University of Florida Works to Ensure Websites are Accessible

One in five people in the U.S. identify themselves as disabled, making web access important both morally and legally.

by Kevin Brockway, The Gainesville Sun / November 20, 2018
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(TNS) — An online course doesn't provide proper captioning during a video lecture.

A department website features flashing and moving elements than cannot be easily turned off.

A downloaded scholarship document is unable to be filled out with a hands-free, assisted computer device

All three are examples of failing to comply with web accessibility, defined as the practice of making sure there are no barriers to prevent interaction with or access to websites for people with disabilities. Web content accessibility guidelines have been in place since 1999, and are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and, in education circles, by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The guidelines were updated in 2008 to make content accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities and photosensitivity.

The University of Florida is continuing to take steps to make sure its websites, online courses and documents meet web accessibility standards. Anne Allen, who is the head Education Information Technology Officer at UF, said she's been involved with ensuring digital and web accessibility compliance for 15 years.

"UF IT has made a huge commitment," Allen said. "We've made a lot of progress."

Allen said UF is in the middle of a three-year,$74,500-a-year contract with SiteImprove, which detects and helps fix non-ADA compliant websites. Another software program that UF uses — Blackboard Ally — helps ensure digital courses are web accessible. Allen said the software costs are centrally funded, with no cost to individual departments.

"One of the things I've encountered is enthusiasm," Allen said. "Everyone I talk to knows this is a really big task but when I go out and talk to people and faculty they all recognize the fact this is good and needs to be done."

According to the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability, close to one in five people in the United States (19 percent) identify themselves as disabled. That makes compliance with web accessibility important from both a moral and legal standpoint. In 2012, Florida State University paid a $150,000 settlement to two blind students who were unable to access an online mathematics course. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced lawsuits in 2015 for failing to provide proper captioning in online courses. Allen, who has a legal background as an attorney, said UF has been able to study prior cases.

"We use that as a plan for making sure that the university is doing everything we can to be inclusive, and promote diversity," Allen said.

Rachel Wayne, a writer at UF's College Liberal Arts and Sciences, said she and a staff of three part-timers are working on eight to 12 sites at a time in an effort to ensure web accessibility.

"When we look at old pages and new pages alike, we see things like using colors and shapes to communicate information rather than language," Wayne said. "That presents a problem for people who are visually impaired who are using these sites, because they don't see the arrow, and if there is nothing behind the scenes that communicates to them that there's something there that indicates direction, then they can't navigate the site.

"A lot of what we are doing is going behind the scenes, into the code, and adding different sorts of labels and tags to enable things called screen readers to read the page to a person who is visually impaired."

Wayne said she's aware of some accessibility complaints that UF's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has received about scholarship forms not being able to be filled out with assisted devices. Wayne said she's made the fixes on those forms through Adobe Acrobat software.

"We use quite a combination of tools," Wayne said. "But a lot of it is our brains and our hands, spending a lot of time literally coding and editing code."

©2018 The Gainesville Sun, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.