University-Wide Accessibility: Supporting all Students and Faculty with Disabilities in Higher Education

A key to university-wide accessibility is to focus on the needs of students and faculty. This has been a core principle of the approach that has propelled the City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) accessibility initiative.

CUNY is a conglomerate of 24 colleges and graduate schools located across New York City. Across all 24 campuses, accessibility is a central component of daily operations. Like all universities, they have a very diverse faculty and student body, so making sure everyone has access to the technologies and resources they need to succeed is critical to how CUNY has structured their accessibility initiative.

In this webinar, Carlos Herrera, Assistant Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College (QCC), and Coordinator of the CUNY Technology Accessibility Task Force will tell us just how CUNY has established university-wide technology accessibility initiatives to support faculty, students and staff. He will share CUNY’s approach for building awareness and partnerships with faculty and staff, as well as talk through the challenges they have confronted and overcome.

In this webinar, Carlos will cover:

  • CUNY Profile
  • CUNY’s accessibility innitiative
  • How CUNY purchases accessible technology
  • Strategies for building awareness and partnerships with faculty and students
  • How they got University leadership and others involved in the strategy
  • How they work with the IT department
  • How they work with students to create a more accessible classroom experience


Carlos Herrera
Assistant Director of Services for Students with Disabilities, Coordinator of the CUNY Technology Accessibility Task Force | CUNY

Elisa Edelberg (Moderator)
3Play Media

Webinar Insight: CUNY’s System-Wide Accessibility Solution

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

illustartion of a cat peering through a magnifying glass
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.

Webinar Q&A: University-Wide Accessibility with CUNY

Carlos Herrera is Assistant Director of Services for Students with Disabilities, and Coordinator of the Technology Accessibility Task Force at City University of New York (CUNY).

CUNY is comprised of 24 colleges and graduate schools across New York City, all of which participate in university-wide technology accessibility initiatives to support faculty, students, and staff. Like all universities, CUNY has a very diverse faculty and student body, so making sure everyone has access to the technologies and resources they need to succeed is critical to how CUNY has structured their accessibility initiative.

Read on for highlights from our audience Q&A with Carlos, or watch the full recording of the webinar at top.

What is your funding model? For student accommodations, does your office pay or is there a central university fund?

CARLOS HERRERA: Well, generally, each campus will receive an allocation based on the number of documented students registered for the previous year. And that model is weighed based on the type of disability. So the funding is centralized, but it’s distributed to each campus to use as they see fit. That funding is pretty static. It has not changed in a long period of time.

There are other sources of funding in New York State, including something from the State Education Department for print disabilities, but it generally is not a huge amount. There are also funds available for students who are sponsored by vocational rehab agencies. There are some reimbursements. But you know, they’re just that, reimbursements. They’re not a big pool of money.

It’s not enough to tell folks that there are legal mandates. That is helpful, but that doesn’t generally get a lot of action until, of course, there’s a complaint filed with OCR.

Can you speak to how important it is to get senior level involvement on an accessibility committee?

CARLOS HERRERA: Well, I think one of the things that we learned was that you have to build an awareness campaign. It’s not enough to tell folks that there are legal mandates. That is helpful, but that doesn’t generally get a lot of action until, of course, there’s a complaint filed with OCR. And then people’s hair catches fire.

But the awareness piece is the long-term effort of getting folks involved on task forces, in advisory panels, in getting them exposed to student successes. And that’s the other, I think, hugely important piece. And that is to build a cadre of students, both students with disabilities and who are not disabled, who make this an important part of their mission as students in terms of improving the university.

Administrators respond to students. And if students are informed, and involved, and can carry some of that message, that’s huge. Now senior leadership is essential. But at the same time, senior leadership helps. They can also be limited as to what they can do because of the level of responsibilities, the number of responsibilities, and constituencies that they have to work with.

So you have to have a mix. Our accessibility conference brings together senior leadership and people who are working underground. It brings together outsiders who can talk to how things are done in other universities, and other experts, who can give guidance. And through the task force that we created, we use exactly that mix. We have senior leadership, , but then we have the folks who are actually doing the web content management.

So it’s an ongoing process. It’s a slow process. It can sometimes be painful. And you have to play the long game.

Did your IT Accessibility Task Force develop an internal testing rubric in assessing the accessibility of IT products and services, or use WCAG standards?

CARLOS HERRERA: Well, they used primarily external protocols, but they have begun developing internal systems and processes to ensure that any internally created services and products are accessible. They are making it more of an issue when it comes to procurement, and VPATs, and other commitments from manufacturers.

And again, it’s a long slide, but the approach now is that accessibility is no longer an afterthought, but is included in the initial conversations whenever any of these things are occurring or purchases are being considered.

How do you support non-academic student experiences on campus film screenings, the guest lecturers, concerts, etc.?

CARLOS HERRERA: Well, we can try to outfit and make sure that we’re prepared for anyone who comes to use our facilities in pretty much the same way that, whether they’re a guest or a student, we need some sort of notification. But generally, everything we try to do is, we try to be as accessible as possible.

I’m sure things fall through the cracks, but we are very conscious of the need for FM systems and other things that are important for visitors to have access to, TTY and other devices that are important for anyone coming as a visitor. So usually, folks who have a specific need will request that in advance.

Generally, it’s difficult to turn on a dime, but most of our campus facilities are, if not all, accessible. So we try as hard as we can.

What is the process for instructors to make course content accessible? What percentage of instructors take advantage of the training and attempt to create accessible content?

CARLOS HERRERA: Well, since this is, again– and I’ll say relatively, because anything less than five years old, I think, is still almost a new idea. I think more and more faculty are aware, which is a result of a lot of the outreach. We encourage each campus Disability Service Office to inform their community.

There are now more resources. The CUNY IT Accessibility Task Force created an accessibility portal at And that contains any number of resources. And so, again, it’s a matter of promotion and informing the public.

Now, more of the courses that are offered have either a fully online or a hybrid component to them, where there is some Blackboard or online component. So through the centers, the academic computing centers, and the other centers that support faculty, accessibility is a topic that is discussed early on.

I can’t give you numbers, but I know that the media accessibility project does any number of captioning services for campuses across the university, and I know that that has been increasing in the last five years, which is how long we’ve been doing the media accessibility project. We’ve seen a definite increase.

I know that different campuses have reached out to us to inquire about these types of services. So maybe we should be keeping better numbers, but off the top of my head, I would tell you that it definitely is a shared concern. There is a greater awareness, and there is definitely a greater utilization.

I’ve not heard of any issues that have arisen with not providing greater accessibility. Obviously, website remediation is a long-term process, and there have been some issues with that, which the university is forcefully addressing, and that has shown some real progress. But it absolutely is being addressed.

Does CUNY have online courses? How do you make those videos accessible?

CARLOS HERRERA: Well, yeah. Actually, we do. We have huge numbers of online courses. It’s the fastest growing segment of our course catalog. I’d say maybe 50% of our courses, if not already 50%, are online. We encourage them to be made accessible prior to posting. But generally, the disability services offices get involved, or the CUNY Assistive Technology Services, through the media project, get involved in making courses– videos, accessible. They do the captioning, and they turned it around in a day or two.

So we have a process in place, and the university task force on accessibility is currently working to increase the availability of captioning services throughout CUNY, and they’re working on a specific model. So I can’t tell you how that’s going to be deployed, but it is on everyone’s radar. And there are processes in place to make that a better, more widely used solution.

We have huge numbers of online courses. It’s the fastest growing segment of our course catalog. I’d say maybe 50% of our courses, if not already 50%, are online.

Does your institution provide captioning in-house, completed by the staff involved in these projects at the individual campuses?

CARLOS HERRERA: Usually. Usually. Well, there’s two parts to that. The first part is, yes, that usually we do captioning in-house. There are instances where some captioning work is done by other vendors, including companies like 3Play– excellent company, I have to say. And that’s unpaid commercial.

But generally, it’s done in-house, not necessarily by the creators of the content, but sort of after the fact through the media accessibility project, or through the disability services staff. You know, we’ve encouraged AT staff and the disability services to hire part-timers to do some basic captioning, to be available to caption a short video that might crop up on an emergency basis.

It’s relatively simple work. And with the appropriate training, you can build an in-house solution at a very low cost. Now there are different levels of proficiency, and different amount of work, and if you want to archive and do any number of other things, that’s a different animal. But if you have to caption a three-minute video for a class that’s occurring next week, that’s relatively simple to do. And we have shown that students can be trained, that some students love doing this kind of work. There’s some financial as well as emotional benefit to helping a fellow student. And we find that that’s one answer from a buffet of many possibilities.