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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?

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If it possible to add a secondary style for mobile and one for print, can a style be applied for screen readers?

On some sites, there is the 'printable version' that filters out unnecessary content such as large images, menus and decorative features. Sometimes the print version parses content in a printer friendly version, which we all know differs from web friendly.

And some sites autodirect to a mobile version if they detect your access is coming from a handheld. I have no idea how this works but it does happen on my old Motorola web enabled cellphone.

Is it possible to consider those two situations and define something similar for screen readers? In other words, screen reader companies or accessibility advocates could develop some templates which could be added to a website to parse content in a suitable fashion for screen readers (like print version) and include a trigger that signals the site to deliver the screen reader version (like the m site trigger).
There are CSS media types for 'braille' and 'aural.' but the problem is that those are not universally supported, even among screen readers. And user agent detection of screen readers is even less effective than trying to do it for mobile devices.
Idea: Members of the web industry or organisations with a major web presence donate to develop or enhance a screen reader. Surely that would save us all a lot of effort (money) compared to having thousands (millions?) of web developers attempting to make content accessible.
The majority of screen readers are designed to not only make websites accessible, but the entire operating system, and therefore would be beyond the scope of just the web industry. However, many open source screen readers exist, as do many commercial screen readers:

A few years ago, the University of Washington did put out a web-based screen reader. It's still available to use at: It is also an open source project with code available at:
I can see your point, Michael. I tend to ride the fence a little bit on accessibility too. I agree that it's extremely important, and I also agree with Seth in that if you follow web standards and basic best practices you can do 80% of it right. With a llittle more awareness of that extra 20% and you could probably do even better.

What I do see happening here is that it's possible to get so focused on accessibility that it detracts from everything else. I think it's important to keep it in perspective. And that can be very hard to explain to people.

I haven't done any live accessibility testing myself (we're planning some tests on our new design after Christmas), but I think this would be the best way to find out which problems you really need to focus on.

Does anyone know more about what the problems were with Penn State's websites? Angel and the in-classroom stuff are obvious problems (we have Angel here as well). I'd be curious to know what was wrong with their Library website and the others cited.
I'm going to sound crass with my response. But the Internet is a visual experience. Taking an online course is a visual experience, not auditory. If they wish to take a course, they should take the in classroom version which is AUDITORY.

Should we eliminate the benefits of new technology so that the few aren't left behind? This is the reason why the United States is falling so quickly behind in education.

Will the NFB donate money to PSU to help? Or will they just keep feeding the coffers of Brown, Goldstein & Levy?? Hmmm I bet I know which road they'll take.

Yes, WHEN possible, a website should be made user friendly. However, certain web applications will not be friendly to blind people.

The NFB's own website is a perfect example of what you can do on the Internet for blind people. You can present information, but cannot be interactive. Therefore, should all Web Interactivity stop??
Seperation of content and presentation is good practice anyway. It pays dividends when the information needs to be repurposed for other formats such as mobile devices and new applications such as augmentmented reality. This gets us 80% of the way there for accessibility.
Making interactivity accessible is a challenge but I have had the priveledge of working with people who are good at this. Having the knowledge of accessible interactivity in advance of implementation can deliver good quality results without pushing the cost up significantly.
A current example is an interactive academic calendar using AJAX and jQuery which can be operated with standard browsers, has a good user experience on devices, and is accessible. I am fortunate to have some knowledgeable developers building this.
I had hoped to reply to this earlier last week, but I was attending a five-day class. As I read through the responses, I noticed the pattern of people replying about several issues:

1. limited resources
2. small number of people affected
3. citing Section 508 compliance
4. understanding of what it will take to make a website accessible

As web creatives, we are constantly asked/encouraged to stay on top of current methods. In the past 10 years, we've made the transition to web standards, live video streaming, podcasts, RIA and now for many, accessibility.

The most successful changes were made when the methods are incorporated into the projects from the beginning. Much like planning the information architecture of a website, making accessibility a part of the project at the start is key. It doesn't happen overnight, any more so than the transition from table-based code to web standards did.

Maybe that means the next college/university department site you'll be working on will be planned with accessibility in mind. Or perhaps it means time will be spent to make critical PDFs on the website accessible or that interactive calendar that only sighted visitors can use. Or you'll spend some time on the WebAIM website or mailing list learning about how to incorporate accessibility into your work.

Whatever steps are taken, it's a lot easier to manage the change on your timeline, and not one due to a complaint or lawsuit.

There's a great post by Tom Stewart this week, Five accessibility myths demolished, that does an excellent job of debunking accessibility misunderstandings.

On a personal note, last week I finished the online "Building Accessible Web Forms" class with Dr. Jon Gunderson from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Jon is past chairman of the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) for the W3C and well-respected for his accessibility knowledge and expertise.

I asked Jon how he would respond to the issues raised by many people on this thread regarding lack of resources, time, cost, etc. His response was something he heard from one of his developers who had started incorporating accessibility into his work:

"I create accessible code since it's the right thing to do, but I like creating accessible code because it's made me a better designer."
From what I have heard, the complaint against Penn State was a last resort and the accessibility concerns in State College are systemic in nature. Things will change; there are some folks passionate about accessibility on their campus. And they have the resources.

On our campus, we are taking a business process approach. We formalized a website accessibility policy in 2009 with the intent of raising general awareness and getting departments/colleges to build accessibility into their normal business process. Someone used the analogy of ramps and handrails in the built environment, which I think is apt. Once you make accessibility part of your process, the undue burden complaints will evaporate.

How far do you take it? Strict compliance suggests a lot of work (synchronized captioning, transcripts, supplementary audio information). But if you want to act within the spirit of accessibility, do what is right. Talk to people on your campus who use screen readers and ask questions. Have them test your websites, videos, products, etc. The answers are entirely contextual.



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