UW News

June 24, 2004

Departments innovate to help people with disabilities

UW News

The Internet has opened up Distance Learning to a whole new level, with courses once offered through the mail being delivered instantaneously online — across town or worldwide.

Such classes can include state-of-the-art streaming video and audio files, high-detail graphics, photographs and other products. For most users, the information is a mere click away.

But what if you are blind, or deaf, or have a disability that makes it difficult for you to use a computer mouse?

About DO-IT:  To learn more about the University’s work in making technology accessible to people with disabilities, and about DO-IT’s work with Distance Learning and a host of other projects, visit online at: http://www.washington.edu/doit

These are disability access questions every bit as important as wheelchair ramps for campus buildings, says Sheryl Burgstahler, director of the UW’s DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunties, Internetworking and Technology) Center and the Access Technology Lab, both units under UW Computing & Communications. DO-IT is also affiliated with the College of Engineering.

With that in mind, Burgstahler’s DO-IT Center and Access Technology Lab have teamed with the people in Distance Learning Design, part of the Educational Outreach Department, to rethink how accessible the UW’s education offerings are to people with disabilities. Burgstahler hopes the work, built on previous efforts by project partners, will set an example for other departments, at the UW and elsewhere.

“We used to just worry about facilities. But now that so many people have technology, we have to think about access to the technology as well,” Burgstahler said.

She explained that while Web audio and video clips are handy, few think to caption them for people who are deaf. Photographs and graphic files liven up Web pages everywhere, but little thought is given to those who can’t see the image.

In the early days of the Web, when sites were mainly text, people with visual impairments were able to navigate and enjoy the site through text-to-speech programs. But Burgstahler said the coming of more advanced graphic and video programs has reduced that access, since many of the new programs are not created with disabilities in mind.

“Every time there’s a new tool, it may create accessibility challenges,” Burgstahler said.

The work being done by DO-IT, Distance Learning Design and the Access Technology Lab, Burgstahler said, is aimed both at making current Distance Education offerings more accessible to people with disabilities and at helping make sure future classes are designed with such populations in mind.

Burgstahler was quick to note that the process of providing access to people with disabilities is an ongoing, fluid one, not a one-time task. New issues come up with changing populations and computer capabilities, presenting new challenges of accessibility.

To help spread the notion of access for all, Computing & Communications staff have created a Web site (http://www.washington.edu/computing/accessible) that describes guidelines for making Web pages accessible to people with disabilities. Burgstahler suggested that campus webmasters refer to the site for guidance in making their Web resources available to all.

Other work being done by UW Distance Learning Design, with assistance from partnering departments, includes:

  • Course development that is mindful of the needs of people with disabilities,
  • Adding a statement on the Distance/Online Learning Web site (http://onlinelearning.washington.edu) indicating the department’s commitment to the design of accessible courses, as well as contact information for reporting inaccessible course design features.
  • Training and links to technical staff support for bringing down accessibility barriers.
  • Staff participation in the AccessibleWeb campus group (http://www.washington.edu/computing/accessible/accessibleweb/) that promotes accessibility of Web sites on campus and in the AccessDL discussion list on the topic of accessible design of distance learning courses (http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/accessdl.html).
  • Sharing information with future students about the technology used in the class and helping solve accessibility concerns before they enroll.
  • Support to faculty in creating courses with appropriate access and information on how and where to refer students with accessibility concerns.
  • Building accessibility into course evaluation and assessment.

Behind many of these notions is the idea of Universal Design versus accommodation, Burgstahler said. Designing classes and systems to be accessible to all is cheaper and more effective than only providing accommodations for different populations after the fact, she said. “But basically, to complete the package, you need both.”

Burgstahler added that making programs and classes accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others as well. She said years back, before the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, people questioned adding curb cuts to sidewalks, but now the cuts are used by many more people than just those in wheelchairs. Similarly, captioning for Internet video helps learners of English as well as those with a hearing impairment.

Finally, after working with accessibility issues with the Distance Learning department, Burgstahler can list a number of “lessons learned” from the process — basically pointers to other departments or institutions wishing to expand access. These include reviewing campus policies with accessible design in mind, creating appropriate standards by which the accessibility of courses can be evaluated, incorporating accessibility guidelines into campuswide literature on course development and making sure that appropriate training is available to all affected staff members.

The accessibility upgrades at the UW have not gone unnoticed. The efforts were recently lauded by The Sloan Consortium (http://www.sloan-c.org/effective/details2.asp?acc_ID=61), a group of institutions dedicated to improving online education. And at the recent BizTech Showcase on technology for administrative units on the UW campus, the Distance Learning Design unit’s work won the BizTech Accessibility Award.

But even after all that, the process will continue, in the distance learning field and across the UW campus.

“Accessibility isn’t something that you finish,” Burgstahler said. “It’s an ongoing process.”

DO-IT students shine in acclaimed three-year program:

The DO-IT program has completed a three-year project designed to help students with disabilities better compete for employment after graduation.

The project has the acronym-heavy name of DO-IT CAREERS-Tech. DO-IT, the name of a UW nonprofit agency, stands for Disabilities, Opportunites, Internetworking, and Technology. CAREERS is part acronym, part mnemonic device that lists topics a student with disabilities should consider before going out into the job market: Careers, Academics, Research, Experimental Education, Relevant Skills.

The three-year project, supported by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education, recruited college students with disabilities and gave them work-based learning experiences to help them in what technology or business careers they might pursue. The students completed internships and participated in electronic mentoring.