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This theme explores how students, faculty and staff are change agents: disrupting the status quo and contributing to an evolving understanding of our world.

By Courtenay Griffin

Taliesin Smith is a designer with a passion for accessibility.

From early on in her career, she intuitively got the concept that accessible design is good design.

“Diverse needs”

In her role at the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), Ms. Smith also takes every opportunity to apply her knowledge and inform others about how to consider accessibility when it comes to web design.

“My interest in accessible design began as I taught myself how to design websites using the CSS standard,” she explained. “CSS allows flexibility for designers to separate presentation from content. This provides opportunities to present content in different ways to meet the diverse needs of learners.”

In pursuit of her passion, last year Ms. Smith completed a master’s degree in inclusive design from OCAD University, where she also received the Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal for highest academic standing. In her research, she focused on how to design prototypes to be inclusive to those with vision impairment.

“The opportunity to do research directly with people who have disabilities has had a huge impact on me as a designer,” she said.

Taliesin Smith
Taliesin Smith
Photo: Muna Smith Yethiraj

Her experience there also exposed her to leaders in, and advocates for, accessibility and inclusion. She believes this exposure strengthened her conviction that pushing for change is a must, especially in higher education.

“Education leads to employment, so having an inclusive education system is the key to getting people with disabilities the training and skills they need to find their own solutions.”

User + barrier = disability

So, what makes design accessible or non-accessible?

“One very important and simple thing I learned about inclusive design from my professors and the Inclusive Design Research Centre is captured in a simple equation: user + barrier = disability,” Ms. Smith explained.

“Disability is created by a mismatch between the user and the user interface. People are people; they have diverse abilities. It is a designer’s responsibility to not disable a visitor to a website or a student taking a course.”

When it comes to online learning, Ms. Smith says that while many people think of online delivery as a convenient option, for some students it is the only option.

“Online courses are a diverse mix of resources and activities,” Ms. Smith said. “Ideally, an accessible online course presents no barriers to any student.”

This ideal would mean that students with or without disabilities are able to access the materials and complete the activities in a way that is familiar to them, such as using their choice of software or hardware.

“Students are diverse, so even a course that has been designed with accessibility in mind can have some issues.” –Taliesin Smith

The goals and expectations for the course would be clear. Resources would be ordered in a way that makes it easy to progress through or to go back and review, and they could be accessed with diverse technologies, such as screen reader software, or a mobile phone or tablet.

“Students are diverse, so even a course that has been designed with accessibility in mind can have some issues,” Ms. Smith added. “Every course should have a clear path to help, so a student can report a problem and get the help they need.”

Sensing change

As a result of Ms. Smith’s quest for change, and in an effort to use accessible design, CITL’s learning design team has adopted strategies to integrate accessibility within the design of online courses at Memorial.

And in her day-to-day work, Ms. Smith says she can sense the change.

“I get more questions and special requests than I did before, which is good,” she said. “However, there are still improvements to be made before we can see real change. It is only when everyone is on board that we can see where we are, and what we need to do to improve.”

In addition to CITL’s efforts to address accessibility, there are a variety of other services and efforts at Memorial that are contributing to a more accessible environment.

The Glenn Roy Blundon Centre serves students with disabilities, and there is an assistive technology room in The Commons at the Queen Elizabeth II Library that students can use.

“To effect real change and improve the standard of accessibility in the digital resources at the university, a digital accessibility policy to unite the efforts would be a good step.” — Taliesin Smith

Ms. Smith has also met with people in marketing and information technology that are keen to build more accessible apps for university services. But despite these efforts, Ms. Smith believes there is still a missing link.

“There are many efforts from individuals and departments, but in order to effect real change and improve the standard of accessibility in the digital resources at the university, a digital accessibility policy to unite the efforts would be a good step.”

Goal setting

By honing her expertise in this area and sharing her knowledge, Ms. Smith hopes to affect widespread change and spend more time on accessibility work in general.

“Many people are afraid of web accessibility and inclusive design because they either think it is impossible or they are just unfamiliar with how to do it,” she said.

Her advice is to start by setting small goals and when they are reached, create new ones to improve.

“Creating systems that can help ensure there is a high level of digital accessibility at Memorial will be good for everyone. Creating a university that is both inclusive on campus and online creates a more welcoming environment for all learners.”

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