Early adopters at Pitt say don’t fear digital accessibility


When your Pitt website has more than 1,000 pages and is one of the most visited sites on campus, how do you make it accessible — readable and audible, clickable and navigable — to those with disabilities.

Brady Lutsko manages this site — the main one for Pitt Information Technology (formerly CSSD, Computing Services and Systems Development). He says his team “has taken a lot of steps” to make the site digitally accessible — even though Pitt’s proposed rules enforcing federal requirements for digital accessibility of documents, websites and software, which sparked some objections from faculty, are still not in place.

While the questions of who will do the work in individual academic units to make existing websites accessible or ensure new software works for everyone remain unanswered under those Pitt guidelines, those who have already worked toward digital accessibility at the University say the task is not unduly troublesome or costly.

His team had no special expertise, Lutsko says. He is manager of communication and training for Pitt IT, so he and his colleagues are all communicators, not programmers. They simply attended a training session last spring in Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which taught them about good design principles for accessible websites, such as using highly contrasting colors and employing official Word headings, how to get automatic captioning onto videos, and the proper labeling of images and links.

“Other than that, we don’t have anybody who has any expertise” in digital accessibility, Lutsko said.

There was no added cost for Lutsko’s department, he reports. Using the University-licensed Siteimprove software also enabled his team to scan their website and pinpoint the areas that needed to change for accessibility.

“A lot of people at the University feel this is going to be a burden” to adapt their websites or documents to improve their accessibility, he adds. “Once people look into it, they realize a lot of this is really low-hanging fruit” — not hard to grasp at all. Adapting his department’s mammoth website “didn’t really require any additional technical expertise,” Lutsko says. Plus, “doing a lot of these things is just good design practices,” helping with SEO — search engine optimization.

He also pointed out that the web services team in Pitt’s communications department offers webpage templates that have built-in digital accessibility.

John Cooper, director of University web communications, says his department can help any academic or administrative unit with new or revamped sites: “Our team has built and supports about 350 websites for academic and administrative units, and we support many of the most visited sites. … They get accessibility built into the template system” offered by Cooper’s department, which can help people get past design stumbling blocks, at no cost to each Pitt unit.

“People in general, when they are dealing with accessibility, it’s usually a lack of awareness” that hampers their efforts, he said. “They don’t always stay up to date on the current standards that are out there.”

To create captions for videos, for instance, YouTube offers a free service. “The automatic captioning does require some manual interventions,” such as editing for glitches, he says, “but at least it gives you a head start.”

Making websites accessible for all screen types, including phones and tablets of varying sizes, is the frontier of accessibility challenges for his builders and coders, Cooper says. However, “accessibility really dovetails with the goal of being efficient in all ways — whether it is download time or how (a website) works responsibly. If it’s done right, all those things work together and make the site more efficient. It will just be an all-around better site.”

A worthwhile cost

“Redesigning workflow” — to make web materials digitally accessible — “always has a cost, whether that is financial or time,” says Fran Yarger, associate director for digital library services for the Health Sciences Library System. “But once that new normal, that new workflow, is established, that burden decreases over time.”

Yarger and her colleagues already have plenty of experience with creating digital accessibility, since the Health Sciences Library System runs the website for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM.gov), part of the National Institutes of Health, and must follow federal accessibility guidelines.

Her staff underwent training to learn the guidelines and how to implement them, supported in part by the federal government and in part by the library itself. It is a worthwhile effort, she believes, not only to aid those with recognized disabilities but those in the aging workforce who may develop disabilities in the future.

Her team also makes sure library materials from vendors — chiefly scientific publishers of journals — continue to be digitally accessible.

“The reality is that many information vendors may not be forward-thinking about how accessible their tools are,” Yarger said. “When the (digital accessibility) policy is in place, we do plan to reach out to our online journal providers so they are aware of policy and Pitt’s expectations.”

She believes other Pitt offices may be enlisted to help test accessibility of new materials and software to be acquired by the library: “I think there is room for support across the University to make this an easier change.” Alternatively, or additionally, she says, Pitt departments may end up using independent assessors outside the University. “We don’t have the expertise and the resources to vet what large publishing companies are doing,” she notes.

“The University can leverage its reputation and strengths to strongly encourage the companies, the vendors we work with, to improve their accessibility and their accessibility reporting,” Yarger suggests.

Her office has already identified library employees to be the dedicated contacts between the library system and the diversity and inclusion office, she adds. “There are a lot of unknown unknowns … but I think we can find a way to move forward as a University that supports this initiative.”

Vetting Pitt’s biggest software purchases

In the past several years, when Pitt has selected large pieces of software to use on campus, such as the new Canvas learning management system replacing Blackboard, the University has asked vendors how well their software complies with digital accessibility needs, based on guidelines in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But, cautions Josh Hyman, cloud software administration manager in Pitt IT, the ADA guidelines are not entirely useful for vetting software: “I think some of the guidelines fall short. They are more in the line of, ‘How do you make a website?’ And these are not websites, these are applications.”

However, he says, most vendors of such software — now almost entirely web-based — are conscious of the need to serve a large and diverse student population and are already offering digital accessibility at no additional price.

Of course, digital accessibility is just one factor Pitt IT needs to consider, alongside the software’s cost, capabilities and other issues, says Carl B. DePasquale, the IT sourcing and vendor relationship manager. Plus, many other Pitt offices have input on software use decisions, he notes.

DePasquale notes that some older, larger companies may not be moving as quickly toward accessibility, such as Oracle, which he says doesn’t meet the accessibility requirements Pitt has already been using.

Because their financial software is used mainly by administrators, they can afford to be slower, Hyman says.

“They’re not as agile to adapt to standards,” adds DePasquale. “It may be a longer process for them” to change. Right now, however, “Oracle is embedded in all our financial transactions,” he says.

“We can’t rip Oracle out,” Hyman says.

Helping reach more students

Pitt staff who focus on online courses have been early adopters of digital accessibility methods.

Lorna Richey Kearns, director of online programs at the University Center for Teaching and Learning, oversees the development and design for Pitt Online Courses for the School of Nursing, the School of Law, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and more.

Pitt has been offering online courses since 2009, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Kearns and her staff began focusing on improving digital accessibility for online courses.

One of the first things they did was make sure that PDFs were readable online. This was a simple thing to do, she said, and it’s one of the first things Pitt faculty can do to make their documents and videos more accessible. Adobe Acrobat is one of many software programs that can perform these tasks, she added.

For the more involved tasks, such as captioning videos, Kearns’ office has a team of instructional designers who work with faculty to develop their online courses. There are also videographers who help professors record classes and turn scripts into captions for online videos.

The University Center for Teaching and Learning also has a media facility for recording audio, Kearns added.

Kearns said she can empathize with faculty who are concerned about the difficulty of making online course materials more accessible. However, digital accessibility can help Pitt reach students who would not be able to participate in a more traditional higher education experience, she said.

Change won’t happen overnight

Laurie Cochenour, executive director of online learning with the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said there can be a number of different elements required to make online materials more accessible, including hyperlinks, contrast and font color, keyboard accessibility, captions and table conversions.

“No course, no program, no school, no university can just flick a switch and make all course materials accessible overnight,” Cochenour said. “What I would recommend to any faculty member who's interested in making their course materials more accessible is looking for simple changes an individual faculty member can make that would have a bigger impact so as not to become overwhelmed with the idea of trying to make everything in their courses accessible for next semester.”

She praised the efforts of Angie Bedford-Jack, digital accessibility coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, who has worked to increase awareness of the issue and educate the Pitt community. Cochenour said that improving accessibility, in general, has historically taken a lot of time and effort.

“People didn't go out and cut curbs or install elevators in every building on campus,” Cochenour said. “When the ADA went into effect, it took time for all of the buildings on campus to become accessible. The same thing is true here. It's going to take time and knowledge about how to approach this before we can get people on board with what needs to be done.”

Marty Levine and Donovan Harrell are staff writers for the University Times. Reach them at martyl@pitt.edu or dharrell@pitt.edu.     


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