The Teach Access Approach

The idea for Teach Access was born in 2014 from Jeff Wieland of Facebook and Mike Shebanek, formerly at Yahoo!, now at Facebook. Their idea was to create an effort to proliferate fundamental skills and concepts of accessible technology in computer science, design, and other related disciplines to ensure future technologies are fully accessible when brought to the marketplace. They shared this idea with Larry Goldberg of Verizon Media (originally Yahoo!). Together they kickstarted Teach Access, bringing together its founding members[1] and later creating an Executive Committee committed to developing accessible technologies.

Now in its seventh year, Teach Access continues its efforts to ensure technology is usable by everyone, including those with disabilities. With more than 50 member organizations; long-term partnerships with industry, higher education, advocacy organizations, and student ambassadors; and, ongoing programs including Teach Access’ Faculty Grants and Study Away programs, the Initiative is leading the way toward a world where accessible technology is the norm.

Vision for the Future

Play 1 of PEAT’s Accessibility Playbook for Emerging Technology Initiatives: “Capture Your Vision,” emphasizes the importance of capturing a Vision Statement as the first step in launching a successful initiative. The leaders of Teach Access worked to structure the Initiative around a shared, concise vision that encompassed their hope for a world in which technology is designed to meet the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities.

When Teach Access launched in 2015, they identified a vision for the future with the understanding that, based on lessons learned, it would change with time as the leaders of the Initiative homed in on the best approach to achieving their ultimate goals.

In the summer of 2019, Teach Access leadership revised their vision statement to streamline their stated purpose. Ultimately the vision for an accessible future has remained unchanged, but Teach Access has become acutely focused on preparing students for the workforce:

Guiding Principles

As noted in Play 2 of the Playbook: “Set Guiding Principles, guiding principles should be the backbone of any effort. They are the basic truths that endure regardless of how an initiative evolves over time. For Teach Access, committing to a set of guiding principles to steer their day-to-day efforts was essential to stay true to their vision. Teach Access leadership and the Teach Access community adhere to the following set of principles to ensure their efforts are inclusive, accessible, transparent, and agile.

  • Inclusivity: As the saying goes in the disability community, “nothing about us, without us.” Teach Access knows how important it is to ensure people with disabilities have a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions and contributing to the Initiative. People with disabilities are members of Teach Access at all levels of the Initiative, including on the leadership team and as participants in Teach Access task forces. Teach Access works to foster an inclusive environment where all members are respected, valued, and understood, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, or disability.
  • Accessible and Transparent Communication: Teach Access makes a conscious effort to ensure messaging, meetings, programs, and activities are as accessible as possible and that everyone is comfortable contributing and participating. Members are encouraged to request any needed accommodations that will enable them to participate effectively. In addition, leadership takes great care in ensuring that they communicate to members and stakeholders is a way that provides an honest and transparent depiction of the state of the Initiative.
  • Agility: Teach Access is focused on fast-tracking progress, which means leadership is thoughtful and deliberate with decision-making. They do not believe in establishing bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. In the face of changing circumstances, they take an agile, action-oriented approach to their work, collecting feedback and input along the way. This allows them to focus on achieving “quick wins” while also giving time to dedicate to large systemic changes that are needed.

A Multi-dimensional Approach

Since its inception in 2014, Teach Access has followed its vision and guiding principles and used them as a bellwether to determine the path forward. Deciding how best to structure the Initiative was an important decision that was informed by input from its founding members and Executive Team. Leadership considered the scope of the project, what roles needed to be filled, and key issues to focus on (see Play 3 of the Playbook: “Structure Your Initiative). They identified the following five focus areas and approach to move work forward in each area:

  1. Colleges and Universities – Engage with academia to encourage the integration of accessibility knowledge into the curricula of computer science, product and graphic design, web development, user experience research and design, and HCI courses.
  2. Industry – Work with member companies to influence the growth of accessibility coursework and curricular material at the college and university level via their hiring standards and recruitment strategy to ultimately create the demand for workers who can create products that everyone can use.
  3. Students – Collaborate with students to create excitement around the potential opportunities for graduates with accessibility skills.
  4. Advocates – Connect with advocates and people with disabilities to ensure the Initiative focused on the right goals and activities.
  5. Accrediting Bodies – Build on existing relationships with accrediting bodies[2] to gain support for the inclusion of accessibility concepts into college and university curricula.

Building the Teach Access Community

The Right People

Play 4 of the Playbook: “Identify Critical Stakeholders,” lays out how to pinpoint the individuals and organizations that need to be reached to help achieve the vision of an initiative: those who will get behind the effort and those who will act. For Teach Access, finding committed and knowledgeable cross-sector supporters that could drive the Initiative forward was an essential step in creating a future in which students are equipped to enter the workforce with experience and expertise in designing accessible emerging technologies.

Teach Access leadership identified their primary stakeholder groups as 1) universities in the United States that teach computer science, product and graphic design, web development, user experience research and design, and HCI; 2) technology companies seeking candidates with a background in accessibility; and, 3) the advocacy organizations that represent the people with disabilities who ultimately benefit from technology that is “born accessible.” [3]

Messages that Resonated

While Teach Access leadership engaged in efforts aligned with Plays 3 and 4 listed above, they also developed messages that would inspire others to join the effort and take action. (See Play 5 of the Playbook: “Craft Your Message.”) Pointing to the data PEAT and Teach Access collected from the Accessible Technology Skills Gap Assessment, the leaders of the Initiative were able to communicate the demand from major employers for students to receive accessibility training. The information collected allowed Teach Access to make the business case to colleges and universities for integrating accessibility concepts into their technology-focused programs.

Task Forces

As noted in Play 6 of the Playbook: “Build Your Community,” a successful initiative requires the commitment, expertise, and support of a diverse, cross-sector group of people who act as advisors for and champions of an initiative.[4] Once the founders of Teach Access identified their stakeholders and the messaging they would use to reach them, it was time to start getting the word out about the Initiative.

Teach Access leadership targeted change agents at colleges and universities who were willing to embed accessibility skills training into mainstream curricula. This group included professors as well as hiring and recruiting teams. They also pulled from their existing network to identify friends and allies at companies with established accessibility teams. And finally, the Initiative pursued advocacy groups and people with disabilities who would be willing to help educate students about the “why” and “how” of accessible technology.

Most of these efforts were accomplished organically, via word of mouth. But Teach Access leaders also did a fair share of networking and presenting at conferences such as the California State University Northridge Assistive Technology Conference (CSUN). This approach allowed Teach Access to recruit accessibility influencers and others who were already bought into the idea of teaching accessibility and then used the momentum to spread the word even further.

Once Teach Access had accumulated a few dozen members, the Initiative began holding regular virtual meetings to discuss priorities. Eventually, as the founding members shared more about their individual skill sets, interests, and opinions on the accessible technology skills gap, it became clear that there were multiple barriers to teaching accessibility and multiple Teach Access members willing to help address each of them. The primary barriers the group identified as existing at Colleges and Universities across the United States include:

  1. Lack of Funding and Time: In many cases, professors see value in incorporating accessibility into their curricula, but they don’t have the funds or time to implement it. For example, a professor might need to take time out of their schedule (and pay money) to take a training course or workshop to learn about the topic at hand. Or they might need to purchase a specific type of software or hardware, such as a screen reader or a VR headset, to use in class as a learning aid.
  2. Competing Priorities: Professors are forced to choose between topics they can add to their lessons. Adding the topic of accessibility into their courses could result in them having to remove other valuable content.
  3. Difficult to Develop Teaching Materials: Professors who want to infuse accessibility into their courses are sometimes unsure of where to start. Additionally, they don’t always have the time or money to create new course syllabi, assignments, lectures, and exams from scratch.
  4. Lack of Student Interest: In many cases, students across the country aren’t putting pressure on their schools and professors to teach accessibility because they’re not familiar with accessibility practices and/or understand the benefits accessibility knowledge can have on their future job prospects.
  5. No Curricular Requirements: The major accrediting bodies that govern what curricula should look like for majors such as computer science have not updated their curricular requirements to include accessibility concepts. This means students are not required to learn about accessibility to graduate.
  6. Lack of Support from Leadership: Ultimately, it is leadership within colleges and universities who can have the biggest influence on whether accessibility is taught at their institution. Many colleges and universities and department leaders don’t fully understand why including accessibility in their curricula is valuable to students as well as the institution.

Teach Access members volunteered to lead the task forces, and other members chose to join the task forces in support roles. Once the task forces launched, the leaders of each group collaborated with participants to define their group’s focus, goals, and activities. Their goal was to facilitate the success of task forces that would help move Teach Access forward, provide resources to industry and academia, and increase general awareness of the importance of incorporating accessibility into curricula and understanding of accessibility among students.

Teach Access leadership created the following task forces to address one or more of these barriers:

  • Organization: Establishing organizational tools for all task forces and managing executive committee activities, monthly membership meetings, financial tracking, and special projects.
  • Grants: Disbursing grants for professors to incorporate accessibility into coursework (e.g., to support student and faculty prizes, purchase equipment and tools, etc.)
  • Competitions: Designing industry-sponsored competitions and/or hackathons on accessibility and embedding accessibility into existing competitions.
  • Driving Academic Engagement: Programs designed to recruit more college and university members to join Teach Access, including running a visiting professor program, bringing Teach Access industry members to colleges and universities as guest lecture free of charge; creating a student ambassadors program to engage students as campus leaders; launching Study Away to expose students to what it’s like to work at a company that cares about accessibility; and, speaking at conferences to get the word out about Teach Access.
  • Accreditation: Conducting a research survey of computer science, design, HCI course descriptions to determine what portion mentions accessibility. The goal was to provide data that would help persuade accreditation bodies that accessibility concepts should be infused into the curriculum of technology-based programs.
  • Evidence Packets: Creating materials to help academics and industry leaders engage college and university leadership and administrators to make the case for why teaching accessibility at their schools is good for students, their colleges and universities, companies, and people with disabilities.
  • Materials: Create best-in-class teaching materials for teaching accessibility concepts and skills.

Over time, the Teach Access leadership team realized there was an overlap in the focus and work of several groups, and some of the task forces lacked the number of participants needed to execute deliverables. As a result, they streamlined the groups by audience rather than having them be project-based. This allowed members to focus on key activities rather than many small projects. In 2019, these original seven task forces were dissolved and condensed into three stakeholder-based groups – Industry, Students, and Universities. [5]

Though these new task forces are named after a specific stakeholder group, participation in each is not exclusive to those considered to be members of that group. When a participant from a new company, academic institution, or advocacy organization joins Teach Access, they are encouraged to join the task force that is working on issues that intersect with their areas of interest and goals. This ensures groups are made up of participants with a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and expertise.

Participation Model

As mentioned above, Teach Access and XR Access inspired the development of the Playbook but each initiative differs in its underlying model for participation. Like XR Access, Teach Access participants come from the technology industry, academia, and advocacy organizations and collaborate in groups to execute projects and activities. Participation in XR Access is free for all groups. For Teach Access, academic and advocacy organizations participate for free, but technology companies must pay an annual membership fee to help support the Initiative’s unique funding needs. Membership fees go towards a variety of Teach Access activities, including:

  • General operating costs
  • The Executive Director’s salary
  • Paying interns for their support
  • Travel expenses for the Executive Director to visit member colleges and universities, attend conferences, and participate in Study Away
  • Operating costs to maintain the Study Away and Faculty Grants programs
  • Miscellaneous task force projects

Footnotes

[1] Founding companies include Adobe, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, LinkedIn, Microsoft, The Paciello Group, and Verizon Media (originally Yahoo!); Founding universities include California State University Northridge, Michigan State University, Olin College of Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, and University of Washington.

[2] Accrediting bodies include the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD).

[3] As is the case in a volunteer-led organization, specific Teach Access stakeholders have come and gone over the years, but the core groupings of academia, industry, and advocacy remain.

[4] People with disabilities are represented in all stakeholder groups, participating in the Teach Access community, providing input into projects, and helping guide the efforts of the organization.

[5] As of 2021, these three task forces remain in operation, but leadership remains agile and open to changing the structure as the Initiative evolves.