Despite reputation, University of Illinois struggles with web accessibility

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Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess

Tim Offenstein, lead information design specialist and campus accessibility liaison at the University of Illinois, shows a page he is checking for accessibility in his office at the Digital Computing Lab in Urbana on May 16, 2017.

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If Tim Offenstein had to grade the University of Illinois in terms of web accessibility, he said he would give a B or C+.

Offenstein, an adjunct faculty member and administrator within Technology Services who focuses on web accessibility, said he did not base this rating on websites, necessarily, but more on the administration’s “slow pace” to adopt an accessibility policy and make accessibility “a driving force or pillar in what we try to do.”

“It’s somewhat ironic because the University has long enjoyed a high reputation for physical access,” Offenstein said.

Offenstein credited former University of Illinois professor Tim Nugent, known as the father of accessibility for starting the first comprehensive program in higher education for students with disabilities.

“He set U of I on the map,” Offenstein said. “Because of him, we enjoy a high reputation in terms of physical access, but we have fallen behind in terms of technical or IT [information technology] access.”

Web accessibility is making sure that people with disabilities have access to the same information and have the same web experience as those without disabilities.

Pat Malik is director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, which helps support students with disabilities. Malik said that the university still has a way to go as far as understanding web accessibility and incorporating it from the start.

“We are right now with IT accessibility where physical access was in the 1960s,” she said. “In the 1960s, we weren’t thinking about making something physically accessible and what that might look like. That really kind of is where people’s thoughts are in not knowing enough [about IT accessibility].”

Malik said while society would not think about designing and constructing a building that’s inaccessible today, people that build websites or educational software don’t often take the same approach in making their product accessible from the design up.

Information technology accessibility specialists from within the Big Ten Academic Alliance convened at the University of Illinois for a two-day conference in late March. Panelist Hadi Rangin, an information technology accessibility specialist at the University of Washington, echoed Malik’s sentiment.

“These companies do not make their products purposely inaccessible. They do not know any other way,” he said. “The young people that graduate from school and go to these companies and produce that product are extremely smart people, but they do not know accessibility.”

Rangin sees it as part of his responsibility to educate developers within these companies about accessibility. He said he establishes two goals when teaching about web accessibility.

“One is the short term: We try to gain their trust and then make sure that they understand accessibility,” he said. “Once they learn accessibility can be part of the development process, then we help them to integrate accessibility as part of their culture.”

Christy Blew, an IT accessibility specialist at DRES, said that web, IT and electronic accessibility has changed as the internet has advanced.

In the early days of the internet, web developers began experimenting with different colors, pictures and animations on web pages. With dial-up Internet, Blew said, your browser may not have been able to handle all of those features. Many developers would provide a supplement by linking to the text-only version of the page.

“Yes, you got the content that was on the page, but you missed out on all this rich, fun, colorful [stuff],” she said. “Yes, you got the same information, but did you get the same experience?”

This comparison can be adapted for the physical world. Blew described a building with a beautiful front lobby (an opera house or Lincoln Hall, for example). She said the wheelchair accessible entrance is just a door in the back that leads into a plain area. While the building meets all minimum standards and is ADA-compliant, Blew wouldn’t describe it as fully accessible.

“Those individuals are not having that same experience of being able to come into this great, ornate lobby,” Blew said. “What we’re trying to work with people to understand is, it’s not just giving you the same information. It’s allowing a person to have that same experience.”

With the web being such a visually based medium, Blew said that people often assume web/electronic accessibility only assists those with visual or hearing impairments.

“But it really isn’t, it’s for a lot more than that,” she said.

There are myriad components of web accessibility, and different disabilities require different measures of accessibility. For example, people who are hard of hearing or deaf need captioning and/or transcripts to access audio visual content; someone who has visual impairments may be able to hear the video just fine but might have difficulty seeing it, depending on the site’s contrast or color scheme; and people with physical disabilities may have trouble navigating the site, like clicking the mouse to advance webpages or typing in a search bar.

This mountain of standards, from the major to the minute, can be overwhelming — but Jon Gunderson, coordinator of assistive communication and information technology accessibility at the University of Illinois, said that’s not an excuse.

“Everybody should be designing accessible stuff no matter who you are, where you are,” he said at a public workshop on web accessibility and evaluation tools.

Such a workshop may not have been possible when Blew first started at the University in 2005. At the time she tried teaching a class in how to make accessible Microsoft Word documents, but found that attendance would slip if she put “accessibility” in the title.

“That was our joke: ‘How do you teach accessibility without calling it accessibility?’” she said.

Blew says the attitude toward accessibility on campus has come a long way: Now she is contacted by people from across campus looking to make their materials more accessible.

“We’re seeing some excitement. There’s a lot more conversations about it,” she said. “The dynamic is changing. A perfect world would be we are out of a job. I don’t think we’re ever gonna see that.”