Accessibility in the Digital Age

The University of Illinois is developing a new IT Accessibility Policy that will make a foundational impact on inclusivity and accessibility for higher education.

Graphic designed to show accessibility

This is part two of a two-part series about Technology Services Usability and Accessibility Testing.


When it comes to the internet and the digital landscape, the history of accessibility has been spotty and undefined at best. Within the past 20 years, legislation has emerged requiring improved digital accessibility in government organizations and higher education in addition to the physical accessibility requirements. But it has taken decades of activism and legal action to truly revolutionize digital accessibility in higher education.The University of Illinois has, and continues to, pioneer its way to the frontline of digital accessibility.


Accessibility vs Usability

To learn more about accessibility testing and policy at Illinois, we spoke with Tim Offenstein, Campus Accessibility Liaison at Technology Services. “Essentially we look at accessibility as a subset of usability,” said Offenstein, “but it all falls under Quality Assurance and Assessment.”

The Quality Assurance and Assessment group at Technology Services provides free accessibility testing for departments across campus. Accessibility differs from usability, or “user experience” testing, in that it focuses on assessing and creating products that are accessible to all users, including those with visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities. Students, faculty, staff and other groups using university products are a part of a diverse community with varying abilities that need to be considered and addressed.

“At one time accessibility was a dirty word,” reported Offenstein. “Now I encounter resistance a lot less than I used to.” Offenstein’s interest in digital accessibility started when he worked as the webmaster for Applied Health Sciences and the division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES). Out of that emerged his position as Campus Accessibility Liaison, which allowed him to work with units across campus, evaluating websites and consulting on changes to improve accessibility. His transition over to Technology Services shifted his focus to evaluating all programs and web applications for accessibility before they are implemented.

The Policy

Illinois has a long history of forward-thinking accessibility measures and policies. Most notably, the first comprehensive higher education program for persons with disabilities was started by Tim Nugent after WWII. Part of this reform led to the invention of the famous curb cuts that revolutionized cities world-wide.

It does not come as a surprise then, that in 2014, Offenstein, together with Technology Services’ information design specialist, Keith Hays, were enlisted to draft a campus-wide policy for digital accessibility.

“One of the first things we will have to do is a baseline evaluation of where we are at,” explained Offenstein. “We’ll have to look at existing sites and programs across campus. There are some web applications that are really difficult to make accessible. In this case, we have to acknowledge that they are inaccessible and we have to say why this is okay or how we plan on fixing it.”

Current law requires such policy changes, and the university has taken great measures to comply and lead with forward-looking policies. The University of Illinois IT Accessibility Policy will guide, educate, and raise awareness about inclusive environments, establish the scope of technology covered (websites, applications, software, hardware, and course materials), ensure to address every possible population (students, faculty, staff, public), and create an implementation plan that details procedures and guidelines.

“We’re coming at it from an aspirational point of view,” said Mike Bohlmann, Chair of the Technology Accessibility Review Committee (TARC). TARC was created to finalize the policy and plan for its implementation and execution. “We’ve [Illinois] been accessible for a long time and part of that is certainly because of the law. But if we aspire to make our resources and knowledge accessible to all, then they can serve everyone – students, faculty, and the public.”

The Illinois IT Accessibility Policy is currently before the Campus Administrative Manual (CAM) committee for review. Once approved, it will go into effect Fall 2018.

“There will be a lot of changes now,” said Offenstein. “We’re hoping to greatly increase awareness of accessibility across campus.”

The Community

When we think about accessibility many ideas come to mind, particularly in higher education. We must consider accessibility for students in admissions, tuition, housing, courses, professor availability, books, health, technology, supplies, educational support – the list goes on. When considering the law, however, “accessible” means 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. We see examples of this in the physical world with large print books and low-entry buses with “kneeling” capabilities, for example. But digital accessibility features, like compatibility with screen readers and alt text on images, are not as well known to the public.

Interest and awareness in accessibility has been increasing on campus and it is evident by the growth of the community. With the Chancellor’s Committee on Access and Accommodation (CCAA) and TARC, there is a strong support team of accessibility-minded people to collaborate with across campus. Monthly meetings called “Explore with Hadi” are informal gatherings where web professionals and others interested in accessibility discuss and evaluate how people with disabilities may use and be affected by their designs.

Service and Commitment

Meeting accessibility standards may be the law, but that shouldn’t be the main reason for implementation, according to Offenstein. “Accessibility is often considered after the fact, but by then you’ve already missed the point. If you are truly going to make a product accessible, you have to consider accessibility from the beginning – during development. Accessibility should be viewed as an opportunity for innovation. 

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, many new mandated regulations emerged to help those with physical disabilities. Classic, notable examples are curb cuts and ramps. Suddenly, most public places were required to provide these for persons in wheelchairs or using assistive walking devices. The unforeseen benefits quickly came to light when these enhancements also greatly improved the ease and quality of life of cyclists and families with small children in strollers. There are countless examples of accessibility measures taking place and later significantly enriching the lives of many others. It is no different in the digital sphere.

“Videos with captions are intended to help students who are hard of hearing or use assistive devices to read to them,” explained Bohlmann. “But these captions also help students who are trying to watch videos at the union or another public or quiet space. Or, it can help them understand a heavy accent, for example.”

“Remediation is always more expensive than doing it right the first time,” said Offenstein. “In the long run we are hoping to change the cultural character so that people are a lot more aware of, and in tune with, accessibility.”

Visit the IT Accessibility website to learn more about IT Accessibility at the university and to find tools and resources for making your digital assets accessible for all!

Read more about the University IT Accessibility Policy.