Presentation Summaries

Sheryl Burgstahler presents on accessible distance learning.

Overview of IT Accessibility Issues

Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler

In order for IT to be considered accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, it must afford those individuals the opportunity to acquire the same information, interactions, and services as people without disabilities. People with disabilities must be able to obtain and use information presented as fully as people without disabilities. The U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and courts of law have resolved civil rights complaints with respect to IT access for individuals with disabilities at more than a dozen postsecondary institutions in the United States. How can these resolutions help guide other campuses in making IT (e.g., websites, videos, online learning) accessible to students, faculty, staff, and visitors with disabilities?

Resolutions to these OCR complaints suggest that institutions of higher education consider

  • conducting accessibility audits and developing corrective action strategies
  • developing and disseminating an accessible IT policy
  • creating IT accessibility standards
  • providing training and education
  • developing procurement policies and procedures
  • developing and publicizing grievance procedures
  • addressing accessibility within already developed, procured, and used IT, including websites, learning management systems, classroom technologies, and purchased software

The UW has come a long way in spearheading efforts related to making IT accessible since 1984, when IT accessibility support was embraced by the Microcomputer Support Group under what became Computing and Communications (and is now called UW-IT). In 1990, the Access Technology Lab opened, providing access to assistive technology, and, in 1992, the DO-IT Center received National Science Foundation funding to provide complementary, nationwide efforts through the DO-IT Center. A UW accessible web user group started meeting regularly in 2002, the UW hosted a nationwide IT accessibility CBI in 2006, and UW-IT began using SiteImprove to test the accessibility of campus websites in 2011. Since 2012, efforts at UW have increased with the creation of an IT accessibility campus-wide task force, the launch of a proactive initiative to test website accessibility, guidelines for purchasing accessible IT, and options for captioning videos.

UW-IT continues to grow and create more tools, resources, and procedures about accessibility. In the ideal state that we strive for, we would have

  • a campus-level task force with annual reports
  • a guidance website
  • standard accessible web page templates
  • IT accessibility consulting/testing services
  • accessibility included on IT development and support teams
  • collaboration between vendors and UW staff for creating and purchasing accessible software and technology
  • IT accessibility courses offered
  • accessibility included in general IT training
  • accessibility included in IT job postings
  • an IT accessibility leader in each campus unit
  • captions promoted as a best practice
  • grant writers encouraged to include accessible technology in grant outcomes
  • accessibility-awareness activities and products
  • IT accessibility CBIs conducted for UW and beyond
  • grants secured to supplement and expand the reach of IT accessibility efforts
  • leadership related to IT accessibility in professional organizations and publications
  • students with disabilities as accessibility testers

Although the UW is not doing all of these things currently, the UW-IT Accessibility Task Force engages in ongoing activities and makes recommendations regarding the enhancement of online resources, the promotion of accessible IT, and iteratively improves policies and procedures. UW is working to promote accessibility within a context of universal design, usability, and an inclusive culture. Accessible Technology Services serves as a resource, catalyst, and community-builder to empower an infrastructure that supports accessible IT.

Web Accessibility: Designing Sites that Work for Everyone

Presenter: Terrill Thompson

When we’re creating digital content such as web pages or online documents, we may envision our typical user as an able-bodied person using a desktop computer. In reality, users utilize a wide variety of technologies to access the web, including assistive technologies, mobile devices, and more; everyone has different levels of ability when it comes to seeing, hearing, or using a mouse or keyboard. Since the World Wide Web was invented, HTML has included the option to add alt tags to describe the content of images and other accessibility features. WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, second version) aims to bring all web content up to an accessible level so that all users have equivalent access. WCAG 2.0 follows four main principles; information should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these principles is defined by more specific guidelines, and those are further defined by specific success criteria, each assigned Level A, AA, or AAA, with Level A success criteria including the most critical issues for accessibility. Level A success criteria are fairly easy to meet but not quite as important as Level AAA. In resolution agreements and legal settlements, the U.S. Department of Justice and the OCR have accepted WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a reasonable target to ensure websites are accessible.

Using accessible tools and design strategies will help make all web content more accessible. Using accessible themes in WordPress and Drupal is an easy way to spread accessibility across campus and utilize necessary accessibility features such as keyboard accessible drop-down menus and proper headings. ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) can be used to analyze accessibility, and it communicates the interface elements to users and designers. Canvas and similar learning management systems need to be made accessible and used accessibly; faculty need to learn about headings and alt text and the right questions to ask about accessibility.

For more information about web accessibility, check out these resources:

Document Accessibility

Presenter: Dan Comden

A document is written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence. Ignoring video and audio, which are two important but fundamentally different types of files, typical types of documents used on campus are Word, PDF, Plain Text and Rich Text, PowerPoint, and HTML. We need to ensure that all information given to students is accessible.

Evaluating over a hundred courses over a year at the UW, we observed over 5,000 documents were used, and over 100,000 pages from those documents were shared through our learning management system. Through all of these, the percentage of documents that were accessible was very low. On average, only about 11% of Word documents included headings, one of the most important structural accessibility features in Word. For PDFs, one of the most important features of accessibility is text selectibility so that text-to-speech software can make sense of the document. Most quarters, about 70% or more of the pdfs used were text-selectable. Yet, an average of only 26% of PDFs had bookmarks or tags and less than 8% had both bookmarks and tags.

It is important to focus on headings, lists, alternative text for images, and the language choice for all documents. Headings provide easy navigation of the information for anyone approaching the text. Lists need to be labeled and are a good way to provide structured information to the reader. Alternative text for images allows someone who can’t access the image visually to get a description of the content within an image and allows image content to be searched. Selecting the language provides information to a speech synthesizer. When exporting your document to PDF, make sure you check for accessibility with Acrobat’s accessibility checker. Scanned PDFs create significant accessibility problems, as they are often just an image rather than text and lack the structure provided by tags. Inaccessible PDFs often need additional software to read, which delays delivery to students.

HTML will always be the most accessible way to convey information, followed by structured Word documents. How do we encourage faculty to use accessible documents? How do we train faculty to create them? These are ongoing questions. The following websites provide tools for making your website accessible:

Working with Vendors and On-Campus Developers

Presenter: Hadi Rangin

UW-IT has been working with vendors for many years to encourage them to increase the accessibility of their products. These vendors include Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Instructure, Moodle, Ebsco Publishing, Elsevier, Ex Libris, BB Collaborate, Qualtrics, Elucian, and many more. We have received very positive responses from companies, indicating that this sort of collaboration can result in positive changes.

We continue to strive to increase designers’ and developers’ knowledge of accessible design so products that they develop are accessible out of box. The goal is to be able to purchase a product with an accessible design rather than buy a product and address accessibility issues later. Unfortunately, accessibility is rarely included in IT design, implementation, and quality assurance; consequently, many products entering the market are either inaccessible or haven’t been tested for accessibility.

Sometimes vendors provide Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) forms, which is a vendor-generated statement that provides relevant information on how a vendor’s product or service claims to conform to Section 508, IT accessibility standards used by the federal government. Many VPATs emphasize the vendors’ commitments to accessibility without providing a clear description of whether the products are accessible. Purchasers may not be savvy enough to recognize this distinction. Consequently, these products are purchased and deployed on our campuses without being fully tested for accessibility.

Some universities, including the UW, promote the consideration of accessibility as part of the product testing and evaluation in the purchasing process. In these cases, products are tested independently for accessibility and shortcomings are identified. But what should we do when there is no viable alternative for the product being purchased? Should a lack of accessibility be a deal breaker? It all depends on the necessity of the product and the availability of an accessible alternative.

We believe a critical part of the solution to be collaboration. It is important to bring the purchasing department and vendors together to come up with an accessibility plan. A full accessibility/usability evaluation should be performed, issues should be identified and prioritized based on their severity, and a plan should be incorporated into the contract. The contract should specify clearly what issues will be addressed and what the consequences are if the vendor fails to deliver. It is best when the respective campus department leads the collaboration and takes responsibility for following through with the contract. When evaluating a product, it is important to focus on usability rather than technical aspects of the product. Examples of good questions to ask are

  • Can users accomplish particular tasks?
  • Can users post to a particular forum/thread?
  • Can users determine how much time is remaining for their quiz?

To learn more about how accessibility can be considered in the procurement process, read the resource Procuring Accessible IT at

Accessibility of Distance Learning

Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler

While we’ve focused on what IT staff need to know regarding accessibility, now we will look at what staff and faculty need to focus on to make their classes welcoming to and accessible by students with disabilities. These professionals typically do not develop their own learning management system (LMS), website, or technology, but rather use what is already out there.

Faculty often get overwhelmed by universal design and accessibility; they see it as just another thing they need to make time for in their busy schedules. Applying specific tools and strategies they need to use ensures content is accessible from the beginning, which is easier than retrofitting classes after they’ve already began. For faculty, it is important to share what makes a course to accessible; what are some strategies and resources; what legal mandates are in place; and what creates a welcoming, accessible, and usable environment for all potential students.

Accessible means a class or product is usable to the same level by all students. While accommodations are important, we can minimize retrofitting for specific students by implementing universal design in planning the class. In the first online class I ever taught, a class on adaptive technology for people with disabilities in 1995, my co-instructor and I made it as accessible as possible to showcase that it was possible for any student to engage in an online course. I still take this approach in an online class I teach about accessibility and compliance of online education.

While educators may not have a choice in what LMS they use, they do have the choice to create accessible instructional materials and teaching strategies. Educators should consider if everyone can gain knowledge, if everyone can interact with others, and how everyone can demonstrate their knowledge. The first step towards this is creating an accessible syllabus with structure and key information, including a statement on accessibility and disability-related accommodations.

A great place for educators to start is DO-IT’s publication, 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course, found at Further guidance and resources can be found at DO-IT’s AccessDL website at