FSU reports significant web accessibility improvements over past three years

Thomas Maye / THE GATEPOST

FSU has achieved a nearly 40% improvement in website accessibility for users with disabilities over a three-year period, said Sara Mulkeen, manager of digital communications and interactive media.

The changes were made in response to a 2017 complaint by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights regarding issues with the site’s compliance to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she said.

Mulkeen called the changes “a massive undertaking” which required communication across several departments, multiple educational workshops, and the hiring of a contractor who specializes in web accessibility issues. 

The ADA grants people with disabilities – mental or physical – legal protections against discrimination “in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public,” according to the ADA National Network. 

In addition, these places must provide “reasonable accommodations” to allow people with disabilities to engage in the same opportunities.

Whether accommodations apply to websites, though, has been the subject of continued legal debate. Both Beyoncé’s entertainment management company and Netflix have been sued for ADA compliance issues, and last year, a case against Domino’s Pizza nearly reached the Supreme Court, according to the Vancouver Business Journal. 

However, in addition to the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973) requires information and communication technology from all publicly funded institutions – such as FSU – to be accessible for people with disabilities.

Plaintiffs, activists, and concerned citizens argue websites that are not designed for people with disabilities in mind discriminate against people who use assistive technology, preventing them from accessing the same information. 

Vikky Angelico, disability and access services coordinator, said roughly 10% of the FSU population has some form of disability, although exact numbers are “hard to quantify” – many people may choose not to report their disability to CASA, or may not be diagnosed, she said.

Disability statistics vary widely – The World Bank, by comparison, estimates 20% of people in the world have disabilities. 

The Office for Civil Rights alerted the University of an anonymous student complaint about accessibility issues on several major pages on the framingham.edu website Nov. 21, 2017. 

In response, the University voluntarily entered into a Resolution Agreement with the office promising to make continued efforts to ensure the website was fully accessible by Jan. 6, 2020. 

Kim Dexter, director of equal opportunity, Title IX, and ADA compliance, stressed the Resolution was made as a sign of the University’s commitment to diversity, as outlined in its Equal Opportunity Plan.

“FSU may not have been an outlier in having inaccessible web content, but that demonstrates just how pervasive accessibility issues are,” she said. “That creates very real barriers for persons with disabilities to have equal access to information.  

“Our work will be ongoing in educating the community on creating accessible content and maintaining overall web accessibility, but our efforts over the past few years have given us a solid foundation to continue that work,” she added.

When first beginning the improvements, only 62% of the website was accessible for people with disabilities, as calculated by the Siteimprove software Mulkeen said. As of January 6, 2020, Siteimprove quantifies the website as 99.6% accessible. 

“The work will never be ‘complete’ because content is added and updated on our website every day,” she said. “On an average day, I would estimate that 10-plus documents are added to the website, and … users are always updating their actual webpage content.”

That said, “We are definitely in a much better position,” she added.

When beginning work on improving the website’s score, FSU web developer Lam Dinh said he had to correct over 2,000 PDF documents as part of the site improvements – on top of his work testing web pages and templates for compliance. 

“[For] several months in 2018-2019, all of my time was dedicated to accessibility,” he said. 

Mulkeen said the work Dinh took on saved the University a significant amount of money, when compared to hiring a third party to do the bulk of the job. “If the company we got the quote from was doing it, it would’ve been about $185 an hour,” she said. “He built it into his regular work schedule, so we’re very thankful for that.”

Most of these changes would not be noticeable to the general student population, Mulkeen said. “It’s more on the back end, retrofitting our design to make sure that it’s usable for anyone who uses assistive technology.” 

FSU hired an ADA specialist, Manwai Leung, in a contract position on Nov. 7, 2019 which will end June 30, 2020 – as a result, Dinh said now only “10 – 15% of my time is dedicated to accessibility.”

Leung said she became passionate about internet accessibility while looking for a meaningful job after 10 years working on bankruptcy cases as a paralegal. “I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel like I was helping anyone,” she said. “[With] this job, I feel like I’m helping people. I’m bringing awareness.”

She added, “Most [people] design for the 80% without disabilities … the 20% of people with disabilities are completely left out. This work helps fill in the gaps.”

The irony in cutting the 20% of people with disabilities out in favor of their primary customers, Leung said, is that businesses end up missing out on a sizable source of potential profit. “We’re talking billions [of dollars],” she said.

Leung said one of the major barriers for people with disabilities is the high cost of assistive technology, adding that many people with disabilities have intense financial pressures as it is. 

“Students with disabilities pay the same tuition, but many may not have the same ability to access information,” she said. “Every time I do testing with new users, they’re using really old technology,” which is generally less expensive, but often outdated. 

Leung added there are nonprofits that can help with the expense, such as MassMatch, which sells used assistive technology for a discounted price. However, Leung said, “I don’t think the cost will go down at all” for new technology. 

She said assistive tools can struggle to keep pace with the rapid advancement of technology, creating further challenges. “Assistive technology is advanced, but not enough to keep up.” The technology cannot make sense of white space, information in a table, or other visual cues on a page, so designing documents in a way the programs can understand is essential, she said.

Leung conducted a presentation on campus Jan. 9, 2020 to discuss ways to design documents and presentations with assistive technology needs in mind. 

According to the final report sent to the Office for Civil Rights, the FSU Educational Technology Office held 11 workshops on accessibility. The document states 29 content editors of the FSU website who did not attend educational workshops had their access revoked until they participated in the required accessibility training. 

Major issues in Blackboard listed in the report include documents posted without headings, images without alternative descriptions, and tables without headings – all of which were significantly reduced by Dec. 2019. 

Despite the adjustments accessible design requires – also known as universal design – Mulkeen said the changes end up benefiting more than just people with disabilities. “I think there’s a misconception that it’s a lot of extra work, but if you’re familiar with the concept of universal design, it’s just creating things so that everyone can use them.”

She added that disabilities affect wider populations than most people realize – for instance, she said the aging baby boomer population often has difficulty reading small text, which designers should take into account.

Millie Gonzalez, emerging technologies and digital services librarian, shared Mulkeen’s thoughts about accessible design. “If one person benefits, we all benefit from it,” she said.

Six years ago, Gonzalez secured a $12,000 grant from the Massachusetts Library Board of Library Commissioners to expand accessible technology services formerly only available at CASA – which has limited hours of operation – to the library. 

Assistive hardware includes a computer with an expanded 24-inch monitor, a TOPAZ video magnifier, hand-held magnifying devices, and a scanner to upload documents digitally. The computer, video magnifier, and scanner can all be found past the reference desk and printers on the first floor, while the handheld devices are available at the reference desk.

The library computer also has JAWS software, which dictates text-to-speech, as well as Zoomtext magnifying software and Winwizard, a program that helps people with learning disabilities and those who have challenges reading and writing. 

Along with acquiring the grant, Gonzalez serves on the Library Diversity Advisory Committee, a group she founded six years ago, which meets to discuss how to best serve neurodiverse populations and represent their needs. 

“It’s sort of a deep dive into the literature, learning the best practices and hopefully incorporating them into the library,” she said. 

Gonzalez said she hopes to pursue the grant again to receive funding to make any required upgrades and expand the technology to meet any growing demand. 

Though most students said they did not know people who used assistive technology, those who do said it made a significant difference in their lives.

Junior Corrin Deleon works as a personal care assistant for a student who communicates using an eye-tracking keyboard. She said assistive technology helps people with disabilities “form friendships with others and be more social,” as without it, they may have no other way to share their thoughts. 

Likewise, junior Julia Cohen said at her job working with special needs children, who are often nonverbal, she sees the importance of accessible technology “every day” in giving them opportunities to grow and learn. 

“It gives them the freedom to express how they’re feeling – essentially, it is their voice,” she said.  

Most students agreed the University provides useful resources to help those with disabilities, but some students – such as junior Jimiah Saunders, who is legally blind in one eye – believe services could be better advertised. 

Several said better representation in the media could  improve the cultural perception surrounding disabilities. “They could ask people with disabilities how to be more inclusive and how they want to be depicted,” junior Britney Sherman said.

Senior Andrea Santoro added there should be a “more honest dialogue” to reduce stigmas. “We’ve gone a long way, but there’s always more that can be done,” she said.

Junior David Kaine said people should not buy into the prejudices and misconceptions faced by people with disabilities. 

“They’re some of the best people I know,” Kaine said.

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