Accessibility Rallies: A Promising Practice for Promoting Accessible Web Design
"Accessibility Rallies" represent a promising practice for promoting accessible web design. This article describes the Georgia Accessibility Rally (GAR), which was designed to create new, accessible Internet sites for rural Georgia schools, train students in accessible web design techniques, and build the capacity for teachers and administrators to create accessible information technology opportunities for all students.
The GAR project is a partnership between the Georgia Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and Butler New Media, a private company based in Bainbridge, Georgia. The Georgia Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities is a non-profit corporation that operates in partnership with the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia Department of Labor. Butler New Media offers professional consulting and technology solutions in information technology accessibility. Together, the Georgia Committee and Butler New Media, drew on the contacts and experience that the Georgia Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities had gained through its very successful implementation of the Georgia High School/High Tech program.
Developing the Project
The GAR was modeled after similar projects developed by Knowbility, a non-profit organization in Austin, Texas. Knowbility hosts "Accessibility Internet Rally" events in a number of cities. In these rallies teams compete to create or retrofit nonprofit entities' websites for complete accessibility. Knowbility assisted the Georgia Committee with the original design of the GAR and provided some initial training materials as well as evaluation criteria.
The model for the implementation of the GAR was as follows:
- Locate high schools in rural Georgia interested in improving the accessibility of their Internet sites.
- Identify teacher/mentors in those high schools who had a commitment to accessibility for students with disabilities.
- Train the teacher/mentors in accessible information technology design and equip them to serve as mentors for students.
- Establish student-led teams that included students with and without disabilities at each high school campus.
- Train these student-led teams, assisted by teacher/mentors, to develop new, accessible Internet sites for their schools.
- Encourage partnerships with leading information technology companies to provide the tools needed for the students to develop their sites.
- Recruit information technology professionals to judge and evaluate the efforts of students.
- Provide prizes and scholarships to the student teams that created the most accessible Internet sites.
- Work with a private Internet hosting company to ensure that the new websites were available on a permanent basis.
Because this program required a great deal of coordination at and between many participating sites, GAR project staff limited the number of schools that initially participated to four teams from three rural high schools. Limiting the number of participating schools led to a focused and disciplined process that could be used a model for future expansion.
Some of the teacher/mentors involved in the project had very little knowledge about designing websites and about how specific inaccessible features erect barriers for people with disabilities. Project staff considered a key to project success to be the provision of one-on-one hands-on training for teacher/mentors. These training sessions, hosted by Bainbridge College and Albany Technical College, introduced teacher/mentors to basic concepts in IT accessibility. Intensive training, conducted by Butler New Media and supported by Southeast ADA Center staff, gave the teacher/mentors the basic knowledge they needed to successfully implement the GAR.
Another important step in implementing the project was ensuring that students participating in the GAR had access to the technologies and information they needed to develop accessible websites and participate in GAR. Butler New Media developed a checklist of required equipment, software, and information to assess the readiness of each school to participate in the GAR. The checklist included items about hardware and software installed in school computer labs as well as contact data for students and teacher/mentors. Once required technology had been identified, the Georgia Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities worked with Microsoft Corporation™, Cingular Wireless™, IBM™, and HiSoftware™ to provide free copies of HTML authoring and evaluation software tools.
Each school recruited a team of at least three students, all of whom had some type of disability. The teams met with teacher/mentors on a weekly basis, and also met with Butler New Media staff for advanced training on website construction.
Unlike previous events organized by Knowbility, which drew students from local community colleges and four-year institutions and were held over a one- or two-day period, the GAR took place over a two-month period of time to match the schedules of high school students participating in an extracurricular activity. After the last day of the Rally, volunteer judges chosen from government and industry leaders evaluated and reported on the accessibility of the four sites created by the participating teams.
GAR Success Indicators
The most obvious result of the Georgia Accessibility Rally was the creation of four new websites designed to be accessibile to people with disabilities. The four participating websites were:
- Albany Westover High School
- Valdosta High School High Tech
- Valdosta High School Vocational Instruction
- Columbus Northside High School
Information about the Georgia Accessibility Rally was disseminated in a variety of ways. Butler New Media created and updated a Rally website. The website had information about the Rally, judging criteria, and a forum for comments. The progress of the students in creating the accessible websites was documented through a series of web-based logs, or "blogs", created by each team.
Suggestions for Replicating the Project
Connecting with local High School/High Tech programs is a good first step for those interested in replicating the GAR in their area. There are more than 70 High School/High Tech programs throughout the United States, which makes them a great resource for recruiting participants. Although many are located within a high school, other programs are sponsored by community organizations and businesses. The High School/High Tech program is one of the demonstration initiatives now promoted by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the Department of Labor.
Although the Georgia Accessibility Rally used teams made up exclusively of students with disabilities, the Corporation for National and Community Service has sponsored several successful demonstration projects, in which students with and without disabilities paired up to work on student-initiated and designed community projects. After-school computer clubs might be approached and challenged to work with their fellow students who have disabilities to design and implement accessible websites. A value-added component to such an approach is that it not only fosters further integration of students with and without disabilities, but it also educates students without disabilities to the importance of universal design in all aspects of information technology.
Another approach would be to replicate this project at a community or four-year college in conjunction with local IT firms. This is the approach taken by Knowbility and has the advantage of (1) pairing college students with disabilities with mentors at local IT firms, thus avoiding the necessity of bringing school-based mentors up to speed and (2) not having to work within the time constraints inherent in an after-school program.
This promising practice was reproduced with permission. It is a part of a collection titled Promising Practices in Accessibility of IT for Post Secondary Education in the Southeast Region. Developed by CATEA's Southeast ADA Center with funding from NIDRR under U.S. Department of Education Grant #H133D010207.