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University Web Developers

Compliant filed against Penn State regarding web accessibility

I wanted to share this, since accessibility is the big topic lately. Read the article (with link to complaint) over at the NFB site.

But, I also ride the rail on this stuff. I am always bothered by the way groups go about this, for example:
"The number and scope of the accessibility problems at Penn State demonstrate the institution’s blatant—and unlawful—lack of regard for the equal education of its blind students and failure to accommodate its
blind faculty members and employees."

No, that's not what it demonstrates. It demonstrates how effing hard it is to make stuff "universally" accessible. They say it like Penn State is out to cut blind people off at the knees, no pun intended. No doubt some issues could be solved with a little consideration, but at the same time these groups need to understand how much effort it takes, and how we are equipped to deal with that.

"Penn State utilizes the ANGEL course management system.  ANGEL is an integral part of the learning and teaching experience at Penn State that allows students and professors to interact with each other online and
perform various course-related functions. This course management
software is almost completely inaccessible to blind users."

I find that interesting, since we use ANGEL, and I know it has a "508 mode." But, that's beside the point. I really think there's an important accessibility question the government needs to answer, and that's how far are we supposed to disadvantage everyone else for the sake of the special needs? Example: we stream commencement, as do many of you. But we will not be live captioning it. We're simply in no way equipped to do that. But why should we be expected to deny access to the service to everyone if we can't also offer it to an extremely small portion of our audience?

I'm not making excuses, as many will tell you I'm a HUGE #a11y proponent. Penn State likely took some shortcuts that they'll need to answer for. At the same time, I wish the other side had a bit more understanding. What do you think? Have you talked with your state officials at all about these kinds of issues? We are actively documenting our issues and what is being done to solve them (or in most cases, why we're not). Is "we don't have the resources to solve problems X, Y, and Z" a valid excuse? Should we all be shutting down our ANGELs and Blackboards? I think the obvious answer is no, but it would seem to be leaving us open for lawsuit, does it not?

Tags: a11y, accessibility, blind, lawsuit

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Great Points!

It really gets on my nerves when someone brings out the old, does it meet the 508 compliance thingy. For instance, when i made the Campus Directory Application on the website I tried to follow all the 508 guidelines and it passes the tests and everything. But when I asked a Blind Staff member if she could use the thing, she said it was completely unusable for her.

My response to the question from this point on has always been: while compliance is great and all, we need to make sure things are usable not just compliant.

But yeah in the end, there is only so much we can do and I too don't feel like not providing functionality because I do not have the time or resources needed to make it completely usable to everyone.
What about building better screen reading software that can translate dynamic content more effectively?

We don't redesign and rebuild roadways when fuel efficiency decreases; we build more efficient cars.
That is certainly one major issue. Screen readers can frequently make things we deal with in browsers like IE6 seem trivial. And what's worse is that different screen readers can parse pages very differently. I think we'll see some improvements with the move to HTML5, but only once screen readers take advantage of it, which is likely some way off still.

There's some good info on the subject here:
"No doubt some issues could be solved with a little consideration, but at the same time these groups need to understand how much effort it takes, and how we are equipped to deal with that."

It takes some effort (and a huge amount of cost) for an architect and contractor to place a ramp next to an exterior door, or an elevator to the second floor, but you don't see that removed from building plans. The complaint that something is hard to do shouldn't preclude it from being done -- we're talking about users who physically can't use an application that, by law, they have every right to use. To me, that's inexcusable.

"I find that interesting, since we use ANGEL, and I know it has a '508 mode.'"

508 isn't enough. Hell, you can have empty alt tags in 508 and still pass. That's not going to help a blind student using a screen reader.

"But why should we be expected to deny access to the service to everyone if we can't also offer it to an extremely small portion of our audience?"

There are some cases where audience size isn't the correct measurement requirement for justification, and this is one. Sure, you can put up a video w/o captions (we do), but each time you're riding the line. The argument of resources vs. audience size is short-lived and really carries no weight in the end.

We're on the verge of redefining the baseline for web development, especially at federal-funded institutions. Institutions are going to need to setup checks and balances for this when working with vendors and doing in-house development. But this isn't new. We have facilities and management offices that must approve building designs based on accessibility rules. This same type of practice is needed in the online world as well.
I agree with you in principle. But there is an enormous issue of practicality, is there not? Of course being hard doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, and that's not an argument I'd make. But, for example, in the case of ANGEL, it has a 508 mode. This is a mode design to (for the most part) conform to 508 guidelines, the measurement by which we are compared. So, let's say for the sake of argument, that isn't good enough, right?

What's the answer? There is no vendor product that is MORE accessible than ANGEL to any degree that one could say "Mission Accomplished." They are all going to have issues (in some cases, quite major ones). In fact, from a programmatic standpoint, you can only address so many things in the first place, since there is a lot in accessibility that is qualitative.

Great, so no vendor products can answer the issue. So we just make our own, right? There's your issue of practicality. If universities COULD do it better, we likely WOULD. But in most cases, university IT staff and programmers are already second shelf quality, and if big dog vendors can't hire folks capable of producing an accessible product, how can we?

I always agree we SHOULD address accessibility. In a lot of cases, with some effort, we certainly CAN. But at the same time, there are a number of issues involved in basic practicality that impede that very effort. I CAN make 100% accessible templates. I CAN train people to make accessible content, but the reality is that I'm forced to have people working on the site that simply don't care or can't do it, and it is impractical to say "well, if they can't make it accessible, they shouldn't have access."

There has to be a balance for progress to be made.
I believe there is a misconception that accessibility requires a rebuild, or any overly large amount of work. In reality, the large majority of web accessibility is just simply following open standards, and implementing best practices. Sure, it takes some effort. But accessible web design is good, usable web design.

WCAG 2.0 is the highest standard. You can find and easy-to-digest checklist here: Looking at this, I'd estimate good universities and colleges already cover 80% through basic use and implementation of web standards. Sure, the remaining 20% are going to take some work, and we're going to need machine-test for these (something that's currently missing, though tools are getting better []).

For developers who don't care, or don't understand: have them watch a person with disabilities get frustrated using your site. It's a humbling experience.
In a similar way, building a wheelchair ramp may change the aesthetics of the building or more importantly use up some money that other people would rather spend on other enhancements.
However the council or local goverment won't approve the building, which will be expensive and embarassing. Thus a builder would refuse to build a building that doesn't meet standards.
However since the web industry is not regulated, and web professionals are competing for work with people from other countries which have no accessibility requirements, it is possible for a client to shop around until they find someone who'll do what they want.
When I ran my own web business I would not get involved in inaccessible websites, as the liability aspect wasn't worth it. Low chance of getting in trouble but a huge penalty if caught.
I have no idea what the solution is. On our campus, we have one person who is a webmaster/programmer and one person who is a web designer. They can barely manage day-to-day functionality of making sure departments have access to their pages, helping people get things updated, averting network outages, created databases, doing system upgrades, and making things as accessible as possible. No matter how hard people try, it seems like hands are being slapped for things not being perfect. I hate that everything comes down to money, but it does. For us, if we had more money to hire additional staff, I believe we would be able to make things increasingly accessible for various minority groups. Fortunately our campus has an incredible accessibility office to help out individual folks. Seeing this complaint makes me uneasy because I know we have many of the same issues.
I should add in, I know I'm taking a somewhat unpopular stance, but I want to be clear that I'm not saying we shouldn't address accessibility. Those that know me know how much I care about this. My position is that there is a major disparity between how we are expected to handle web accessibility, and how we reasonably can.
I think your last sentence sums the issue up perfectly.
ditto. Many of us try our best. From simple of 'alt' attributes to adding text transcript for any videos we post. I think the WCAG and Section 508 say to provide options, so if it can't be done on the web, they still need a way to access the information. Whether they can request a transcript, use certain software, etc. .. options is the key.
From the the official compaint (DOC file):

"The development of information technology can afford blind students mainstream access to all (or nearly all) the information that is available to sighted students. After all, digital information is not inherently visual, audible or tactile, but zeros and ones that may be rendered in a variety of formats accessible through any of those senses."

We can't wave a magic wand and convert between formats (your live video example was right on target), and the "development of information technology" they're talking about is beyond anything that a university web team is going to be able to muster. Are we talking about artificial intelligence to describe videos and transcribe perfect audio? Or an army of workers manually captioning every iota of data that is published?

Faced with the option of prohibitively expensive production and transcription, or simply not publishing multimedia content, a lot of universities would be forced to go with the latter.



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