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The University of Texas at Austin: A Promising Practice in Web Accessibility

by Terry Thompson, Sheryl Burgstahler, and Dan Comden

In the report Research on Web Accessibility in Higher Eduction, DO-IT researchers performed accessibility evaluations of ten critical web sites at each of 102 public research universities. The University of Texas at Austin (UT) was the only university whose Accessible Web Index was greater than one standard deviation above the mean (1.19). Also, UT received the highest total raw scores in the sample from both evaluators, and was one of only two institutions to receive a "perfect score" of 100 using Bobby. Given the exemplary performance of UT, the researchers sought to address the question, "What policies and practices does the institution with the most accessible websites employ regarding campus website accessibility?", by examining the policies, procedures and support strategies related to web accessibility at UT.

Like many institutions, UT's web accessibility initiative began with the grassroots advocacy efforts of one or two individuals. The effort was formalized in February 1999, when the Provost authorized a Task Force on Accessible Electronic Information. The task force included fifteen members, representing a broad cross-section of UT. The Task Force prepared a report which defined a specific goal, "To establish an infrastructure for enabling accessible electronic information at the University of Texas at Austin", and recommended specific policy and actions. The report was delivered to the Information Technology Coordinating Council in June 1999, and the Council approved the report unanimously at its August 1999 meeting. The Provost accepted the report and its recommendations in principle in October 1999. In September 2000, UT Austin President Larry R. Faulkner joined the presidents of 25 major research universities in an open letter to President Clinton asserting the importance of accessibility for people with disabilities and committing the University to exercising leadership in this field.

By that time, UT was already providing web accessibility training through its Institute for Technology and Learning, whom the Provost had charged with the task of leading the University's efforts to achieve full accessibility. The Institute for Technology and Learning often worked collaboratively with the Center for Instructional Technologies (the primary technology training, consulting and resource center for UT educators) to incorporate accessibility content into existing mainstream training offerings.

UT had also stimulated internal interest in web accessibility through its collaboration with Knowbility, a local not-for-profit organization who organizes the Accessible Internet Rally, a series of annual one day competitions in which participants win by building exemplary, fully accessible websites. Accessible Internet Rally began as in 1998 as an Austin community-based event, but has since expanded to include competitions for specific target audiences, including university web developers.

UT began its efforts at establishing an internal web accessibility policy or guidelines in April 2000, when the University Web Office adopted an internal policy that placed accessibility requirements on sites seeking recognition through its "spotlights" program. This program profiles noteworthy UT web pages on either the university home page or on one of several secondary-level pages. The policy initially stated that only pages with alternate text for images would be considered. The requirement was subsequently updated to require compliance with all WCAG Priority 1 checkpoints, and ultimately was revised to require compliance with Section 508 web accessibility standards. In March 2002, the Web Office expanded its policy to include all pages that linked directly from the University home page, and revised its formerly automatic review process to include an additional manual evaluation.

Parallel to these internal activities at UT, the state of Texas was addressing web accessibility issues through legislation. On May 3, 1999 the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 801, which enacted a number of requirements for state agency websites, including one accessibility requirement:

(c) A state agency shall design the generally accessible Internet site so that it conforms to generally acceptable standards for Internet accessibility for people with disabilities.

Also, on June 14, 2002, the State of Texas Department of Information Resources published Texas Administrative Code 206 (TAC 206) in the Texas Register. TAC 206 addresses various issues regarding state websites, and includes one section (206.2) that addresses "accessibility and usability of state websites". This section requires that "All state agencies shall develop and publish an accessibility policy for their Web site", and requires that agencies link to this policy from their home page.

The new state requirements on web accessibility further spurred active web accessibility interest at UT. An ad hoc committee including staff from the Web Office, Electronic Information Systems, Information Technology Services User Services, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Institute for Technology and Learning had been working on developing the University of Texas at Austin Web Guidelines for Accessibility. In June 2002, the University Web Office adopted and published these guidelines, which adopted the Section 508 web accessibility standards and provided a specific timeline for expected compliance.

With guidelines in place, work continues at UT to educate relevant parties on accessible web issues, and has expanded to encompass a full array of technologies used in developing web content. The Institute for Technology and Learning, the Center for Instructional Technologies, the Web Office, the General Libraries and other groups have worked to support university web publishers in their accessibility efforts. Over 200 university web authors have received introductory accessibility training through classes offered by the Institute for Technology and Learning and the Web Office, and accessibility issues continue to be addressed within the context of mainstream trainings.

Accessibility requirements, guidelines linked from the home page, extensive training and support, incorporation of accessibility into standard web training, awareness-building activities such as design competitions and prominent highlighting of accessible sites all combine to establish the UT as a clear leader in web accessibility. The University of Texas experience highlights several steps that can be employed by other institutions as they strive to assure the accessibility of their campus web pages. These include:

References

State of Texas, 76(R) SB 801. Retrieved April 15, 2003 from http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlo/76r/billtext/SB00801F.HTM

State of Texas Department of Information Resources, T.A.C. 206 State Web Sites. Retrieved April 15, 2003 from http://www.dir.state.tx.us/standards/S206.htm

University of Texas at Austin, AIR-UT, The University Challenge: Accessibility Internet Rally for the University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved April 15, 2003 from http://www.utexas.edu/events/air-ut/

University of Texas - Austin Task Force on Accessible Electronic Information (1999). Information Anytime, Anywhere, for Anyone: Creating an Accessible Electronic Campus. Retrieved April 15, 2003 from the web: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~slatin/disability/utaccess.htm

University of Texas at Austin Web Guidelines. Retrieved April 15, 2003 from http://www.utexas.edu/web/guidelines/accessibility.html


A Note About Accessibility

The DO-IT pages form a living document and are regularly updated. We strive to make them universally accessible. We minimize the use of graphics and photos, and provide descriptions of them when they are included. Video clips are open captioned, providing access to users who can't hear the audio, and audio described for those who cannot see the visual display. Suggestions for increasing the accessibility of these pages are welcome. To learn more about accessible Web page design, go to our list of Web development resources.

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