By MARTY LEVINE
Members of the Senate Computing and Information Technology Committee were upset to find that Pitt’s proposed new “Electronic Information Technology Accessibility” policy (ensuring that webpages, software and hardware are usable by those with visual, dexterity and other disabilities) had bypassed their committee’s official review. So they undertook their own.
At their Sept. 16 meeting, committee members wanted to know:
Will faculty or University administrators be responsible for finding issues and bringing webpages and software up to accessibility standards?
How much time and effort will faculty need to meet new policy requirements, and who is overseeing and paying for this effort?
Where does each school’s or department’s responsibility end and the University’s responsibility begin?
How will the University balance competing interests of security, compatibility, cost and accessibility when considering new software?
“The concern is not with the good of making information accessible to people,” assured committee chair Michael Spring, faculty member in the School of Computing and Information. “My concern is … the complexity of some of the decision-making.”
“We cannot just be given more requirements without more resources to meet these requirements,” said committee member Alex Labrinidis, another computing school faculty member. He warned that some faculty may choose not to place harder-to-adapt web materials on course sites rather than try to make them accessible: “I lose a little bit, but what I’m saying is the University loses a lot.”
On hand to answer committee concerns were Pam Connelly, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion; Angie Bedford-Jack, digital accessibility coordinator; Thomas Hitter, assistant vice chancellor for policy development and management, in charge of shepherding the new policy through the approval process; Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson; and Chris Bonneau, University Senate president, who took the blame for choosing to send the policy for approval to the Senate’s Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy Committee alone.
But he and the Pitt administrators pointed out that:
Making technology accessible has been a federal law for several years, with its attendant responsibilities and liabilities.
The new policy classifies technology into several tiers, creating immediate targets with earlier accessibility deadlines and secondary and tertiary targets with deadlines stretching for years.
The policy is purposefully unspecific about which parties are responsible for decision-making and for taking action, leaving such choices for later.
Spring saw the last item as a bug, not a feature, that fueled much of his and other committee members’ concerns.
It is “a difficult challenge,” Connelly admitted, but added that the policy made sure “we were not setting unattainable goals.” The policy, she said, “leaves a lot of autonomy to the different units … to set up their priorities and their time frames.”
Thanks to “the nature and complexity of the problem and nature of the change in technology that can happen from year to year,” she added, “people are having to maintain more flexibility than they would have for other procedures.”
Committee members posited numerous scenarios faculty might face, suggesting the policy should better spell out solutions:
What if a webpage is designed for the use of just a dozen research subjects, none of whom has a disability?
How can even those closest to a large department find and police all the web content hosted by individual faculty members?
Can new tech proposed for research projects wait to be approved until the research is definitely funded?
How will the policy deal with course materials posted by students, such as class projects?
The last concern was easiest to address: Connelly assured the committee that the policy would not hold students responsible for making their materials accessible.
However, Bedford-Jack said, “We’re moving into a place where accessibility is the norm” — a world where students will learn accessibility principles and methods as part of their education in technology use.
She also assured the committee that research proposals won’t need to be checked for accessibility until funded; that some policy compliance exceptions are still being discussed, such as the web application in use only by a small number of research subjects; and that the University will take responsibility for central support of the policy, likely stepping in where an issue is seen across many schools or departments.
“The intent is to leave the senior vice chancellors to decide” how accessibility should be implemented, Connelly added.
“I think the key is, this is the law, and it is something we have to attend to because there is a risk to not attending to this,” said CIO Mark Henderson. Having recently joined the University, Henderson recalled his experience at a previous institution, which had to stop using a new piece of technology when the cost of making it accessible was found to be too high.
Facing such a complex issue, the committee decided to continue its discussion at its next meeting, on Oct. 25.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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