From our Guest Editor
Cyndi Rowland, Ph.D.
Executive Director, WebAIM
Technology Director, National Center on Disability and Access to Education Center for Persons with Disabilities
Utah State University
When I began my focus on Web accessibility in 1997, it was in the context of higher education. My experiences in this field led me to issues that are now the contents of this ATHEN e-journal issue, Higher Education and Web Accessibility: Providing training and support for the future. Three key articles and an expansive collection of case studies contain information helpful to institutional Web accessibility in at least two ways: First, they provide guidance & suggestions for those starting an institutional effort toward Web accessibility. Second, they provide validation or expand local discussion for those institutions that are already on the path of institutional accessibility. Before I introduce the featured articles and the case studies, I would like to begin by sharing my personal story with respect to Web accessibility; I suspect it is not unique in our field. Of course, this personal journey led me to a keen understanding of the challenges that are highlighted across this issue of the ATHEN E-Journal.
Here is my tale: I worked in personnel development at Utah State University in a large research center (the Center for Persons with Disabilities). The issue of Web accessibility was about to blow onto my radar through what I will always think of as a life altering experience. Because of my interests in technology, I participated in the development of our Center's first Website in 1996. Believe it or not, it was still unique for a department or center to have a Web presence in the mid-90's. Because of this, a decision was made to present the new Website at a professional meeting. During the poster presentation, Michael (an individual who is blind), came to see what our Center was sharing. He listened carefully to what I had to say. When I was done, he had one question; "Cyndi, can I get to your website with my screen reader and review it's content too?" Completely ignorant of the issues at hand I fumbled with an inadequate response. When I returned home I looked into the issues of disability access. (Some quick lessons came from the wisdom of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative Website- new to me at that time.) To my horror I realized that individuals with disabilities could not get to our Center's website or review it's content. Actually, they would have been unable to access most of the Web content at our university. I reflected on the fact that this was the Web presence for a "University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disability" (UCEDD). If anyone on our campus should have known better in 1997, it should have been our group. Moreover, I had spent my entire professional career in disability and had always displayed a keen interest in technology (first augmentative communication, then assistive technology, finally distance and electronically-mediated education technologies). Yet the concept of Web accessibility was foreign to me. I soon realized that if I were unaware of the problems and solutions of Web accessibility, why would others outside of the disability field be aware? I understood assistive technology. I understood an array of educational technologies. Why was it that I was so completely unaware of the divide that was widening between the power of the Internet in education and the needs of individuals with disabilities? This dissonance set wheels in motion that changed my professional focus.
Thanks to FIPSE funding in 1999, project WebAIM was created to explore the problem and solutions of Web accessibility in higher education. Over the course of 4 years, many disciplines became aware of the problem and we saw positive changes in attitude toward disability and Internet access. Our work was strengthened as it coincided with the national focus on Web accessibility through the implementation of the Section 508 standards. As a group, WebAIM created high-quality training materials and even tested a model of system-change for higher education. We partnered with industry and included individuals with disabilities in our core staff, making sure we had our own feet to the fire and that all project elements were fully accessible. By the time the initial FIPSE funding was at an end, there was increasing awareness of Web accessibility in higher education as some students lodged complaints and some systems (e.g., the California Community Colleges) embarked on a path of wide-scale system reform.
However the WebAIM longitudinal data, collected by our external evaluator, was remarkably unchanged from any of the 5 earlier years of collection (data for the grant application plus 4 years of project data). Although it seemed that more people knew about the problems and were talking about solutions, the awareness had not translated to greater access in meaningful ways. There was a growing awareness that those who implement Web accessibility needed to understand the complexity of institutional system change, and that the system change effort itself needed greater scrutiny. One of the most striking challenges WebAIM staff viewed time and time again was the lack of a system for personnel development on the very campuses that espoused system reform. Although it is intuitive that institutional success of Web accessibility would be tied to staff skill, many campuses did little to provide the training and technical assistance needed. While Web accessibility was codified as institutional policy, it was assumed that staff would retool on their own. When workshops were delivered to technical personnel, there was little if any follow up; this is referred by trainers as the "spray and pray" approach because you spray the audience with your content and then cross your fingers, praying that they can translate information into useful practice.
Fast forward to the present. Many institutions of higher education across the nation have taken the bold step to implement policies that support the accessibility of Web content for all individuals, regardless of their disability status. Others are viewing peer institutions to see effective practices before they begin. There is awareness that Web accessibility is not limited to students, rather it is for everyone touched by the institution (i.e., students, faculties, staffs, and the community). Systems for personnel development are being taken more seriously. Some campuses even talk about a process for "certifying" their technical personnel on Web accessibility and others talk about including it as a criterion in hiring decisions. Also, campuses are now discussing the larger circle of individuals who need accessibility training. Technical personnel (i.e., those who develop the main campus Web presence) clearly need an array of accessibility skills in proper markup, rich media, and multimedia. However now, most faculty members need to know how to create documents in accessible ways (e.g., accessible PowerPoint or Word files that need to be uploaded into a course management system).
This ATHEN issue highlights professional development (i.e., training and technical assistance) as one element of an institutional effort toward accessibility. Our first article by Cynthia Waddell provides a summary of the legal landscape around Web accessibility in higher education. It sets the context by reminding us that if accessibility is a legal requirement, surely we must take systems of personnel development seriously. The second article by Paul Bohman describes the complexities of system reform in higher education. Systems of personnel development must nest within these realities. Sheryl Burgstahler writes our third article. In it she describes 3 research studies that provide information helpful in determining the content and methods to train some personnel. The final article is actually a set of 9 mini-articles. I wrote a brief introduction to what follows; eight individuals responded to a request to submit case studies on Web accessibility and issues of personnel development. These case studies will provide others with valuable detail and enable the reader to identify institutions to watch, or to contact.
Enjoy the issue, and resolve to help your institution keep accessibility in mind.