Web accessibility group helps make Penn State more inclusive

Browsing the internet is something many take for granted. It’s easy to hop on a computer or smartphone and start clicking and reading.

But for people who are visually impaired — along with those with other disabilities — it’s a little tougher. They often rely on technologies like screen readers to help them navigate the internet.

While these tools are helpful, they only work if websites are “accessible,” which means they have been designed, developed and coded to work with these technologies. It’s another thing to keep in mind in the long process of creating web pages and content, but it’s essential to making sure everyone can access all the online information Penn State has to offer.

To help make Penn State more inclusive, the IT Accessibility Team — or “ATeam” — in Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) within the Office of the Vice Provost for Information Technology is working with people and departments across the University to help test and better design websites and other content for accessibility.

“There are many ways we help make Penn State more accessible,” said Michelle McManus, a consultant in the group. “We test and make sure websites, documents and Penn State services are up to accessibility standards. We also test products before the University signs a contract with a vendor to see if the service is accessible.”

Throughout the past year, the ATeam has responded to more than 100 consulting requests and has helped make sure major University systems like Canvas, LionPATH and ServiceNow (Penn State's service management system) are accessible. But to understand why accessibility is essential, it’s important to understand how assistive technologies like screen readers work.

Screen readers are computer programs that take a website, document or application and read the content to the user through text-to-speech technology. This can get tricky with visual media — like photos — or if a user has to input information — like in a form. In these cases, code must be added that, while invisible to a reader, can be picked up by a screen reader to help the user understand the content.

Elizabeth Pyatt, an instructional designer in TLT, says the easiest way to make something accessible is to make accessibility a part of the planning process, before anything is published or released.

“I think of it this way: It’s easier to build a new building correctly than to renovate an old one,” Pyatt said. “New buildings have to be created with elevators and ramps to assist people with disabilities, and websites should be thought of in the same way.”

Keeping this in mind, the ATeam has worked with departments like the Office of Human Resources to help design web-based training modules that are accessible from the beginning, before anyone uses them.

But while this is ideal, it’s not always the case

The group also works with Penn State departments, faculty and staff to take material that has already been created and make it accessible. The process usually begins with an accessibility tester: an online tool like WAVE that analyzes a website or document and then returns a list of errors.

“These tools are useful, but the information they provide is usually far from complete,” said Christian Vinten-Johansen, manager of the ATeam. “Coverage isn’t complete and there can be false positives. They’re good at finding basic things, like headings not being properly coded, but we don’t want to completely rely on them. That’s where Michelle and our other consultants come in.”

McManus — along with consultants Deniz Döke, Luis Fontanez Jr. and JooYoung Seo — is blind and offers an invaluable perspective while ensuring materials are accessible. She and the other consultants comb through websites and documents, checking for problems manually.

“I go through and make sure the content is navigable, things are labeled and coded correctly, and that the alt text makes sense,” said McManus. “For web applications, we make sure the different sections are easy to navigate and that it’s easy to input information where it’s needed.”

The ATeam also works with faculty to help make their learning materials accessible for all of their students.

“Accessibility might not be the first thing you think of when creating a PDF or PowerPoint presentation for students,” Vinten-Johansen said. “But these materials need to work with screen readers, too. So we’re reaching out and working with faculty to help them improve their content.”

Vinten-Johansen stresses that everyone at Penn State is welcome and encouraged to reach out to the group about anything accessibility-related.

“We’re here for anyone at the University,” said Vinten-Johansen. “We want everyone to know that whether they have a question about accessibility or want us to help them with a website or purchasing decision, we’re here to help.”

For questions or to request accessibility help, contact accessibilityweb@psu.edu or visit the IT Accessibility Team's website.

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Last Updated November 03, 2016