Each year, the third Thursday in May marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD)—an opportunity for discussion about digital access and inclusion and commitment to change for the more than 1 billion people across the globe with disabilities and impairments.
Over the past year, accessibility was thrust into the spotlight more than ever before, as the pandemic closed campuses and moved learning online en masse. Students who relied on in-person supports suddenly had to figure out how to navigate virtually. Colleges and universities were and remain on the front lines managing requests from students, as is Justin Tumelaire, Sr. Manager for Accessibility at Cengage. Thankfully, Cengage has been working for many years to help make online homework platforms accessible for learning, aiding in the rapid transition to online learning.
In recognition of GAAD, and to help draw attention to accessibility needs and promote key learnings, we sat down with Justin to discuss the important work his team does.
1. Describe your role at Cengage?
In my current role as Sr. Accessibility Manager, my team supports a range of teams from product to web to marketing to ensure our resources are meeting accessibility requirements and needs. From evaluating assessment activities to ensuring they’re accessible, creating accessible marketing flyers to leading cross-functional working groups to plan and implement enhancements—all across a portfolio of tens of thousands of digital resources; the work is complex and dynamic, but central to what we do.
Inclusivity is one of our core Learning Design principles. If learning can’t be accessed by all, we can’t achieve our goals, so we must design with accessibility in mind.
2. What motivates you in your work?
Tackling a tough challenge—and there are no shortage of challenges when it comes to accessibility, especially for impacted students. Sometimes, you have to be creative in finding the best solution.
I also care about people and people are a central aspect of accessibility. We are all created with dignity and there shouldn’t be barriers to opportunities for ourselves, our knowledge or our skills—or our ability to share these gifts to help enrich the lives of others. Accessibility is about preserving that dignity.
3. How do you feel the culture at Cengage enables accessibility?
Our Credo guides us in our mission, and included in that, is believing in the power and joy of learning and being accountable to and for each other. Everyone is committed to making a difference here. Everyone’s day jobs, be it software development, web design, etc., are busy and get busier when I come to them with additional work to make sure a solution is as accessible as it can be. Still, everyone is on board. They want to make products accessible; they want to make our products available to everyone.
And now people are being proactive about accessibility—they want to learn more. Our culture is a big part of that.
4. What are the best parts of your job and what are you most proud of?
Personally, I appreciate the complex challenges this role brings. Given privacy protections, we don’t always get to hear directly from a student about the impact of our work, but I like seeing other people talk about it. The more visibility there is for accessibility, the better. And not just visibility into the challenges a user might face, but visibility around the importance and impact of accessibility. The fact that employees are proactively reaching out to us, asking questions and driving efforts, is great.
For example, a team recently did a training for a software guild on accessibility and our folks independently and proactively chose this as topic to focus on, and share knowledge on. It’s this work that will eventually lead to widespread impact.
5. What are the hardest parts about your job?
The sheer number of stakeholders, processes and teams that are involved with developing any given product can certainly be a challenge. There is no one-size-fits-all technique for making different products accessible. A lot of coordination must happen between different technology teams, content teams and vendors. At times, that can make it challenging to achieve scale, but not impossible.
6. How has COVID-19 impacted accessibility?
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of accessibility more than ever because students who may have had face-to-face supports no longer had them, or they had to figure out how to navigate virtually to the support they needed. In a perfect world, everything that everyone creates would be accessible, but when we face an unexpected challenge like COVID, it really highlights why accessibility is so important and helps us, and any company that creates digital solutions, prioritize and strive to develop solutions that everyone can use.
7. What do you wish people better understood about accessibility?
Accessibility work is more than just a task—it needs to be a mission. There are criteria that guide the development of accessible products, but people must be the driving force to make it happen. It’s only possible when we’re conscientious and deliberate in our efforts. Accessibility must not be an addition to workflows, but an integrated part of them.
Also, consider there are things we all take for granted and that there might be individual situations that affect the way people learn. Developing solutions that are accessible helps maximize the learning experience for everyone, but it’s also critical to have a support system in place when a barrier occurs.