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Digital Accessibility Gains Priority Status at University of Colorado Boulder

A federal investigation prompted the university to build accessibility into decisions about technology purchases and building designs.

(TNS) — It's been two years since the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the University of Colorado's accessibility to students with visual impairments.

Though the feds dropped their inquiry in May, without making a determination about the merits of the case, the campus is still hard at work to improve its technological accessibility for all students.

John Meister, who directs CU's Disability Services, said the campus has undergone a major transformation in how it approaches digital accessibility.

In September, CU approved a formal policy that sets out in writing the campus's moral and ethical obligation to make technology accessible to all people.

Meister described the policy as a "litmus test" for new tools and services, which now must go through an accessibility review process.

That type of analysis wasn't part of campus processes before last fall, according to Meister.

"We have a commitment now to make sure that accessibility is there. That's the piece we were missing before," Meister said of the policy. "Now, we wouldn't think about launching a new service that impacts accessibility in the digital environment without having a team look at it and saying 'Hey, is this accessible?'"

Similarly, the campus wouldn't move forward on a building blueprint unless it included wheelchair-accessible ramps, Meister said.

He said the goal of the policy is to infuse digital accessibility into campus decisions at the beginning of the process, not after the fact.

"We're still working on things obviously that are legacy systems, but when we talk about new things, those are things that have to be addressed before we agree to purchase," he said.

CU created a committee to review and approve exceptions to the policy, such as if a tool is used by an extremely small group of people.

But an exemption is not granted lightly. Depending on the situation, the faculty or staff member wishing to procure or use a new tool must agree to a path to accessibility, with buy-in from the vendor.

"It's not a blanket exception," said Dan Jones, chief digital accessibility officer for the campus. "We know we can't make everything accessible today, and we don't control everything —  vendors can't do that either. But it's important that we have a roadmap and something in place, a commitment from the vendor and the (campus) department to work toward accessibility."

On this new path forward, the responsibility for ensuring accessibility falls less on students with disabilities, who, in the past, had to work with a staffer to design a workaround for each inaccessible tool they encountered.

"We are trying to encourage ownership with the entire community," Meister said. "Rather than, 'Oh, it's a Disability Services student,' it should be 'No, it's a university student and we all have an obligation to work with the student to help them be successful and to remove any barriers that might be there.'"


These changes were spurred by students with visual impairments who said they spent hours trying to access university services and often needed help with routine tasks.

At issue were services like Google email and documents, a website for homework and course content called Desire2Learn, digital signs and a portal known as MyCUInfo, which students use to register for classes, pay bills and set up meetings with advisers.

CU has made great strides toward making many of those services accessible, said Jones, the accessibility officer.

The campus is still working on digital signs and the MyCUInfo portal, and is keeping a close eye on the services provided by Google and Desire2Learn, which are updated frequently.

"For the big core things like Google and Desire2Learn, a lot of work has been done and I think significant improvements have been made," Jones said. "When Google releases some new feature, which they do constantly, we need to check and make sure that new piece is accessible."

In January, the campus launched SensusAccess, an online service that allows CU students and employees to upload and convert files into accessible documents.

CU is also planning to host its first-ever Diverse Learners Awareness Week in April and developed a new online training for employees about universal design and accessibility in the university's communications.

In addition to making Jones the campus' chief digital accessibility officer, CU created two new positions focused on accessibility.

'More useable for everyone'

The university now includes language about accessibility in all contracts with vendors or suppliers, which has been an adjustment for some of the companies CU deals with, Jones said.

"The biggest challenge we have right now is in the area of procurement, just because we don't program most of our own software, we acquire things," he said. "And a lot of vendors still don't understand it, even though the (Americans with Disabilities Act) isn't new. Vendors aren't accustomed to having language in the contract saying they'll be accessible and they have to meet particular standards."

These challenges aren't unique to CU, and sooner than later, officials hope everyone — from vendors to faculty members — will be on the same page about the importance of digital accessibility, to the point where it becomes automatic.

"If you can design whatever system, a Web page, up front using those principles, then it's much less likely you'll be creating a barrier for anyone, regardless of disability," Jones said. "More often than not, the end result is something that is more useable for everyone."

©2016 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.