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Case Studies in Training and Professional Development for Web Accessibility - Cyndi Rowland, Ph.D.

ATHEN E-Journal Issue #2 (2007)

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


Institutions of higher education who take Web accessibility seriously must create systems of training and professional development for their staffs and faculties. Case studies were gathered from 8 authors who are tasked to assist their institutions with Web accessibility. These case studies should assist higher education in understanding a range of personnel development practices currently used in accessibility efforts. Each author describes the context of Web accessibility on their campus; this context sets the need for personnel development and the resources that are allocated to those efforts. The authors describe how their campus supports needed accessibility skills for personnel as well as the breadth and depth of those supports. They also present perceived outcomes from these efforts and lessons learned. Finally, each author shares what they believe is critical for anyone who is just starting to create a system of training and support for personnel who must learn Web accessibility.


It is common for institutions of higher education to struggle on the path of system-level Web accessibility (Bohman, 2004). This is even though Web accessibility guidelines have been in place for some time (i.e., U.S. Access Board, 2001, Chisolm, Vanderheiden, & Jacobs, 1999) and many states have Section 508-like laws (ITTATC, n.d.). The process of system-change is difficult and there have been few models to follow (i.e., Rowland, 2004). Some institutions are deciding if they should create institutional policy for their campus (Anderson, 2005). Others struggle to select the technical standard they will use (Corcoran, 2006a; 2006b). Still others worry about funding streams robust enough to become institutionalized over time (Kubarek, Mitrano, Rowland, & Trerise, 2006).

No matter where a postsecondary institution falls along the continuum of system-change, one thing is clear. If Web accessibility is an institutional goal, they will have to put a system of training and professional development in place for personnel who will have responsibility to create accessible Web content. These individuals will cross a wide range of employees. They will include professional Web developers, faculties, and staff members. It is obvious that a workforce with the necessary skills to implement accessibility is an a priori condition to the sustainability of institutional accessibility. However institutionalized training and professional development has received little documentation.

Over the years, many models for helping Web developers, faculty, and other staff have been discussed across forums, lists, and at conferences. The most popular of these include methods to (a) provide top resources for staff and assume they will learn on their own; (b) provide synchronous or asynchronous training opportunities with feedback; (c) require staff to participate in guided training with feedback; or (d) hire employees who demonstrate accessibility skills or have accessibility certification. Two other elements that appear in discussions in the field include mechanisms to provide incentives for personnel to engage in professional development and skill retooling, and use performance measures to document that personnel actually possess the skills required to develop accessibly.

It is an appropriate time for the field to hear directly from campuses about training and professional development as part of the broader context of institutional Web accessibility efforts. To that end, this author asked Web personnel from 10 institutions to respond briefly to a series of questions. The intent was to provide the reader with information on institutional Web accessibility, training and professional development methods used on different campuses, and the perceived outcomes of those efforts. Eight of the 10 institutions responded to the request; double the number anticipated by this author. These responses hereafter referred to as "case studies", provide an important window into present day implementation of campus Web accessibility. Campus reports illuminate a growing sphere of success. Each case study also identifies continuing needs.

It should be noted that this was not a scientific study; rather the case studies reflect responses to personal contacts made by the author. No inferences should be made that this convenience sample of institutions represents the broader population of institutions of higher education in the U.S. No inferences should be made that the case studies constitute an official institutional response to the questions. In fact, they are based on the rich experiences and knowledge of each individual author. Moreover, it should be noted that since Web accessibility efforts on campuses are a fluid phenomenon, inferences should not be made that the 8 institutions presented below retain these processes over time. What is presented below is a simple, nonscientific, snapshot of 8 institutions of higher education during the summer of 2006.

Nine basic questions comprised each case study. Institutions were asked to provide brief written responses to these questions in the manner that they preferred (i.e., inline on the questionnaire, or separately in a narrative form). All responses are displayed in the format provided to this author by each institution.

The Questions

The intent of the first 4 questions was to capture the context for Web accessibility on each campus. Information about the campus was solicited so the reader could understand Web accessibility training and professional development efforts in the context of the specific institution. Both the size of the campus and centrality of Web development practices provide information on predictable barriers that interact with training efforts. Finally, it was important for each campus to report if they reference a current Web accessibility policy, and describe the main components of that policy. Certainly one would expect a different level of training and support in those institutions that have codified Web accessibility.

Questions 1-4:

  1. Institution:
  2. Size:
    1. Student body
    2. Faculty & staff
    3. Main Web developers
  3. How would you rate your institutional context with respect to Web development?
    1. Highly centralized
    2. Moderately centralized
    3. Moderately decentralized
    4. Highly decentralized
  4. What is your institutional policy around accessible Web content (if any)? If you use guidelines instead of policy to assist in Web accessibility go ahead and note this.
    1. Please describe your policy or guideline. Specifically describe (or point to)
      1. the standard you use;
      2. if monitoring against the standard occurs;
      3. if consequences (good or bad) for accessible design are tied to policy;
      4. if procurement of accessible technologies is tied to policy.

The next 2 questions asked participants to provide descriptions of the ways in which professional development is offered on their campus and how they felt about it. Specifically they were asked to describe if training and technical assistance is differentiated by type of staff (e.g., Web developer, faculty member, or other), how these activities are funded, if incentives or consequences are used, and the degree to which there is follow-up. Those questions were as follows:

  1. How does your institution provide the training and support necessary for accessible design from your faculty and staff?
    1. Please describe your training and professional development activities (your model of training, technical assistance, & professional development so to speak).
    2. Are there differences in what is provided to Web professionals versus other faculty and staff? If so what?
    3. How are these training and or technical assistance activities staffed and funded?
    4. Are there any incentives for those that participate or any consequences for those who refuse?
    5. Is there any follow-up to the activities to assure skill implementation?
  2. What do you see as the successes and limitations of your model (or set of activities)?

The final 3 questions were an attempt to link activities or systems of professional development to perceived outcomes of the accessibility of the campus Web presence. Question 7 asked each to rate 3 areas of professional development in Web accessibility; the first was the scope of personnel who receive development activities, the second was the focus for those activities, and the third was the perceived outcome from the effort. The last 2 questions asked respondents to comment on their overall model and to provide others with advice and their lessons learned. The specific questions are provided below:

  1. How would you rate, from one (lowest) to ten (highest) your institutions' training and professional development in three areas (scope, focus, results)? There are three ratings below with anchors that will define places along the continuum from 1 to 10 to help you determine each rating.
Rating continuum (10= high; 1-low) Rating #1: Scope Training and development gets to . . . Rating #2: Focus Training and development focus is. . . Rating #3: Results Training and development results are that . . .
10 All the folks that need them Accessible design skills for all of the participants All of the campus Web content is accessible
7 Most of the folks that need them Accessible design skills for most of the participants Most of the campus Web content is accessible
5 About half of the folks that need them A mix of awareness of accessible design with a couple of skills needed for accessible design About half of the campus Web content is accessible
3 Some of the folks that need them Awareness of accessible design is the focus, however, participants may learn a new skill Some of the campus Web content is accessible
1 A few of the folks that need them Awareness of accessible design is the sole focus, A few elements of campus Web content is accessible

Rating of Scope: Comments: Rating of Focus: Comments: Rating of Results: Comments:

  1. If you could add to or take anything away from your model (or set of activities) what would it be and why?
  2. What advice do you have for anyone who is just starting to plan for Web accessibility training and professional development at their institution?


What follows is a summary of main themes across the 8 case studies. After this section, each of the case studies appears in its original form. It is important that readers have an opportunity to read each of these case studies, as they are rich in detail. To engage in a reductive process would risk the very reason they are valuable to others; that is their connection to the individual context of their institutional make up. The case studies are ordered alphabetically and presented in the manner in which they were submitted to the author.

Institutional Context

The 8 campuses in the case study series are medium to large publicly funded institutions; the range in the student body size was from 12,000 to over 80,000. It was clear from the size of the faculty, staff, and the Web developers that each campus has a complex system for getting training and technical assistance out to those who need it. Finally, all but one institution rated their campus as "highly decentralized" with respect to Web development. This means at a practical level that it is more of a challenge to get information, professional development, or monitoring out to those who need it. All institutions but one reported a policy that covers Web accessibility; the institution without a policy reported guidelines on the accessibility of Web content. (Links to policies and implementation plans are provided in most of the case studies.) For the 7 institutions with policy, 3 mentioned that they do monitor pages actively, or provide accessibility reports on request. Accessibility provisions in the procurement process were reported by only a couple of institutions.

Professional Development

The 8 institutions reported professional development activities that were remarkably similar to one another. Moreover, it was clear that these activities are by in large voluntary, rather than compulsory. Typical mechanisms for professional development included: (1) online resources and tutorials, (2) face-to-face or virtual courses and workshops, (3) consultations on request, and (4) evaluations, testing stations, or user testing on request. Very few institutions reported active follow up on skill acquisition after training.

Three unique professional development activities were reported that warrant attention. The first is the use of accessibility training along with a nonprofit group; Knowbility offers the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR). Knowbility hosts a learn-and-compete workshop on Web accessibility where teams of designers learn accessibility principles and techniques and then create an accessible Website for a local nonprofit; this is typically a two-day event. The AIR's ensure that those who received training use what they have been taught quickly. Moreover, members of the training team from Knowbilty are available to provide technical assistance to participants during the design phase. Once completed, design teams compete against one another for awards. Sites are judged along many dimensions, including accessibility. A second uncommon professional opportunity reported in these case studies was the presence of accessibility certification. Although not described fully, it is assumed that performance criteria are required to obtain this certificate, versus just attendance in workshops or courses. Finally, a couple of institutions reported that they now embed accessibility instruction during typical technology teaching; for example, they teach accessible HTML, instead of a class on HTML and then another class on how to create accessible HTML; they teach accessible PDF, rather than PDF and another class on developing PDF accessibly.

Three institutions reported that they provide professional training to different target groups; accessibility opportunities are created separately for the needs of faculty, staff, or professional Web developers. Institutions who mentioned how they fund accessibility training and professional development reported they come mainly from central sources. Two institutions indicated some external source for funding (e.g., grants or contracts), but did not indicate the duration of these funding sources. When responding to the question of incentives, few campuses reported using them although some mentioned that lunches were often included during training days. One campus reported a unique incentive. It was not necessarily an incentive to directly participate in training but rather an incentive to create accessible content; one should be a priori to the other. In that institution, Websites that are directly linked off institutional main pages must conform to accessibility standards. Moreover, the only sites that can be considered as an institutional "spotlight" site must meet the accessibility requirement of the institution. It is easy to see how, at a practical level, this would be an incentive to high levels of accessibility performance, an important element in training outcomes.

Institutions provided varied descriptions of their successes and limitations in professional development and training activities. Many respondents reported on the broader question of success and challenge in institutional accessibility rather than the narrower question of professional development. Institutions reported their training success to be the use of (a) hands-on activities, (b) embedding accessibility into existing training structures, and (c) widespread awareness and exposure for staff at different levels across campus. Institutions reported training challenges to be (a) the person-specific nature of training (e.g., staff turnover can be devastating to accessibility efforts); (b) the difficulty of reaching everyone in a decentralized system; and (c) the fact that current activities favor accessibility for technical staff and professional web developers rather than instructional personnel and faculty.

Perceived Outcomes and Advice

Each institution was asked to rate themselves from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) along dimensions of training scope, focus, and outcomes. When asked who is receiving accessibility training and professional development on campus (i.e., question of scope or training saturation), institutions were clustered around the middle of the scale. Responses ranged from "3" (i.e., training gets to "some of the folks that need them") to a "7" (i.e., training gets to "most of the folks that need them"). The median response was a "5" (i.e., training gets to "about half of the folks that need them"). When asked to rate the focus of the professional development (i.e., a focus on awareness and or skills) institutional responses were again centrally clustered. Responses ranged from "5" (i.e., our training activities focus on "a mix of awareness of accessible design with a couple of skills needed for accessible design") to a "9" (i.e., our training activities focus on "accessible design skills for most all of the participants"). The median response was a "7" (i.e., our training activities focus on "accessible design skills for most of the participants"). The final rating question was an attempt to link perceived outcomes in personnel development to perceived outcomes in campus Web accessibility. It is an important question since training outcomes should translate to the end goal of campus Web accessibility. If they do not, it begs the question of training efficacy. This was clearly a difficult question for respondents to rate as many indicated that they were not sure, or it was to hard to assess. With this said, the ratings ranged from "3" (i.e., our training has resulted in "some of the Web content is accessible"), to an "8" (i.e., our training has resulted in "most all of the Web content is accessible"). The median response was a "5" (i.e., our training has resulted in "about half of the campus Web content is accessible"). It is interesting to note that few campuses reported that they would add or take anything away from their current model, even in light of tepid outcomes. These ratings may show that the field has considerable room for improvement, or they may provide preliminary evidence that system change in a decentralized context is difficult and that models of professional development may be insufficient for the degree of change required at an institution. It is important to remember that 7 of the 8 institutional case studies have accessibility policies in place and all provide training and professional development activities across their campus community.

Respondents provided a wealth of ideas for those who are new to campus wide Web accessibility training and professional development efforts. Common themes included the need for an institution to:

  1. provide funding for an individual on campus to lead the effort over time;
  2. embed accessibility into existing technical training;
  3. collaborate with others on and off campus and look at models that are a good match for your institutional culture;
  4. be aware of the impact of technology purchases on accessibility as this can both help and hurt training efforts;
  5. offer a range of hands-on opportunities, and
  6. remain enthusiastic across all training for all personnel.


This article was supported by the National Center on Disability and Access to Education, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Project # P116Z050043. No official endorsement should be inferred.