When learning tools and resources are accessible to all, we all win

UW student looks at laptop and uses IT tools for accessibility.

At UW’s three campuses, about 100 accessibility liaisons work to ensure that tech-based teaching, learning and research tools and resources are accessible and usable to all.

By Ignacio Lobos

Three years ago, UW Bothell’s Ana Thompson started an all-out battle against inaccessible online PDFs.

PDFs are in wide use at the UW, as they are elsewhere. But when they’re not created properly, they become a huge barrier to learning because screen readers cannot interpret them for people with disabilities.

“People don’t always realize they are not making things accessible,” said Thompson, a Learning & Access Designer in the Office of Digital Learning & Innovation (DLI). “Why create amazing content that is only available to some people? We always need to be creating things that are accessible for as many people as possible, but that means being aware of our students’ needs, and giving everyone the tools to make it happen.”

“I wanted to reach as many people as I could,” said Thompson, who has become widely recognized as a champion for universal design at the UW, particularly at UW Bothell.

Thompson is also an accessibility liaison, one of about 100 people on three campuses who receive regular training through UW-IT’s Accessible Technology Services (ATS) and advocate for the procurement, development and use of accessible IT throughout the University system. So she collaborated with ATS on her quest to make everything at UW Bothell as accessible as possible — from PDFs, to instructional videos and even classrooms.

“I have been here 35 years,” ATS Director Sheryl Burgstahler said. “And working with Ana has been one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve ever had. She knows IT, she knows online learning, and she cares deeply about accessibility for everyone.”

Portrait of Ana Thompson

Ana Thompson
Learning & Access Designer in the Office of Digital Learning & Innovation at UW Bothell

Thompson’s passion is emblematic of what is going on at the UW, where ensuring tech-based teaching, learning and research tools and resources are accessible and usable by everyone is a priority, including full access to students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.

At UW Bothell, she has put accessibility issues on the front burner, and the campus has responded. Attendance continues to grow at accessibility events, including seminars and workshops. Her first online class on accessibility, which started spring quarter of 2019, has surpassed expectations, drawing more than 150 learners in just three sessions.

“Our waitlists keep getting longer and longer,” Thompson said. “It’s exciting to see so many people who want to learn about accessibility. It is very inspiring to me.”

Ana is far from being alone, said Erik Hofer, associate vice president for Academic Services and UW-IT deputy CIO, who oversees IT accessibility policies at the UW.

Throughout the university, he said, dozens of people are working every day to make sure students, faculty and staff have the tools they need to learn, teach and explore.

“Sure there are laws that say we as a public university have to provide access to information technology to all, including people with disabilities,” Hofer said. “But we have a deep commitment to promoting accessibility, and we are winning hearts and minds to get there.”

Opportunities for all

A major partner in these UW-wide accessibility efforts is Burgstahler and her staff at ATS, who have earned national and international accolades for their work. ATS helps ensure that tech-based teaching, learning and research tools and resources are accessible to and usable for all.

It conducts part of its mission through the Access Technology Center, which provides multiple technology tools for people with disabilities, including hardware and software that produce braille on a display or embossed paper, alternative keyboards and magnification for blind/low-vision users, among others. The center also provides training and consultation on universal design of documents, websites and other technology, as well as physical spaces and services, in partnerships with faculty and staff.

ATS also operates the nationally and internationally recognized DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center. Its efforts are multi-prong, as it seeks to promote the success of students with disabilities not only in college and graduate school but also in their careers. Several programs, such as AccessEngineering, AccessSTEM, and AccessComputing, involve faculty nationwide to increase the participation of people with disabilities in various fields.

“Sheryl and her staff are doing a tremendous amount of work in just about every area,” Hofer said. “Our colleagues in ATS are often sought for their expertise by other public institutions and private companies.”

Hadi Rangin talks to two people about accessibiity issues in commercial software.

The University of Washington is considered a leader in technology and accessibility issues, thanks to people like Hadi Rangin, an accessibility expert with UW-IT. He leads a team of students who test, evaluate and consult on the accessibility of software applications and other technologies widely used in higher education.

Ensuring that tools widely used by students are accessible remains a top ATS goal. Any learning tool offered to students undergoes rigorous testing for accessibility, and if some features are not designed in an accessible manner, ATS consultants look for an answer.

Last fall, the Ally accessibility tool for Canvas, the UW’s learning management system, was introduced to students. Ally automatically generates alternative formats of instructors’ uploaded course files to improve their accessibility, including access to text that can be read by a screen reader. Ally also provides feedback to instructors to help them be aware of any accessibility issues in the materials they have uploaded.

Thanks to ATS efforts, the UW has become a leader in software improvements, so much so that software developers across the country seek ATS expertise to improve their products for all.

Google Cloud Platform, Internet2, ServiceNow, Workday, Zoom, Canvas, Panopto, Microsoft Office Tools, Microsoft Windows and Interfolio are a few of the prominent products that were improved with ATS involvement. On any given day at the UW, an ATS accessibility expert and a team of students test, evaluate and consult on the accessibility of software applications and other technologies for both on-campus developers and third-party software vendors.

A natural partnership

Aware of ATS’ stellar reputation, Thompson knew exactly where to reach out for help when she sought to expand her accessibility efforts at UW Bothell. After lengthy conversations with Burgstahler and other ATS staff, they came up with a pilot program on PDF accessibility.

Thompson learned how to use the accessibility features in Adobe Acrobat Pro, which allow for the creation of more accessible PDFs, and received funding from UW-IT to purchase a few licenses for wider use at UW Bothell. In the last two years, she participated in a certification program with the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, became a certified Adobe Accessible PDF trainer, and held 20 accessibility-training sessions and 30 PDF remediation-training sessions for faculty and staff. She also put together content creation guidelines, recruited other accessibility liaisons and spent countless hours raising awareness on campus about universal design and accessibility.

Today, she sees fewer problematic PDFs, and runs into faculty and staff who are more widely informed about the need to improve accessibility at every level — and are actively taking steps to get there.

One example is the high participation of faculty in her newly created four-week online course titled Accessibility 101: Principles of Inclusive Design, which launched in March 2019 with 44 learners from UW Bothell, the Seattle campus and UW Tacoma. Her third session had 75 students.

“I teach them about the laws and policies that govern accessibility at a federal, state and university level, why accessibility is important, types of disabilities, and best practices for universal design,” Thompson said. “I also show them how to make content more accessible, including Word documents, PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, webpages, Canvas content and even emails.”

Two students work together in front of a computer screen using accessiblity tools.

“Why create amazing content that is only available to some people?” Ana Thompson, a UW Bothell accessibility liaison, asks her students. These days, she encourages everyone to create content that’s as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.

These improvements are certainly worth celebrating, Hofer said. Thompson is winning hearts and minds, he said, but a lot of work remains to be done at all three campuses.

Thompson agrees. “When we make content universally accessible, it benefits everyone, not just students with disabilities,” she said. “We are building an inclusive and supportive community at the UW, and we’re not going to stop doing what’s best for our students.”

Learn more: Digital accessibility efforts continue to grow at UW Bothell. Accessible Information Technology in IT Connect and DO-IT are great places to start for anyone who wants to improve accessibility at the UW. Check the Seattle Campus Calendar for Thompson’s next Accessibility 101 Online Training and on-site training on accessible IT offered by ATS.