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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Facing Accessibility Issues Head On

Keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change can be daunting, but on campus it too often comes at the expense of disabled students. Things don’t have to be that way, according to accessibility experts who discussed proactive IT solutions with Campus Technology.

“There is a lot of pressure on IT because of budget cuts and being asked to do more with less, so it is easy to ask what the payoff is for [making technology accessible],” said Greg Kraus, IT accessibility coordinator, North Carolina State University, Raleigh. “But what is the cost of not doing it? It’s like people who don’t buy insurance until something bad happens, and then say, ‘Oh, I guess I should have bought insurance.’”

First, few schools have accessibility requirements built into their IT procurement process. NC State is an exception, requiring every IT product to be evaluated for accessibility. Kraus complies with the requirement by adding his own research to the information provided on the voluntary product accessibility template (VPAT) form that most vendors supply on each product.

“They can be a starting point, but they are self-disclosing and not independently verified,” he said. “I always get my hands on the product and do my own testing.”

Second, faculty must be able to develop content that every student can access. Penn State University is working to help instructors understand the issues of students with visual and audio impairments and make developers available to help faculty develop online courses.

“I go to meetings and help developers design for accessibility,” said Anita Colyer Graham, manager of access for the Penn State online campus. “Often, it’s not that they are reluctant—they are unaware of accessibility design issues.”

Finally, a systemwide approach should be put in place to promote the sharing of problems and solutions. The California State University system created its Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) to help set goals and deadlines for improvements, such as its Roadmap for Accessibility in Postsecondary Institutions, which was created to develop a plan to institutionalize accessibility and measure the progress across the system’s campuses.

Because of the ATI program, most CSU campuses have purchased web-evaluation tools that have resulted in cost savings. Cal State Northridge and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo even worked with the evaluation tool to develop accessibility checkpoints that check web pages and applications used by the system. In addition, CSU is working on systemwide services to provide captioning for course videos.

“We are also piloting RoboBraille, which allows users to submit text materials and receive them back in a variety of accessible formats,” said Cheryl Pruitt, director of the ATI program.

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