Imagine a world in which sidewalks had no curb cuts — those sloped sections where the walkway meets the street, which allow people with mobility issues (especially those in wheelchairs) to navigate the height change safely.
That’s how the internet still seems today to people with sight, hearing, mobility or cognitive disabilities, said Angela Bedford-Jack, the University’s new technology accessibility coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Such individuals can find navigating apps, Word documents, online videos and other new technologies to be an unnecessarily bumpy ride — and sometimes even impossible.
“Curb cuts were a revolution when they came into being,” Bedford-Jack said. Curb cuts and curb ramps were first used in 1945, and are now mandated by several new federal laws, including the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. “We’re in the same place with the internet,” she said — working to modify existing tech for accessibility, and making sure that new technology provides accommodations.
Legally, and practically, explained Bedford-Jack, “the web is a public space. The same way public buildings need to be accessible at all times, the web needs to be accessible to all people at all times. They shouldn’t have to ask.”
Bedford-Jack is just three weeks at her Craig Hall office for this newly created Pitt post. She comes most recently from the New York City Department of Education, where she helped that mammoth organization (the department serves more than 1 million students in more than 1,800 schools) create better digital delivery of resources to teachers and principals.
Pitt has long worked on the issue, she said. “My job is to come in and coordinate those efforts, University-wide, to make sure we’re all working in conjunction with each other — to wrap my arms around the entirety of what web accessibility means for the University, because it is massive.”
Pitt alone has an estimated 100,000 websites at the pitt.edu domain, she said. Although the University Center for Teaching and Learning does not track whether each faculty member uses CourseWeb, the online teaching platform, everyone is given the opportunity. This spring there were 21,270 courses on Pitt’s CourseWeb, while this summer there are 10,687. For fall, 19,526 courses are awaiting potential online use. While the Office of Disability Resources and Services does not collect stats for disabilities among Pitt staff and faculty, said Director Leigh Culley, approximately 800 students have voluntarily registered as needing accommodations currently. The last U.S. census in 2010 found that 19 percent, or nearly one in five Americans, had a disability.
At Pitt, that means videos need to be captioned properly; Word documents should have headings created using Word’s heading commands, not just bold type or indents, so specialty software can recognize them; and users with certain disabilities should have access to web readers that can tab down pages easily, without slogging through all that cumbersome navigation from the top, each time a new page loads.
It's not as if people generally object to making appropriate accommodations for disabilities, Bedford-Jack said. However, “it takes work, and there are a finite number of resources.”
Policy, Trainings, Central Information Hub Ahead
A University-wide technology accessibility committee is working to spell out what Pitt faculty, staff and students can expect the University to do to create wide technology accessibility, and what the Pitt community’s responsibilities will be in turn, in an official policy. Bedford-Jack is already meeting with key stakeholders, such as heads of schools and departments and members of the University Senate’s equity, inclusion and anti-discrimination advocacy committee, to formulate Pitt’s coordinated actions. She plans to hold trainings and workshops about the work needed to institute accommodations and create a central information hub for everyone involved in the effort.
“When a policy is approved,” she said, “it’s important that all those people — faculty, staff and students — feel like they have the tools to meet the requirements of that policy. The end goal is for all of the University’s information technology to be accessible to folks with disabilities. That will take several years. Immediately, the goal is to raise awareness. It’s important to build empathy and buy-in for what we are doing in this work and to educate people on the practical steps to meet the long-term goal.”
She said she recognized that people may become overwhelmed if faced with developing accessibility solutions on their own: “There are all these technology standards and people want to do exactly the right thing. I have seen people be afraid to do anything — ‘What if I get it wrong?’”
She suggested that incremental steps are better than none at all: “Do better tomorrow than you were doing yesterday. That means you try things. We need to have folks with disabilities working with us and testing things, saying ‘Yes, this is better, but here is still where I’m tripping up.’”
Sometimes, an accessibility solution can help everyone. Writing clearly can aid anyone using course materials or Pitt’s many public websites, she noted, not just those with a cognitive disability: “You should be writing in plain language,” she said, with less jargon and less complex sentences. Sometimes “making things accessible to people with disabilities is just good design.”