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

Date Updated

The Bellingham Public School District (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 2010-2013 Technology and Learning Implementation Plan, which was approved by the School Board. 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:

  • The district webmaster has worked diligently to better understand the subtleties of accessible web design, and is now assuring that all centrally-developed web content is accessible.
  • The district home page was redesigned so that it utilizes valid XHTML for content and structure, and cascading style sheets (CSS) for layout. To facilitate navigation for screen reader users, the redesigned site made extensive use of XHTML heading tags, plus a same-page Skip to News link. The News items that comprise the main content of the page are drawn from an external Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, which was originally written to the page using Javascript, but subsequently updated so that it now writes to the page using a server-side PHP script in order to assure that users without Javascript support have full access.
  • One of the Rules for School Web Sites is that "All web sites and pages should meet the district web technical standards", and the first of the BSD Web Technical Standards is that web content must be accessible.
  • Macromedia Contribute has been implemented district-wide. Approximately 50 employees, including district staff, school library media specialists and assistants, and a few teachers are now using it to create web content. This product allows greater central control over certain aspects of each web page. The district has deployed Contribute with the "Require ALT attributes on all images" feature enabled, which ensures that all graphics have alternate text. However, this does not assure that the ALT text entered is meaningful. For this, additional training is required for all web authors.
  • The district is currently in the early phases of considering deployment of a content management system. This would provide even greater centralized control over the look and feel of district web pages, including their accessibility.
  • Training is provided on an ongoing basis for Library Media Specialists, who provide the technology support for each school, including the development of web content. Recent past trainings have already included web accessibility. However, the training currently is not required, and those who attend the trainings tend to be those who need it least. A proposal has been discussed that would require all staff to attend training appropriate to their professional responsibilities, including those responsible for web support, which will include training on accessible web design.
  • Discussions are currently underway between the Instructional Technology and Libraries Department, the Business and Purchasing Departments, the Network Services Department, and accessibility consultant regarding adding accessibility language to purchasing requirements and procurement contracts.
  • Web design instructors in Bellingham high schools partnered with AccessIT in developing the free Web Design & Development I course curriculum that emphasizes accessibility as a core design theory principal. Students learn and discuss design theory before they learn any web design techniques, then all subsequent lessons and projects are measured against the design theory principals they've learned, including accessibility. The curriculum was tested extensively in Bellingham high schools, and is now available nationwide.

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.