Bellingham Public Schools: A Promising Practice in Steps Toward Making IT Accessible in K-12 Schools

DO-IT Factsheet #1290

The Bellingham Public School District [1] (BSD) in Bellingham, Washington has taken many positive steps toward improving the accessibility of its information technology infrastructure. For many years, Bellingham has valued "equal access for the learning community", and has openly stated this as part of its vision regarding the role of technology in facilitating teaching and learning. However, prior to 2004 the goal of equal access had not specifically been articulated as including students, employees, and parents with disabilities.

Systems have long been in place for providing students with disabilities assistive technology (AT) and other accommodations, and an Assistive Technology Committee was formed in 1994 to assure that students' AT needs throughout the district were being met. However, the Assistive Technology Committee was comprised of staff and teachers who were involved specifically in special education, and had little influence over other technologies that were being used at a growing rate throughout mainstream classrooms. As curriculum and school information and services were increasingly delivered using the Web, computer software, multimedia, and other information technologies, BSD staff became increasingly aware of the fact that students with disabilities, whether or not they're equipped with AT, could face significant barriers in accessing these technologies.

In 2003, the Assistive Technology Committee broadened its membership to include staff members responsible for mainstream IT. This they hoped would bridge the gap between AT and accessible IT, and would ensure that staff members from the IT community were stakeholders in the need for technology to be accessible.

BSD also invited an accessibility expert from the Bellingham community to consult with them on improving the accessibility of their IT infrastructure. This individual (a technology specialist with AccessIT) met initially with the Superintendent, then subsequently met on several occasions with the Director of Instructional Technology and Libraries and district webmaster, and served on both the Assistive Technology and the Technology Planning Committees.

A key accomplishment in BSD's accessibility efforts was the development of the 2004-2007 Technology and Learning Implementation Plan [2], which was approved by the School Board on April 26, 2004. This formal Plan specifically addresses accessibility in many ways. One of the district instructional learning activities documented by the plan reads as follows:

"District will write specific goals and strategies to ensure that technology is accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. Areas include hardware, software, websites, and multimedia."

Specific steps were documented for how the district would implement this activity each year over the three years addressed by the plan. Each of these steps documented who within the district is responsible for implementation; hardware, software, and technology support needs if any; professional development needs; district purchase/budget/potential funding source(s); and evaluation strategies and/or tools.

The Technology Plan additionally includes goals and activities for each of the individual schools that comprise the district. Many of the school plans also address accessibility, using language similar to tjat adopted by the district.

The Board adopted Information Technology Accessibility Standards and included them as an appendix to the Plan. The standards state that "Accessibility must be considered when procuring, developing or implementing information technologies, including web content, software, hardware, telecommunications, multimedia, and standalone devices such as information kiosks." Accessibility is defined with language adapted from the Section 508 standards and the World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The standards conclude with a list of common examples that staff and instructors in BSD should address regarding the accessibility of web pages, software, and multimedia.

One reason the adoption of the Plan is so significant is that once the School Board approved it, the Plan validated the need for continued forward progress regarding accessibility. By citing the Plan, those responsible for accessibility have a receptive audience among stakeholders who might otherwise be less interested.

BSD still has considerable work to do before their IT environment is fully accessible. However, they have already taken several significant steps since adoption of the Plan:

BSD district staff acknowledges that they face many obstacles in making their websites more accessible, the largest being the vast quantity of older pages that were built without regard to accessibility.

Many of the district's web pages were historically created in Microsoft Word, and saved as HTML, with little or no regard to document structure or accessible markup. Retrofitting these pages for accessibility is much more challenging than it would be if the pages had been originally created using valid HTML. Gradually these pages will be phased out with new content, which should be accessible as a result of the district's greater training and outreach efforts, combined with a stronger centralized web presence made possible with tools such as Macromedia Contribute or a content management system.

A problem requiring an alternative strategy is the 3500+ pages that were built using an inaccessible template. The template includes a dynamic navigational menu that is comprised entirely of fairly small images, which can not be enlarged in most web browsers. The menu is not operational as a dynamic menu by keyboard-only users, screen reader users, or users without Javascript. On many pages, accessibility for all of these individuals is temporarily achieved by providing secondary pages that include scalable text versions of each of the menu options. In contrast to the gradual-phase-out of much of the district's inaccessible web content, replacing the current template will by necessity be a project that must be done systematically and rapidly. Otherwise, the district will have some pages that use the newer accessible template, and some that use the older less accessible template. Keeping track of the differences as pages are updated would be a logistical nightmare. An ambitious district-wide template upgrade project is currently in the planning phase.

Though much work remains to make Bellingham Public Schools' IT environment fully accessible, BSD shows promise for all the efforts it has implemented to date.