’s impairment. For instance, using red and green to convey incorrect and correct without any other indicator will be ambiguous to roughly one out of every twenty male students, who can’t distinguish between red and green.
If someone wants to learn more about Norton products and accessibility, where should they go?