Q&A: The Forest and the Trees: Scaling for Enterprise-Level Digital Accessibility

March 19, 2019 BY SAMANTHA SAULD

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We’re in the digital age, where information can be readily accessed at your fingertips. More than ever, we’re seeing an increase in online video and many organizations are increasingly publishing their own content. However, with updates to Section 508 and recent lawsuits against prominent institutions like Harvard and MIT, web accessibility has propelled to the forefront of priorities in higher education.

At the University of Connecticut, their developing their own standards for universal digital accessibility called the Universal Website Accessibility Policy. They’re working on updating it so that it covers all Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and not just websites.

In the webinar, “The Forest and the Trees: Scaling for Enterprise-Level Digital Accessibility,” Kathryn Weber-Hottleman, who serves as UCONN’s IT Accessibility Coordinator, discusses how institutional accessibility impacts the procurement process and pre-existing standalone digital products.

Below is the Q&A portion of the webinar.

What kind of accessibility questions do your procurement people ask vendors?

As of right now, they always ask for a VPAT. However, I’m trying to get them to ask, “what is the vendor working to do about making all of their categories supported?” and “what does the vendor’s timeline look like for remediating that accessibility issue?

Which free screen reader at a public computer do you suggest that the site designers use to test with?

If you’re using Windows or Mac, I would say the operating system screen reader. I would also suggest NVDA because it’s a free screen reader that can easily be downloaded on a public computer.

You said that your position is fairly new. What motivated your administration to create a role and commit to accessibility culture?

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I think a lot of it was seeing that other institutions are getting hit with lawsuits. We’re such a large public institution, so it’s going to be valuable for us to start considering accessibility now instead of waiting and having to scramble if we did have a complaint filed against us. The administration is trying to be proactive, and it’s been great to work with an administration that’s so supportive of accessibility.

Can you clarify what a VPAT is?

A VPAT is a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. I believe it’s now called an ACR, but someone can correct me if I’m wrong. It’s a template that you can give to a company that produces a product, software, website, or something like that. It goes through a series of accessibility criteria: like keyboard accessibility, color contrast, and animations. It asks if it actually meets the WCAG 2.0 standards, and it goes up to AAA. In some cases, if we’re only holding to AA, it’s fine if it doesn’t support. But in most cases, we want it to fully support whatever the success criteria are.

Do your provisioners insist on the newer VPATs that align with WCAG 2.0?

I don’t know that we insist on them. I happen to like the ones that line up with WCAG 2.0 because that’s the standard that we are going with for our websites and for our other software. I always think it’s good to have one set of standards for everybody, including our vendors.

What do you consider a good department start point when building an accessibility culture? How long should one plan to spend building that culture?

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I’m going to answer the second part of that question first. Depending on your organization, I think it can take years. I don’t foresee the end of aiming for an accessibility culture, just like I don’t see the end of looking at other civil rights issues. It takes a while to get people into that mindset, so that’s why I don’t want people to be discouraged if it seems like it’s taking a long time.

A good place to start is where your IT Accessibility Coordinator is located. I think that’s going to be your starting point. I’m seeing a lot of things come out of our web development and design team because I’m situated here in IT. If I was situated in the Disability Services Office, maybe I would have to work a little harder to forge my relationship with IT so that I could see those changes.

If you have a very receptive organization, you could start to see changes right away. I’m starting to see changes right away and I’ve only been here [UCONN] for about a year. 

Ultimately, your starting point is going to be one person. The person who you can get to understand that accessibility isn’t an option. It’s not a choice. It’s something that we have to do so that we can spread access to as many users as possible. I think when you get one person to start that, they’ll tell another person, and another person, and you’ll start to see it spread.

Do you test software before purchase or do you rely on the business to work with the vendor to review the tool for accessibility?

I try to test it ahead of time. When I can, I always try to get their VPAT. Sometimes I don’t even know about it until after it’s purchased, especially if it’s something that not a large user group is going to be accessing. So if it’s a department purchasing just for their department, and there are only ten people in the department, I might not find out about it until well after it’s purchase. In this case, we work with the vendor to make it accessible or to find out what their timeline is for remediating.

Can we see the link to the IT Accessibility?

You can access the IT Accessibility here.

We are currently using an ed tech company with some accessibility issues. When we inform them of the accessibility issues, for example, issues with reading the textbooks with screen readers, they seem to pass the buck back to the book publishing company. Is that the normal response? Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

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That’s a tricky situation. I don’t think I’ve had that yet. Usually, I talk with vendors and with varying degrees of receptiveness. But, they’ll usually incorporate it directly into their workflow. I’d say if it keeps getting passed on to the publisher, you may want to contact your publisher just as an interim solution. I’m sure that you need the textbooks right away for students in the meantime while you’re working with the ed tech company to see exactly where the responsibility lies.

Do you have a comprehensive test on every procured resource? Does this in-depth test fall on your shoulders specifically?

It does fall on my shoulders specifically. That’s why we don’t have one for every product quite yet. I’m hoping to at some point in the next few years. I also know that there are so many different software that we purchase over time. To me, right now, the websites are the more pressing need. So I’m focused on websites right now. Then the software will come in the next couple of years.

Professionally, do you have experience as a web developer?

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I didn’t come into this as a web developer, interestingly enough. I came into this from working in a Disability Services office. I’ve spent a lot of time using resources like Codecademy to develop some web development and design skills. I find that when I’m talking to my web development and design team, it’s helpful if we all speak the same language. Sometimes I don’t understand all of it, but at least we’re coming from a somewhat common point. I’m able to say,  “this is what CSS looks like, and here’s how to change it” or, “this is what your HTML looks like, and here’s how we can update it just a little bit.” My background is not in web development, but that’s not to say that if you come from a different background that you can’t learn it. Honestly, I think one of the more valuable things that I’ve done is to learn a little bit.

You mentioned a learning curve coming into your position. Do you have any recommendations for getting through this?

First and foremost, be patient with yourself. It can be a heavy lift. I don’t think I realized how much there was to learn in this job until I was probably a couple of weeks into it. There’s so much to learn about web development, testing, and software. If I expect myself to learn all of this at one time, I’m not going to learn any of it well, and I’m not going to be able to help other people. I also have great leadership that was also patient and gave me the space that I needed to learn and to find my way around a new organization.

Do you collaborate with others in similar positions as yours?

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I do. There’s a small, growing, but a nice community of other IT Accessibility Coordinators. It’s really exciting to see. Every time someone publishes a new policy, you send them a note, and you say congratulations. It’s so exciting, and we get to meet up at conferences. We are some of the only people who have this job in common. It’s a great community.

Do you assist with PDR remediation?

I do, but I try to do more than that. I try to teach other people how to do it because there are thousands of PDFs, and I can’t possibly cover all of them. It’s so much easier to work on the source document than it is to work on the PDF itself. I like to teach others how to do document remediation and then PDF remediation because they’re more likely to have the source documents then I am. In some cases, like the library, mostly what they’re getting are PDFs, so I’ll work with them specifically on in-depth PDF remediation. But for others, I like to point them towards our resources for document accessibility or Powerpoint accessibility.

Do you have to deal with inaccessible online course content?

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I do because it can be so much easier for us to make it accessible in the first place than it is for us to remediate it when a student has a need. I hate to see when someone has to scramble and get very frustrated or overwhelmed because they suddenly have a student in their class with a disability. Then they have to remake all their course materials. I always think if we could teach them a little bit more about document accessibility and PDF accessibility ahead of time, maybe we wouldn’t have the same struggle or the same scramble that we do right now. So I’m looking at it more as a symptom of a culture moving towards an accessibility mindset and saying if we can get everybody involved in this idea of an accessibility culture, it’s naturally going to extend towards our LMS content. So that’s why I do focus on it a little bit, just because, I think, if we’re going to touch on accessibility, we might as well touch on all of it – and that includes our courses.


Watch the full webinar, “The Forest and the Trees: Scaling for Enterprise-Level Digital Accessibility.”👇

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