Each edition of “ITS In-Depth” takes a closer look at a hot topic in information technology. Previously, we have covered ransomware, extended reality and multi-factor authentication. For this installment, we talked with Information Technology (IT) Accessibility Analyst Pam Thomas to learn about the role that technology plays in creating an inclusive Orange community.

Broadly speaking, what does accessibility mean in terms of technology?

According to the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, accessibility is achieved when “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.”

For those of us in IT, this means that our websites, applications and content (documents, presentations, videos, etc.) must meet specific criteria that make them usable by the widest possible variety of users, including those who might have certain visual, auditory or learning disabilities or those who do not use a traditional keyboard or mouse.

What steps has the University taken in recent years to enhance accessibility for students, faculty and staff? What are some groups/committees that are looking at different aspects of accessibility?

In 2018, Chancellor Kent Syverud approved the adoption of the University’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Accessibility Policy to ensure that University content and technology are accessible. This policy is part of a larger, ongoing effort to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) on campus. Most recently, a draft Syracuse University Plan for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Strategic Plan was presented to the University community for review and comment.

Some groups that you might have heard about are:

What accessibility resources/assistive technologies are currently in use by the University community?

Assistive technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment or software, or device that is meant to increase or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities. From an IT perspective, this is most often in the form of computer peripherals and software. There is a wide range of AT in use on campus, including:

  • Modified keyboards or pointing devices or other alternative input devices to aid individuals with certain disabilities that might affect movement or fine motor skills
  • Screen reading or text-to-speech software (JAWS, NVDA, Read & Write) to aid individuals with blindness or low-vision, or with certain cognitive or learning disabilities
  • Screen magnification software (ZoomText, Windows Magnifier)
  • Speech input or voice recognition software (Dragon, Windows Dictate, Voice Control for Mac)

What are some quick, easy steps to enhance the accessibility of documents, websites and social media?

There are a few quick checks that you can do before you send an email, share a document or publish a web page that will help ensure that the information is accessible. These include:

  • Make sure all images, charts or illustrations have equivalent textual descriptions, usually known as alternative text or “alt text”.
  • Make sure to use good color contrast. The WebAIM Color Contrast Checker can help you choose colors with good contrast. Better yet, stick with the Syracuse University brand colors listed in the Syracuse University Brand Guidelines. Tip: Be very careful when using the University orange as text. The Color Palette page in the Brand Guidelines document describes the appropriate use of colors for headings vs. text.
  • Make sure to use the built-in headings (in Word or Google Docs, for example) or assign heading levels on a webpage (h1, h2, h3) appropriately to reflect the structure of the page. Screen reader users often rely on these headings as navigational aids.
  • Make sure accurate captions are provided for all audiovisual content and that audio description is available when required. Tip: Captions help individuals who cannot hear the audio, whereas audio description helps individuals who cannot see the screen to interpret visual content. Any videos with audio content require captioning, but only videos that communicate information visually require audio description. Still confused about audio description? Check out this fun example of the Frozen – Trailer with Audio Description [YouTube].

Many of the assistive technologies described above work best when websites and documents have been created to conform to international technical standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG, first implemented by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) over 20 years ago, ensures that websites, web applications and documents are accessible and compatible with assistive technology.

There are over 75 success criteria listed in the WCAG. Full compliance requires that all of these are met. This might seem like a daunting task. In some cases, it might require quite a bit of time to bring a website or document into full compliance.

For more examples, visit the Easy Checks – A First Review of Web Accessibility page from W3C.

Where can people go to learn more about accessibility? Are there any workshops or training sessions available?

For a general introduction to accessible technology and its impact on the University community, check out some of the videos in the Stories of Inclusive Technology series.

You can also visit the Accessible Technology Toolkit in Answers for links to training resources, as well as guides to creating accessible documents, presentations, websites, surveys and more. The LinkedIn Learning Accessibility Playlist (login required) has more in-depth tutorials.