Apr 23 2007

Online Access for All

How to get faculty and staff to buy in and get involved in compliance with federal accessibility guidelines.

Online Access for All
University of Maine gets entire campus on board with Section 508 compliance.

How can campus leaders make certain all users of their Web sites have full access to benefit from the content? Following the federal government’s Section 508 guidelines is a great place to start and might also help avoid lawsuits.

The University of Maine is six years into this journey, and our experiences in establishing policy and moving toward full Web accessibility may help other campuses looking to do the same.

First, a bit about Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act passed in 1998. The section requires U.S. government agencies to develop and use information technology that gives employees with disabilities the same access as other employees. (It also requires this of any federal system or Web site the public uses.) Sounds simple enough, but making Web sites fully accessible to people with sight and hearing disabilities can prove tricky.

Let me stress that Section 508 was intended to apply to federal agencies. So why does the University of Maine strive to meet Section 508 guidelines? Because one day, we may have to. California already requires its state universities to comply, and it’s a good idea for any higher education institution to be prepared for similar legislation in its state. And considering that universities and businesses have been sued for failing to provide full access to people with disabilities, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Besides, it’s good business to make our Web sites fully accessible to as many as possible. It was our center’s job to convince everyone from the Web Office and the IT director to the university president that although we’re not under the gun like schools in California, we should consider Section 508 compliance the right thing to do. We see access to our Web site as a civil right for all.

The University of Maine’s goal is to achieve 100 percent accessibility compliance for all its Web sites. So far we’ve taken critical steps: the development of a formal Web accessibility policy, buy-in to the policy at critical levels, the implementation of strategies to teach developers about accessibility, and the use of validation and repair tools.

A 16-Step Program

Section 508 details 16 points for Web developers to follow, including adding alternate tags to the source code for graphics, synchronized equivalent alternatives for multimedia presentations, and appropriate uses of color and contrast. Complying with these 16 points will ensure access to the widest possible audience, including users with and without disabilities.

An institution’s failure to follow

accessibility guidelines may leave some students unable to hear the audio portions of a class video or podcast, or prevent screen-reading software to navigate or translate graphical content on a campus Web site.

Following the guidelines can prove challenging, and not just from a technology standpoint. Getting campuswide cooperation can be as large a hurdle as putting the correct technology in place.

Early Days

Section 508 compliance requires a great deal of collaboration across campus departments. We started the process in 2001, when the university formed the Universal Design for the Web Committee (UDWC). The committee’s first role was to develop a Web accessibility policy and to obtain administrative buy-in to implement the policy.

Key campus departments joined the committee, including the university’s Web manager, university relations, the library, admissions, the cooperative extension service and student affairs. The committee reports to the Web manager’s advisory group, which includes the IT director.

The committee initiated the project by creating a help site detailing how to implement each of the points outlined in Section 508. Committee members then drafted a policy to adopt Section 508 guidelines for all university Web sites. After the committee and the Webmaster’s group accepted the policy, the president agreed to adopt it for use across the university and notified all campus employees. Implementation had begun.

But a policy alone does not create accessible sites — people do. To involve and educate campus employees, staff and students, the committee developed a series of free workshops to introduce the essentials of Web accessibility. Through these workshops, the committee discovered Web developers would need tools to enable users to easily modify existing Web sites for accessibility compliance.

After a thorough evaluation of Web validation and repair products, the University of Maine selected products for the development and ongoing maintenance of accessibility standards. The education bundle helps developers detect and quickly repair common accessibility problems. Developers also use the software to check links, tag tables, repair forms and caption videos. The suite includes an enterprise tool that lets the Web manager validate and report on all university Web sites, providing an overall picture of Web accessibility compliance.

We can also generate reports that identify accessibility gaps on a Web site. We can post these reports on a secure site for reference and discussion by the Web development committee and others involved in ensuring accessibility compliance. The online report presents visual details and links to the problem pages or files.

Lauding Good Work

The committee also makes an effort to recognize departments that achieve and maintain compliance. It also provides training and recommendations for improvements in departments where full compliance has yet to be achieved.

All department Web teams have access to a standard template that ensures full accessibility compliance. While there was an initial software cost, it wasn’t extreme. The real payoff is coming from the time that employees devote to meeting and training to make the university’s Web experiences open to all visitors.

Sweet 16
Section 508 includes 16 guidelines for creating an accessible Web site. For guideline details, see www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/1194.22.htm.

Tips for Web Accessibility

  • Stay ahead of the game by doing it now before you have to. Most educational institutions are not required to comply, but California mandates that its state universities comply, and some experts predict other states will follow suit.
  • Get buy-in up front. The University of Maine’s Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies started by putting together a committee of key campus departments. After drafting a policy to adopt Section 508 guidelines, the committee got the university president to sign off on the policy and notify all campus employees.
  • Look for software that helps comply with Section 508’s 16 guidelines.
  • Set up a process to bring other departments on board, and educate them on setting up totally accessible sites.

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