Faculty member says “HELP – I can’t tag my PDF articles”

From time to time I am reminded of the complexities and nuances inherent in web accessibility. This happens most often when talking to someone new to the effort. I recently visited with a faculty member who is just beginning to address accessibility in her courses. She knows that PDF’s need to be properly tagged to be accessible and she was enthusiastic about doing it, even when it involved retrofitting accessibility elements into her PDF’s. But she was quickly at a stalemate for articles in her course CMS. When this happened she assumed she was doing something wrong, rather than identifying that what was wrong was the document itself. The experience made me reflect on the fact that while we often talk with faculty members about making sure that they have PDF’s that are accessible, we might not provide them with a good enough starting point.

Readers of this blog who are familiar with PDF accessibility know that to start to address accessibility of an existing PDF document, you must have a PDF that was properly created. However, many faculty members don’t create the PDF’s they end up with. If the document is not composed of true text, you must use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on the document before other accessibility information can be added. While this step is less common all the time (thank heavens), it is important that we help faculty or staff understand how they can tell if PDF’s contain true text to begin with.

This was the step that eluded the faculty member with whom I was talking. She did not know that she needed to determine if her PDF was a scanned image or not. Because of this she assumed that her first step would be the tagging of the document itself. Of course she could not do this because it was in fact an image. Then she assumed she was doing something wrong.

There are many ways for non-technical people to determine if the PDF they wish to make accessible contains true text. Here are two ideas I shared with her and both were easy for her to implement. First, I asked her to see if she could select and copy some portion of text, and second I told her to try to search for some text element on the page. Both were successful strategies for her to determine which pages she could, and could not tag. Getting focus directly onto the text is critical if you will add an element to it (e.g., Header, ordered list).

If you are working with faculty on accessibility issues, or are a faculty or staff member yourself working on accessibility, you may be privy to similar situations in accessibility –- where a simple step was overlooked that proved significant for the person trying to create accessible content. We are very interested in hearing your experiences and sharing them with others. Please consider sharing your tips and experiences here.

Summertime, the perfect time to reflect on accessibility

Summertime for many in higher education is a time to catch up on tasks not completed during the academic year. It is also a time when the seeds are sown for new initiatives and priorities that will be fleshed out and approved in the coming year.  Many individuals, who work on web accessibility for their institution, work beyond the typical nine-month academic calendar. This combination of events makes summer the perfect time to reflect on initiatives for, and outcomes of, the institution’s web accessibility efforts.

Of course when we talk about “web accessibility” we are talking about two things. It is both the process on campus created to improve web accessibility as well as the product of those efforts (i.e., the accessibility of your web content).  We have written about this important coupling before (See Assessing your Institution’s Web Accessibility Efforts; Part 1: Evaluating the Process; Part 2: Evaluating the Product).

I am hopeful this summer you will ask yourself if your campus is ready for an increased focus on web accessibility this coming year.  Some of you are just beginning the process of institution-wide web accessibility efforts –you may be crafting plans to secure administrative support or identifying the best team to guide the campus-wide plans.  Others of you are in the midst of writing draft policies or crafting implementation plans.  Finally, there are others of you who have these in place and are working through the issues to make sure your planned efforts are receiving the resources and supports necessary for success, and will begin a round of assessment by looking at the actual accessibility of pages.

With any of these efforts, knowledge of your institution’s culture of change is vital; is it top-down, or does it require grass roots support?  Knowing this can streamline the support of those in administrative positions who can make sure you have not only the support necessary to complete the work, but also the administrative muscle, to work around the roadblocks that inevitably impede the path. Also critical is your knowledge of other institutional priorities such as increasing diversity at your campus or beginning a cycle of reaffirmation with your regional accreditation commission.  These are times when you might want to reach out to those whose role it is to engage in those priorities and have a conversation about the many outcomes that are indeed shared ones. Often reaching out to coworkers with these shared priorities can be more effective than attempting to tackle accessibility on your own.

So, if your answer is “Yes, I would like to help my campus increase our web accessibility efforts next year”, take the time needed to commit those ideas to paper and reflect on the best strategies to meet your goals.  For some of you it may be time to engage in another round of the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning tool. If you create a new cycle before benchmarking again, you can compare your progress to date.  You may benefit from looking at where you have already made progress to determine next steps.

From all of us at Project GOALS, have a wonderful summer, enjoy some vacation time, and start making plans now for the academic year to come.  Fall always comes sooner than we want.

Budgeting for Web Accessibility

For many units in higher education, April is budget month; these budget requests detail expenditures for the coming fiscal year that will begin July 1. Of course, those line items must be a good fit for the implementation planned in the coming year. To that end we have written a resource for those who are creating budget requests to support web accessibility. It is only through the process of securing an adequate budget that your efforts can succeed.

Joe Biden once famously said; “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”  If you have budget stories, ideas, or successful strategies to share with others to help with their budget process, please share them here. I look forward to seeing how creative others have become to secure the budget that is needed for web accessibility efforts.

All Roads Lead to Rome

We are hearing a lot from the 46 campuses involved as Participating Institutions in the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning Process. A surprising and wonderful element we have uncovered is the different ways campuses have approached completion of their institution wide self-study. It seems fitting to share this information with others, especially those new to the process. Because, while different processes have been used to achieve successful results, it appears that all roads lead to Rome in using the tool to get to intended outcomes.

By way of background, the GOALS Benchmarking and Planning Tool was created to support asynchronous communication within an institutional study team. The team leader would facilitate the rest of the team as together, they determine their institution’s response to self-study questions as well as their next steps (i.e., their Action Plan for moving forward). It was thought that by developing the tool this way it would support anytime anywhere participation, thus enabling institutions to include members from across campus (or campuses) and eliminating the need to “schedule” meetings.

While our decision was made to provide the greatest flexibility to an institution, we have heard that it is not always the best match. Some teams found difficulties in getting team members to engage in an asynchronous process in a timely way. Some members had never encountered online collaborative work before and this became an issue for them. For others, timelines for completion were not well stated. Also, for some, this self-study was an easy task to set aside either due to competing demands on their time or because the items they were asked to complete were unfamiliar to them (e.g., staff members from the Library might be unaware of how to respond to items regarding procurement policies). When others on the team waited for responses, this created an endless game of “hot potato” at some institutions. All in all, for many institutions, it made for a protracted process that took way too long to complete.

To avoid this, institutions began using creative processes to complete the self-study and action plan. These alternative processes were a superior fit to their needs and circumstances. Here are alternate ways institutions are engaging with the Benchmarking and Planning Tool with good outcomes.

  1. Some institutions have jettisoned the idea of the team leader facilitating an asynchronous study team altogether. Instead they brought everyone into a face-to-face meeting. It seems that this resolves issues of waiting for some to finish items and enables a large volume of work to be completed succinctly. Variations on this method include:
    1. A full-day retreat in a meeting room on campus
    2. Face-to-face meetings scheduled well in advance for 2 hours each week for a month.
    3. Use of technology to create face-to-face meetings if participants are not co-located (e.g., Adobe Connect; Skype video chat with multiple connections; PolyCom)
  2. At one institution, the Team Leader recognized that it was not the most effective or efficient use of staff time to have everyone participate throughout all Indicators. So she identified pertinent members to participate at key points in time. For example, she only engaged Human Resources as they discussed how they are securing and retaining technical personnel with expertise in accessibility. Each week, she would provide assignments to different members of the team, and she made sure everyone had completed these assignments prior to the next week. In this way the expertise of the diverse stakeholders was captured without putting them in situations where they felt they did not have contributions to make. Moreover, she was able to shepherd the process along with timely completion.

If you have used an alternate process while engaged in the GOALS self-study at your institution, please share it here. Others will benefit from hearing how local solutions improved your ability to complete this important process.

Looking to the Work of Others as You Create Your Institution’s Web Accessibility Policy

I for one never want to reinvent the wheel. Whenever I am tasked to create something, I always begin by looking at what others have done so that I may learn from their efforts to inform my thinking. Creating an institution-wide web accessibility policy is an enormous task that requires contemplation along many institutional dimensions and also along several policy components. In the GOALS Recommended Practice Indicators we outline what we view as necessary components to go into a policy document. While these components are described in greater detail on our website, they are comprised of the following brief elements:

  • Summary statement(s) of the policy
  • Effective date(s) for the policy
  • The scope of the policy
  • The technical standard used in the policy
  • A provision for procurement
  • The consequences if units or individuals choose non-conformance
  • A mechanism for ongoing review

It is important to remember that the policy document is separate from the institution’s written implementation plan. However finding models that have been used successfully can be a treasure trove if you are looking to create either (policy or plan) for your institution. Unfortunately, identifying good examples of policies that contain the components you may want to use, or even full policies in use, can be difficult and time consuming.

In the spirit of helping your efforts to create a web accessibility policy at your institution, the following resource sheet provides examples that may be helpful. Please remember as you look through these links that your institution may already have a template of sorts you must use for policy creation. Also, please know that there are many other excellent policies out there, so if you know of some good models, or you would like to share yours, please add it to the comments below.

Examples and suggestions for policy creation

Additional resources

Review of recent legal issues in higher education and web accessibility

I am not an attorney, or in any way associated with a legal profession. I am however an advocate for those who wish to make the digital world an accessible space, especially in higher education. Because of this, I endeavor to stay connected with the broader struggle facing higher education as legal demands for digital accessibility sweep the landscape.

I have found that if you are not following this aspect of web accessibility it is easy to lose sight of the momentum that is building rapidly. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to briefly review what has been happening in the recent past. What I share below are thumbnail sketches of legal complaints and resolutions that affect web accessibility in higher education since 2009. If I have missed anything and you have other complaints or resolutions to share, please add your comments below. I am hopeful that this can be useful to those trying to find this content in one place.

(Feb) 2009- Law School Admissions Council

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a complaint against the LSAC (Law School Admissions Council) under the Disabled Persons Act, California Civil Code &#167&#167 54 et seq., and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, California Civil Code §§ 51 et seq for inaccessible web content and LSAT preparation materials. Law schools across the nation use the LSAC web portal as a mechanism for students to apply for admission to law school. The California plaintiffs complained that the inaccessibility of the Pennsylvania-based website portal complicated their ability to apply for law school and denied them their rights under ADA Titles II and III. The April 2011 settlement included an agreement to make web content and services conform to WCAG 2.0 AA within 5 months (by September of 2011).

This suit had a collateral effect as NFB filed complaints with the Department of Justice against institutions that use the inaccessible LSAC process as their primary means of admissions. This happened over several months during the Spring of 2010. NFB argued that this practice violated Title III of the ADA. These schools included:

  1. Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School
  2. Cardozo School of Law
  3. Chapman University School of Law
  4. University of Chicago School of Law
  5. University of Denver
  6. Gonzaga University School of Law
  7. Lee University School of Law
  8. Northeastern University School of Law
  9. Sturm College of Law
  10. Thomas Jefferson School of Law
  11. University of California Hastings College of the Law
  12. University of Miami School of Law
  13. Washington School of Law
  14. William Mitchell College of Law
  15. Whittier College Law School
  16. Yeshiva University

Settlements with institutions (e.g., See the John Marshall settlement) included an institutional requirement to notify students that the LSAC application process is not accessible and to stop using LSAC if accessibility agreements were not met by LSAC on the approved timeline. Also, schools are to fully consider applications that do not come through the LSAC process.

(June) 2009- Kindle DX

Both the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) filed a discrimination complaint against Arizona State University for using inaccessible technologies (i.e., Kindle DX). Other institutions were drawn into this complaint. Namely Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Pace University in New York City and Reed College in Portland, Ore. These complaints were settled in January of 2010 and those institutions agreed not to use emerging technologies that were not accessible.

However the dispute created a clarion call from the U.S. government to leadership in higher education. The Executive branch (i.e., the White House) sent a letter to every college and university president across the nation on the important issue of digital accessibility. This letter, written jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education and indicated:

Technology is the hallmark of the future, and technological competency is essential to preparing all students for future success. Emerging technologies are an educational resource that enhances learning for everyone, and perhaps especially for students with disabilities. Technological innovations have opened a virtual world of commerce, information, and education to many individuals with disabilities for whom access to the physical world remains challenging. Ensuring equal access to emerging technology in university and college classrooms is a means to the goal of full integration and equal educational opportunity for this nation’s students with disabilities…

The letter further admonished decision-makers in higher education by concluding; “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.”

(Nov) 2010- Penn State

The NFB filed a complaint against Penn State University stating that the institution violated the rights of both students and faculty who were blind by denying them information and services available to others on the web and guaranteed to them under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. They called out several units across the institution (e.g., they highlighted the library, the English and Computer Science departments, and also their Office of Disability Services). This was resolved in 2011 and Penn State agreed, as part of the settlement to “continue to work on implementing a strategy to make all electronic and information technology systems used on its campuses fully accessible to blind students, faculty and staff.”

(March) 2011- Northwestern University and New York University

The NFB filed a complaint against two universities for using the Google framework at their institutions, when the product was not accessible. While Google is working to make its platform more accessible, it has yet to complete this task. This is reverberating at other campuses that are struggling to address the issue of accessibility requirements during the procurement process.

(June) 2011 Florida State University

The NFB filed a complaint on behalf of 2 blind students who had not found a satisfactory resolution to inaccessible course content. In this instance it was a math class that was not accessible to them. This was resolved in spring of 2012. In addition to FSU’s agreement to make content accessible, they were required to pay damages to the plaintiffs.

(Sept) 2012 University of Montana

The Alliance for Disability and Students filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights noting discrimination because of inaccessible web content and services. In the complaint several specific items were targeted including inaccessible class assignments, inaccessible live chat and discussion board, videos without captions, and an inaccessible registration system.

Other recent complaints that have implications for higher education:

  1. 2010- National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a complaint that Netflix engaged in discrimination by denying captions on materials that are streamed online. Their 2012 settlement includes a provision to caption all streamed media by 2014. Netflix will also pay $755,000 in legal fees.
  2. (Feb) 2012 – Greater Los Angles Agency on Deafness (GLAD) filed a complaint against CNN for failing to provide captions on CNN.com. CNN sought to dismiss the suit as an infringement of their first amendment rights to free speech; this is because the current errors inherent in captioning would cause CNN to create erroneous speech not in line with their editorial standards. In March, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California disagreed, and ruled against CNN. This case continues on appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  3. The Authors Guild filed a complaint against multiple universities (i.e., University of California, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Cornell University and University of Michigan) for copyright infringement when they scanned and placed books into the HathiTrust Digital Library (used by Google for digital texts). In October of 2012, a US District Court dismissed the suit and indicated that digitizing works at a university does not violate fair use. This ruling is seen as transformative by web accessibility advocacy groups because it contains the Chafee amendment to the Copyright Act; this amendment indicates that you are exempted from copyright law if you are duplicating materials for use with those who are blind or have disabilities. In the past some have argued that digitizing texts for use by those with disabilities is in fact a violation of copyright law. Unless challenged, the judge’s ruling has put that to rest. Fair use where digitizing text is involved currently includes:
    • preservation of books,
    • criticism,
    • commentary,
    • news reporting,
    • teaching,
    • scholarship
    • research purposes,
    • use by people with disabilities.

One thing is clear, until all students, staffs, and faculties with disabilities have full access to digital content those in higher education will continue to see complaints and legal action. Waiting for a student to bring forth a complaint may no longer be an action that those in leadership are willing to take. With that said, a transformation of an institution’s web architecture to one that is accessible is not easy, and it takes time. GOALS is one of many groups with resources that can make this process easier.

Are we measuring that which we value?

Lately I’ve been struck with this phrase; “We value what we measure rather than measure what we value.” In a postsecondary culture of measurement and transparency, it is good for us to think about the ways in which our own institutional data help us measure those things that we value. For us at the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE), something we value dearly is the education outcome for any student with a disability. However, it is unclear that these data are available at most postsecondary institutions.

Many readers will know that NCDAE is engaged in a US Department of Education (FIPSE-funded) project to work with institutions on system-wide web accessibility (i.e., Project GOALS). While the focus is on resources and tools to support institutional efforts, ultimately we would love to see that increases in accessibility have a positive impact on students’ graduation, or persistence in postsecondary settings.

I am learning, that the US Department of Education, and most states, requires each institution to report data on graduation rates, and rates of persistence in school for students across gender and racial lines, but it does not ask institutions to provide similar data on students with disabilities. What is collected and reported, through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is the percentage of all enrolled undergraduates each fall who are formally registered with the disability services office. That’s it. Data are collected on numbers of students with disabilities, but not on their outcomes. Now, to be fair, there may be some institutions that gather these data on their own, and track the outcomes of those with disabilities, but I am not aware of any who do. If you are one of them please let me know. Since outcome data is not required by the Feds, it is also not required or tracked by the regional accreditation commissions. In a different postsecondary data set, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) asks about disability services, but this survey is not designed to track postsecondary completion. Moreover it is a measure that is self-reported by individuals who volunteer to respond to the survey rather than one that is derived by the institution from all students.

The Governmental Accounting Office released a report in 2009 “Higher Education and Disability Education Needs a Coordinated Approach to Improve Its Assistance to Schools in Supporting Students.” In it, the authors reported that while the Department of Education provides assistance to postsecondary institutions on supporting students with disabilities through 3 separate offices (i.e., Office of Civil Rights; Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services; Office of Postsecondary Education), there is no mechanism for these offices to share information or coordinate their efforts. It is made more difficult by the fact that each “have different missions and priorities, focus on different clients, and provide different types of assistance to schools.” Certainly asking institutions to take their existing data on student persistence and completion and disaggregate it by disability status–in the same way they do with gender and race–should not be an onerous task.  It represents one data need shared by many.

If we are to see the disability-related efforts of an institution improve outcomes for students with disabilities, we must have some data from which to start. For our Project GOALS, it will be impossible for us to test hypotheses at an institutional level; that increases in the real accessibility of web content have any effect on the important outcome – those felt by students. This is unfortunate.

I want to be clear that I am not wagging a digital finger to infer that since postsecondary institutions do not measure educational outcomes for students with disabilities they do not value those students. The point in this post is to share what I uncovered, and hopefully create a conversation about whether, in this instance, we are truly measuring that which we value. I welcome comments and discussions, please contact Cyndi Rowland.

Will access become an element of top ranked distance education programs?

January 10th the US News and World Report posted the inaugural collection of their Top Online Education Programs.  They noted that the time is right to provide consumers with this information as online education has come of age; more than 6 million students are taking at least one online course according to a Babson survey referenced in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The data US News gathered to determine who would place in their “Honor Rolls” included metrics on student services, student engagement, faculty credentials and admissions selectivity programs across 5 disciplines (e.g., from education to computer information technology).

While this was the first attempt to cluster top online programs, it is of note that none of their initial metrics or methods considered if web content could be accessed by all students, including those with disabilities.  Assuming that online degree-granting entities will work hard to achieve Honor Roll status, this could be a powerful mechanism to assist in needed system-change.  Based on the backlash and substantive feedback going into US News on their process, there will likely be tweaks in the future.  Web accessibility for students with disabilities in online education appears to be consistent with the US News existing criteria of both “Student Engagement and Accreditation” and “Students Services and Technology”.

We at NCDAE hope that you provide your opinions to the US News Online Education staff, we certainly will.

Website blackouts provide some perspective of access

Today much is being said about the decision made by mega sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, WordPress, and Boing Boing to go dark for one day, essentially shutting down their web services; or English versions of their web services. This was a way for their founders to protest two pieces of pending US legislation; the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House. Through the blackout they hope to engage the nation in a broad-based awareness campaign and timely discussion regarding the pending legislation they believe will limit a “free and open internet”

Many are reeling today from the shock of not having immediate access to some of their favorite websites; sites that, for many, are visited on a daily basis. Instead they have to wait for this access, if only for a day. The delay in on-demand access may provide accessibility advocates with an opportunity to show typical users the frustrations that come with inaccessibility. In doing so typical users may connect a personal experience with the struggle to gain access; it is often important in advocacy efforts to help others perceive issues from a personal standpoint.

As we are well aware, it can be typical for users with disabilities to have to wait to obtain access to web content. It is also common that typical users do not understand how irritating this experience can be. Today’s blackout may provide a similar enough experience that those typical users can gain an understanding of the frustrations of inaccessibility. In fact, frustration and irritation are what the organizers of the blackout are counting on.

If the anticipated reverberations of this event are longstanding we should be able to use its impact for some time to come. It should help us provide others with an understanding of the frustration of encountering inaccessible content and the importance of accessibility for all.