Experts in Video Accessibility: Bill Welsh, Penn State University
Video accessibility in higher education is a confusing issue for many. This is compounded by the use of sophisticated equipment in the classroom and society’s rapid adoption of new technologies. While students and faculty excitedly embrace technology to communicate and learn at a faster rate, many do not realize that disabled individuals are fighting to keep pace. This problem can be as deep and far-reaching as the university, making accessible learning structures positively overwhelming. How can universities rise to the challenge so learning communities continue to thrive?
In a recent webinar on creating accessible institutional infrastructures, coordinated by Sloan Consortium, four accessibility experts offered their knowledge. (Read our key takeaways.) One of those speakers was Bill Welsh, director of the Office for Disability Services at University Park at Pennsylvania State University. In addition to his directorial duties, Welsh is co-chair of Penn State’s Accessible Technology and Information Committee. This group develops and implements policies, procedures and strategic plans for university-wide accessibility initiatives. With nearly 20 years working with universities on accessibility, we were thrilled when Bill agreed to sit down with 3Play Media after the webinar.
Below is a summary of our interview.
3PLAY MEDIA: As a follow up to the webinar, at Penn State, which laws and standards do you look to when you’re developing the accessibility policy?
BILL WELSH: It really depends on which part of the policy you’re talking about. The overarching laws, versus the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA), provide for equal access, equal opportunity and reasonable accommodations. Standards are totally different. Do you mean the standard for technology?
3PLAY MEDIA: So for example, are you referencing WCAG 2.0, Section 508 and 504?
BILL WELSH: Well, it all kind of goes together and it’s all kind of gray. But let me try to make it a little bit less gray.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is also the precursor to the ADA. It indicates that we must provide equal access for those that receive federal funding. The ADA and ADAAA use the same definition definition as 504 of who is covered as having a disability. That would be the person with a physical or emotional impairment limiting their life activity. Then the ADA changed the definition to be a little bit broader, in 2008. We try to stay away from the legal issues and of look more towards doing the right thing.
3PLAY MEDIA: A lot of states have mirrored legislation similar to federal legislation. Does that enter into the equation at all?
BILL WELSH: It does. Well, it depends on which law is more stringent, so it can depend on the state. For example, California has 508 standards mirroring the federal laws but every city might be a bit different. We all have to follow the federal guidelines, especially institutions of higher education.
508 is great for some technologies, but the standards haven’t changed to meet technology standards. I think on the federal level 508 is going to more closely match the WCAG guidelines in the future.
WCAG is just the standard, and 508 is a law. Again, you can follow every standard you possibly can. That doesn’t mean it’s usable by a person with a disability and accessible.
3PLAY MEDIA: You mentioned in the webinar you have formed an accessibility consortium with the Big 10. Could you tell us a little bit more in terms of what you guys are doing with accessibility strategy?
BILL WELSH: The group we’re members of is the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) and it includes the Big 10 institutions plus the University of Illinois, Chicago. We’ve been meeting collectively on assistive technology and adaptive technology on a grassroots level for the last seven or eight years. From that group formed another group called the Information Technology Accessibility Group, or ITAG. Their charge is to look at: how can we collectively make changes to accessibility technology and policy procedures at all of our institutions? Share resources, best practices, and trainings.
For example, how do we all handle captioning at our institutions? What models are working? How can we collectively use our information to get captioning on a larger scale at a lower cost and still do it in a way that’s easy for faculty and our web developers.
3PLAY MEDIA: Fantastic. So what are your thoughts to captioning reactively versus proactively?
BILL WELSH: It’s a nightmare. Just from the disability’s standpoint, when a student enters a course and the media, multimedia and DVDs are not captioned, oftentimes we don’t know. Of course we know what classes our students who are deaf or hearing impaired are scheduled for, but they might change a class, just like any other student and then where does that leave us? A student shouldn’t have to worry about that.
It also becomes a problem on our online courses because we have people from all over the world taking our online courses. We have over 10,000 students enrolled. We’ve decided to tackle a lot of these standards online first. If you could make the standards work in a small environment we can then broaden those requirements elsewhere.
So we’re trying to make sure our media is captioned. Because that is where a lot of our students who are hearing impaired are going.
3PLAY MEDIA: How do you prioritize different disability initiatives?
BILL WELSH: I think each institution is very different. I can only speak at Penn State. We’re seeing a lot of our departments and colleges doing things more proactively and budgeting for captioned media within their own college. Plus there’s that piece I mentioned today. Most research shows people without disabilities use the captioning. So why not go ahead and caption it if you can afford it? But again, you can, you have to prioritize what things you’re going to caption first. If it’s a 1912 movie nobody’s going to view, there’s no reason to caption unless somebody requests it. But if it’s something that’s going to be shown and broadcast across the university, definitely it has to be captioned.
3PLAY MEDIA: Do you feel faculty and administrators are becoming more aware of the benefits of captioning beyond accessibility? Improved searchability? Search engine optimization? Usability?
BILL WELSH: Yeah, we cover it in our trainings. Accessibility for some disabilities, like color blindness, clears up issues a lot of people might have. Visual issues that is. Some things may work better on a mobile app. Sites that can enlarge on a small screen; those are things that help everybody.
My opinion on disability is: if everybody can use it, why not do it? It’s just like the door operators we see at grocery stores. 20 years ago, it was not the norm. Now we just take it for granted.
3PLAY MEDIA: Are there any institutions you look to as a model when implementing accessibility strategies?
BILL WELSH: We’ve looked and benchmarked at lots of different institutions. Cal State, because they’ve been doing this a long time, is a leader. I think George Mason University is a leader in some of the things.
What I have found though, even with Penn State, there are gaps. There are things I think we could do much better but part of the problem is we’re constantly chasing our tail with technology. Just when you think you have it, something changes and then, you don’t.
That’s just the basis of technology. I think the important thing is institutions have mechanisms and people responsible in place to figure out how to fix those.
3PLAY MEDIA: Couldn’t have said it better. Well Bill, I think that wraps up things for us. I wanted to thank you again for your time. I think that people reading this will get value out of it.
BILL WELSH: Well thank you, I appreciate it. Thank you to 3Play Media for co-sponsoring the webinar. I think it was really helpful to a lot of people based upon the response.