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Advice and Resources for Disability Services: Q&A with University of Washington

  • Sheryl and Terrill Q&A

    We recently hosted a webinar with two leaders from the world of accessibility in higher education: Sheryl Burgstahler and Terrill “Terry” Thompson from the University of Washington.

    Sheryl is UW’s Director of Accessible Technology Services where accommodations and universal design for learning (UDL) are the main features of educational IT (EIT) accessibility on campus. Terrill is a Technology Accessibility Specialist at UW and is well-known in the IT accessibility community as the developer of ABLE player, one of the most accessible media player platforms around.

    After their presentation about how lessons learned from federal accessibility legal settlements at other institutions shaped accessibility at UW, Sheryl and Terrill took questions from the audience.

    Read on for disability service advice, perspective, resources, and some takeaways from the Q & A:

    Who should be responsible for conducting an IT audit?

      SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: My personal opinion is, it should be someone designated by the central IT organization. I think they’re in the best position to do that. And I would encourage them not to think about every little product used on campus but the high priority one. My guess is, particularly if you have a larger campus, you’ve already done an IT audit of systems regarding security.

      We were able to get two lists from our central unit within UW IT of high priority, the most widely used IT on campus. We also have our own experiences — Terry and others in our units — in helping make certain products deployed by our organization, or even developed by our organization, more accessible. So, that was the third list.

      So, we took these three lists and have decided those are our high priority projects. …Then we will put them in order by level of priority as well.

      But back to the question, I think [who’s responsible] should be IT organization. But I think you need to designate a point person. In my case, it was me and my unit. And so, we’re leading that charge. We’re not doing all the work, but we’re leading the charge.

      TERRILL THOMPSON: Also in order to answer that, I think it’s important to ask, what does the audit contain? And the first step is just gathering a list of products. So, what is the IT that we’re talking about? That doesn’t require somebody that has a lot of accessibility expertise. It’s just somebody with some connections and some organizational skills to put together a list of products.

      And then kind of our approach to this — because then we’re going to have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of products, and it’s unrealistic to do an accessibility evaluation of each of those. But we’re going to have several steps in this process. One is just collecting information.

      So, a lot of companies do have VPATs — Voluntary Product Accessibility Template — which a lot of vendors have filled out. It’s a self-report on their accessibility, particularly as it applies to section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. And these aren’t necessarily reliable in and of themselves.

      A lot of companies assign this to their marketing group, or just don’t know enough to fill it out in an informed way. But it’s something. And so, kind of a first step in our process is, let’s collect VPATs from the hundreds of products and services that we’ve identified, and at least we’ve got those on file as a starting point.

      Another piece is gathering links to their accessibility resources online or to independent resources that talk about accessibility of products– so user forums, that kind of thing. Both of these pieces– finding VPATs and collecting information off of the web, probably are student projects — [the students] don’t need a lot of accessibility expertise. They can be trained on identifying what a VPAT is. That is not a high level task.

      But then when we get in deeper, as we prioritize products and have to then actually sit down and evaluate them and test them, then you’re looking at somebody who has more accessibility expertise that’s going to need to be involved in that piece of the project. So, lots of different parts to conducting the audit, and probably different players who are involved along the way. But somebody who organizes all this, who I think really just needs to be sort of a project managing person– and as Sheryl said, within the IT group is ideal because then they’re well connected with all the players that need to be involved.

    In the absence of an Accessibility Technology Services Department, who would you recommend should take the lead on an accessibility initiative like UW’s?

      SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: Well, I could tell you how we got started in accessibility here at the University of Washington. I’ve been here since 1984. I was only 13 at the time, by the way. But I came to the university soon after the Macintosh was introduced to start to Micro-Computer Support Group. Because until then, we were a mainframe shop with a lot of Z19 and Z29 terminals out on campus.

      So, I had some background in accessibility. I made that part of my job description. I just put it as a bullet point my job description, to make sure that faculty, students, and staff had access to technology. That was pretty easy to do because there wasn’t a lot of it out there by then. Most of it was on the Apple II computer, frankly.

      But anyway, so I think the point is, you just decide who’s the best person to do that? And put that as part of their job description. The staff that I had– I had a technical staff– but none of them were exceptionally enthusiastic about accessibility. So, I waited until I was hiring a new staff member– that’s a really good time to get somebody to buy into whatever you want them to do. And they would be the point person on accessibility. The person that I hired had no background in that area.

      A good person might even be somebody that’s a webmaster within central IT. Because, a lot of the inaccessibility problems come with HTML and the websites themselves.

      Sheryl Burgstahler
      Director, University of Washington Accessible Technology Services

      But there were some good resources online. There’s a closing-the-gap-catalog, for instance. I like it because it’s not every accessible product on campus or that they might use on campus. But it has a sampling of them. And there are conferences like the CSUN Conference on Technology and People with Disabilities. So, there are options for people to get trained on the topic. And this person just gradually learned more and more and did that type of resource.

      A good person might even be somebody that’s a webmaster within central IT. Because, a lot of the inaccessibility problems come with HTML and the websites themselves. And included in that would be that PDFs that are posted on websites, and even the videos. And so that is a person that comes with some foundation information that they can build on. It’s hard for people to really get into web accessibility if they have no background in HTML. And I’d choose somebody that’s really enthusiastic– that they think this is kind of a cool thing to do. Because for a technical person, it’s not like it’s difficult to learn these things. It just takes a lot of time and dedication. Terry, do you want to add to that?

      TERRILL THOMPSON: It’s been interesting to see how this has played out at Washington, within the state of Washington. Because with policy 188, the end of year 2016 deadline– one of the things that we had to have done by December 31 was identify an IT accessibility coordinator.

      And for a lot of institutions who don’t have anybody whose job description says that they’re in charge of technology accessibility, it’s just been interesting to see how they chose somebody. And it really is all over the map. Although, I noticed that a lot of the community and technical colleges in particular have their CIO identified as that person. And a lot of those people have really been beefing up their skills on accessibility, and in some cases doing a lot of the work themselves.

      But in other cases they are just sort of envisioning themselves as the leader of this initiative, this effort. And then they’re empowering the people that work for them to learn about accessibility and to apply accessibility to the work that they do. And I kind of like that model that the higher the position, and the more authority that person has, the more likely they are going to be to actually get results.

    How many people do you have on your staff dedicated to IT accessibility?

      SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: This is a difficult question to answer because people are working on IT accessibility part-time in some cases. I direct Accessible Technology Services, which has two centers– the Access Technology Center, which provides support for faculty, students, and staff on campus related to IT. But I also run the DOIT Center, which stands for Disability, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology.

      And in that center, we have grant-funded or externally-funded projects to promote the success of people with disabilities nationwide. We get a lot of grants to do that. And so we can beg, borrow, and steal from not that pool. We have a tremendous amount of expertise, but a lot of that expertise was developed and acquired through our grant projects. Terry, for instance, is about 80% time on grant-funded projects– working nationwide on a lot of these IT efforts that we do on our own campus. So that gives us a lot of flexibility.

      Besides him, we had a manager of our Access Technology Center, Dan Comden. And we have a showroom of assistive technology, and we do a lot of training and so forth there. So he’s full-time. Hadi Rangin is our vendor contact on accessibility– works with vendors primarily. He also is in the Access Technology Center

      We do have someone focusing on videos, but he only focuses on it one day a week. Doug Heyman is his name, and he works one day a week on captioning for the campus. But the other four days he’s actually providing technical support to DOIT kids– so kids in the DOIT Center that have technology. And then we have two people that are focusing proactively, one on web design, as I described that project. And then the other one on PDF accessibility, and other document accessibility I should say.

      We coordinate a lot of our efforts with the Disability Services Office. And so we do things for them like help them with the– we provide the Braille equipment for Braille on campus, and help them even do some Brailling in a pinch if they’re short-staffed. But we have a lot of people over there doing IT accessibility. But again, their focus is on providing accommodations for students with disabilities. So they have an IT accessibility lead who works on captioning, but also PDF accessibility. And they have about 10 students who work with them in those efforts. And we have about the same number of students working with us. So it’s kind of a mix.

    Which resources are best for discovering information about how other disability service offices are handling procurement and other issues related to EIT accessibility?

      SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: …In lieu of having somebody that’s really knowledgeable about accessibility, you can join a discussion list. And the one I would recommend is ATHEN. It’s a group of individuals who perform duties as far as accessible technology on campuses nationwide. If you join that list, many of the discussions on that list are simply things like, “We are thinking of purchasing product XYZ. Does anyone have an experience regarding accessibility of that product?”

      And even if you don’t have your own accessibility people, you can keep track of what other people are telling you about accessibility. I think there are a lot of things that you can do– we’ve mentioned a number of them– without having that accessibility expertise, and that would be one of them.

      TERRILL THOMPSON: There are also lots of conversations that have been historically, over the years, related to sharing test results. And ATHEN is one of the organizations where that conversation has been front and center.

      Another is EDUCAUSE. EDUCAUSE, the IT association for higher education, has an IT accessibility constituent group. And that is primarily a discussion list, although they also meet once a month.

      …We’re all testing products, or many of us are testing products for accessibility, and there’s a lot of redundant testing. We’re all collaborating with vendors and in a lot of cases doing that in isolation, rather than getting together and sharing that effort in contacting vendors en masse and working with them.

      So, I think both of these channels, ATHEN and EDUCAUSE, are great places to see how we can work together, how we can collaborate to improve the state of accessibility out there. …Sharing [information on accessible products] has been kind of a problem. It’s never really gotten off the ground even though it’s a great idea. There are a lot of people that have some reservations about sharing, just from a liability standpoint. You know, what if we say bad things about a vendor? Is that going to get us in trouble?

      So, there are all sorts of issues that would need to be worked out. But it is a very active conversation that’s happening in these other places. I encourage you to check both of those out– ATHEN and the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group.

    How do you handle textbook platforms that are often required by instructors but that students purchase?

      SHERYL BURGSTAHLER: It falls within the accommodation for students with disabilities. So, we’re peripherally involved in that. And we’re involved in some organizations that promote making textbooks accessible to students with disabilities.

      Until everything is fully accessible and all the tools and platforms we use are fully accessible, then there’s going to be a role for disability services to provide accommodations.

      Terrill Thompson
      Technology Accessibility Specialist, University of Washington

      TERRILL THOMPSON: It kind of speaks to sort of our partnership with Disability Services in that they provide accommodations. If students are using a platform that has accessibility issues, then they are going to be working with the instructor to make sure that the student has access to the materials that they need and the resources they need.

      But then we come in, as we’re looking at different e-text platforms, for instance, and evaluating products, working with lenders. We’re sort of tackling things from that end to try and ensure that the tools that we ultimately use and deploy are accessible. So, it’s a two-edged sword.

      Until everything is fully accessible and all the tools and platforms we use are fully accessible, then there’s going to be a role for disability services to provide accommodations. But we’re trying to address that on the front end and make sure that things are accessible. And we have been involved in some of the e-text piloting projects, for instance. And where accessibility barriers were found– that was, in a couple of instances, significant enough to have an impact on whether we proceeded. We can’t take full credit for stopping a pilot in its tracks. But I think the fact that a product was not accessible did contribute to that ultimate decision.

    Watch Sheryl and Terrill’s full presentation below:


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