UW Information Technology

May 20, 2020

No one left behind: COVID-19 pandemic underscores need for accessibility

Grady Thompson sitting at desk looking at monitor and laptop.
UW student Grady Thompson works with accessibility experts to ensure no one gets left behind by technology.

By Ignacio Lobos

For Grady Thompson, the impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities has served as an illuminating lesson.

Remote learning with tools that are accessible has made learning and work actually easier for many students with disabilities, said Thompson, a UW Informatics student minoring in disability studies. And that has been a welcome change.

“The technology we use at UW enables this,” he said.

Thompson, who also works as accessibility student assistant in UW-IT’s Accessible Technology Services (ATS), is among a small group of student employees and staff in UW Information Technology that has gone to great lengths to ensure no one gets left behind.

Their work has made technology tools at the UW — including Zoom video conferencing, Panopto lecture capture, Canvas learning management system, and others — more accessible.

“I know a lot of folks with disabilities, myself included, who hope that after the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still opportunities to engage in learning and work more remotely, even if not all the time.”

Thompson also interns for the Associated Students of the University of Washington Student Disability Commission, where he says they advocate for ways to support remote/distance learning. One way is to increase the number of faculty and classes using Panopto lecture capture.

“It benefits a lot of other populations, including commuter students, student parents, and working students, to name a few,” Thompson said.

The other positive change has been the number of UW classes that are using an asynchronous model of instruction, meaning class assignments and activities are posted and then completed by students on their own time.

“Two of my classes shifted towards a primarily asynchronous model, Thompson explained.

The model has been implemented for a variety of reasons — to meet the needs of students without stable internet access, or currently living in a different time zone — but it has proven to be a positive experience for many students with disabilities, he said.

He said that synchronous classes — engaging students in real-time — are also being recorded using Zoom for the same reasons, and that’s allowing students to watch or re-watch the material at a later time.

UW-IT team behind Zoom’s accessibility

Teaching UW classes in real-time now largely relies on Zoom video conferencing, and so ensuring equitable access to all the students and instructors dependent on this enterprise-wide tool has always been a priority.

The new enterprise license, which allows unlimited time and up to 300-people on a call, might have just rolled out free to the University community shortly before all classes shifted online. But Hadi Rangin and his team of students has been working with Zoom for years to be more accessible, since the time it was piloted at the UW in 2016.

Rangin is an accessibility expert with ATS and leads a team of students who test, evaluate, and consult on the accessibility of software applications and other technologies for both on-campus developers and third-party software vendors.

“At the time Zoom was introduced to us, it almost had zero percent accessibility,” said Rangin. Many of Zoom’s features were inaccessible to screen-reader users and people who are physically unable to use a mouse.

“But they responded positively to our feedback, and met with us weekly to improve their product.”

Rangin’s team trained several key designers and developers at Zoom on accessibility, and even provided an on-site training session at Zoom headquarters.

Today, the accessibility lead at Zoom is Alex Mooc, a 2018 UW graduate with a degree in Human Centered Design & Engineering. While a student, Mooc worked on Rangin’s team and participated extensively in the Zoom collaboration, said Terrill Thompson, an IT accessibility manager in ATS.

“We continue to work actively with Zoom, focusing now on issues related to captioning and live sign language interpretation,” he said. “We’re also helping the company with other accessibility issues that have surfaced during their time of recent unprecedented growth,” Thompson said.

“Given the critical role that Zoom is playing in remote teaching and learning at UW — and because the entire world has to also be online — our work in ATS to help improve Zoom’s accessibility enables people with disabilities worldwide to continue to participate, whether that be in education, their work, or interactions and activities in society,” Thompson said.

Zoom is not ATS’s sole concern. There are still many accessibility issues that need to be addressed to make online learning accessible to all students with disabilities, Thompson said. This includes making sure that all video presentations are captioned, that online tools can be operated with the keyboard alone for those who cannot operate a mouse, and that documents and web pages are formatted so that they can be understood by screen reader technology that reads aloud text-based content to individuals who are blind.

UW-IT’s accessibility experts consulted for COVID-19 resources

Accessibility experts in UW-IT have been busy in other areas, including in two projects precipitated by the pandemic:

In March, UW Medicine reached out to ATS to ensure its digital communications about COVID-19 were fully accessible. ATS staff provided feedback and in-depth training to UW Medicine web designers and developers on web accessibility, and remediated several PDF documents for accessibility as part of its free PDF accessibility remediation service. ATS staff also helped caption key UW Medicine videos as part of its free Video Captioning service.

The City of Seattle also reached out before launching the “Find Nearby Restaurant” web app, which enabled Seattle residents to find local businesses that were still providing delivery or takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city worked with Rangin and his team to ensure that the accessible version of the Find Nearby Restaurant app is accessible to screen reader users.

The Accessibility team is now challenging the entire University system to help make websites, online courses, digital documents and videos more accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The IT Accessibility Challenge 2020, which runs from May through October, centers around 20 simple tasks that faculty and staff can take on. Visit the ATS website to learn more about making online courses accessible to everyone.

“In times of crisis, it helps to see the effects of our collective work,” Rangin said. “I am so proud of the UW and the work we have done in ATS. We made the transition so much easier for many people in our community. Let’s continue to build on that work.”