Making all higher education materials available to all students — despite challenges they may face — is a daunting, but obtainable goal, as Philip Voorhees sees it. This goal of total accessibility has driven his career since the late 1990s.
That’s when Voorhees, who now heads UNLV’s office of accessibility resources, began changing the way digital media in information technology and assistive technology interact to help students with disabilities navigate the expanding digital landscape of college life.
'A Bad Place'
Voorhees started out in digital media in information technology at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). He soon realized that students with disabilities could not easily access or work in the digital environment. Technology was changing the way teachers presented information and the way students were expected to learn and work.
“I quickly found out that even if an individual could write a letter in Microsoft Word but couldn’t do anything else in the new digital realm, the assistive technology was not enough,” he said. “You really had to have the digital content — the information in websites — be accessible, too.”
This came into sharp focus for Voorhees when the director of disability resources at MTSU tapped him to help one student in particular.
“This was a non-traditional student in his 30s,” Voorhees said. “He had been a successful contractor, and unfortunately, had a hunting accident and had to retrain himself to do everything. He could not type and could not easily use a mouse.”
Over the next three months, Voorhees said he helped the student master Dragon Dictation, an early speech recognition software program. The student had to learn a large vocabulary list to interact with the program.
“At the end of the training, this student was able to write a letter to his dad,” Voorhees said. “He had not said anything about it prior, but he had not been able to write to his dad in three years. Being able to do that was completely liberating for him.”
Soon after, Voorhees again was called upon to help a student. This time, it was a traditional student who was blind and had been trying to use screen reader technology. But the course materials he was trying to read were not designed to meet accessibility guidelines.
“This put him in a really bad place,” Voorhees said, adding that to access the information presented in books, online, and on handouts, the student was forced to go to the Disability Resource Center and wait for someone to read it to him.
“At that point, I realized this student should have the opportunity to go anywhere on campus, like everyone else, to read and study and access the material,” Voorhees said.
Accessible at the Outset
This prompted Voorhees and his national colleagues to start building a model of assistive technology and accessibility for higher education. This new approach came at a time the U.S. departments of Justice and Education had begun to more diligently enforce Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which “requires schools and colleges to ensure that the technology they use is fully accessible to individuals with disabilities or otherwise to provide equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology.”
“When the student who we’d been working with could finally access everything he needed, he became independent, like every college student be on campus,” Voorhees said, adding that the blind student then confided that he had never thought that level of independence would be possible for him.
Since then, Voorhees has built similar accessibility models at Northern Arizona University and Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University. He also worked with the Tennessee Board of Regents, which was among the first higher education systems to require vendors and publishers meet web content accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium in order to win their contracts.
“That was a seminal moment as higher education institutions across the country took notice,” Voorhees said. “They realized that working with vendors at the outset could both bring down costs to the university and help individual students purchase materials without the added step of having to find an adaptive resource to help them access it.”
Voorhees frequently coordinated with federal officials, including Eve Hill, former deputy assistant attorney general, who was with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division from 2011 to 2017.
Hill said of Voorhees, “Phil is a visionary with a great way of bringing the vision down to earth and making it real.”
Now, in addition to leading UNLV’s office of accessibility resources, Voorhees is an active accessibility expert for the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s Higher Education Accessibility Community of Practice, whose mission is to advance technology that can affordably scale and improve educational participation and attainment. He also is involved in several other groups devoted to assistive technology and accessibility for higher education.
“When it comes to digital accessibility, the result you’re going for is to have a usable environment that provides a better experience, no matter your abilities," Voorhees said. “That’s the key aspiration.”