CUNY’s System-Wide Accessibility Solution

March 26, 2018 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: August 29, 2018

Having a wide-reaching accessibility program that is available to all students and staff is the ideal at any institution.

But what exactly does it take to get there?

At the City University of New York (CUNY), the Services for Students with Disabilities found a cost-effective solution to this problem in leveraging a university-wide licensing arrangement with a vendor that provides accessibility consulting and technology solutions for the visually impaired. Carlos Herrera, Assistant Director of Services for Students with Disabilities & Coordinator of the Technology Accessibility Task Force at CUNY, recently led a webinar presentation on how this concept was developed and deployed at his institution.

With over a quarter million students and 24 campuses across the sprawling metropolis of New York City, CUNY is the nation’s largest urban public university. Their approach to accessibility provides valuable insight for any institution that wants to maximize a return on investments in sweeping accessibility initiatives — especially when budgets and resources are limited.

First, let’s talk about CATS

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Over 20 years ago, a team of assistive technology specialists formed a council at CUNY called CATS, or CUNY Assistive Technology Services. The point was to have a central resource within the university system that could do some basic research on the applicability and usability of products for students.

CATS’ influence over the years has helped CUNY’s accessibility initiatives succeed by making more informed purchasing decisions when it comes to purchasing assistive technology and services.

Procurement and other processes needed standardization

The first step to universalizing accessibility at CUNY was to address the lack of harmony between all of the different campus’ disability services offices.

In the past, CUNY’s many campuses all made independent procurement decisions. Without any centralized standards or knowledge-sharing platform, the system was prone to inefficiencies:

“When you have 24 campuses and 24 different disability services offices who are responsible for purchasing [accessible technology]… you have 24 different decision processes. And oftentimes, that leads to replication of effort. That leads to uninformed decisions. That leads to mistakes in purchasing.”

— Carlos Hererra, CUNY

CATS stepped in and, over the next 15 years, worked diligently to fix the old system.

Through specialized purchasing and training programs for students with disabilities, CATS determined that there are certain products that make more sense for the university to recommend. They also created assistive technology standards for equipment and software used in labs and classrooms. Through their relationships, testing, and research, CATS eventually put themselves in a position to recommend specific products to the university.

The university-wide vendor licensing agreement

an illustration of a cat wearing glasses while reading a paper contract
Some people purchase their groceries in bulk at warehouse-style places like Costco and Sam’s club because they know it will save them money in the long run.

CATS employed a similar approach by working with a vendor called the VFO Group — which provides a suite of accessible technology solutions for the visually impaired and offers accessibility consulting through the Paciello Group. Both parties were able to negotiate a cost-effective, mutually beneficial, system-wide license.

The benefits of purchasing in bulk are:

  • It allows for specialized training on software
  • CATS can readily provide recommendations when CUNY departments express a need for an accessibility solution
  • Students and faculty can utilize software from anywhere they can log in, including off-campus
  • Students who do not self-report their disabilities can benefit from services for free, too

Main Takeaways

By essentially auditing how accessible technology was obtained and implemented at CUNY’s many campuses, CATS realized that if they took measures to centralize that process it would make accessibility efforts more efficient.

Doing some research into how your institution is spending it’s budget on accessible technology and determining whether improvements could be made can really pay off. Centralizing accessibility across your institution can help to save money and time spent on redundant accessibility efforts.

Talking to vendors who offer multiple solutions and services is also a great way to save money, and explore solutions that benefit the maximum amount of students and faculty possible.

To learn more about CUNY’s approach to university-wide accessibility, check out the webinar below!


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