Beyond Compliance: Shifting Campus Culture Through the IT Accessibility Liaisons Program

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has a long, pioneering history with accessibility that includes world-altering technological advancements and a legacy of advocacy and recognition.

In 2018, the university approved and implemented the Electronic Information Technology (EIT) Accessibility Policy to initiate a coordinated effort to ensure that information technology procured or used is accessible to all persons, regardless of ability. The policy was created by the university’s Technology Accessibility Review Committee.

A new campus-wide program focused on IT accessibility awareness, advocacy, and training, emerged from this policy. The IT Accessibility Liaisons Program (ITAL) identifies, recruits, and trains people within campus units to serve as digital accessibility resources. Liaisons serve voluntarily and may hold technical or non-technical positions, which allows for broader exposure and diverse channels of communication. 

The ITAL Program prepares liaisons to become their unit’s voice for digital accessibility. Liaisons learn IT accessibility basics through various online courses, including the Accessibility 101 badging course available on Compass 2g. They receive training on how to use tools that evaluate and assess digital products like software applications and websites, and try their hand at using assistive technology like screen readers to understand other’s experiences. The group also meets monthly for more in-depth discussions and hands-on practicums, and to provide feedback about the program itself.

The program started as a pilot in February 2019 with a small cohort of staff and has now grown to nearly one hundred liaisons dispersed among over fifty units at the university. Ultimately, the program aims to cover all units including non-academic, and regardless of size, and it is a part of the EIT Accessibility Policy’s effort to scale IT accessibility awareness and compliance.

“We are building an accessibility aware community,” said Tim Offenstein, founder of the ITAL Program, and recently retired Lead Design Specialist with Technology Services, “we wanted to be able to provide training on a wide range of topics, not just web design, but also procurement, classroom deliverables, aides for faculty. We want to remove the stigma of having to be an expert.”

This “anyone-can-be-an-accessibility-liaison” approach is key to ensuring the success of the program. “You never know everything there is to know, but that’s not the point,” agrees Bryan Jonker, Senior Web Developer with IT Partners at Education, and a liaison, “accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. You need resources to be able to fix things and that’s what the ITAL group has done for me.”

Beth Sheehan, Assistant Director for Information Management at The Career Center, and a liaison with the program, used the tools and training from the ITAL Program to evaluate her unit’s website. She found several major accessibility issues and wrote up a report to her supervisor. With that report, she convinced an outside vendor to fix the website’s accessibility issues free of charge, years after they completed the original redesign.

“I think it’s important for every department to have someone to say, ‘but wait! Is it accessible?’ everytime there is something new,” explained Sheehan, “we need to keep [accessibility] at the forefront so that it’s integrated from the beginning instead of after the fact.”

With the addition of Allison Kushner, ADA Director for the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, this year, the university has taken yet another huge step toward building a more accessible and inclusive campus overall.

“We want to challenge ourselves and our partners to be stewards of inclusive and accessible thinking campus-wide,” said Kushner at the IT Professionals Forum keynote address on November 12, “I call on all of you…to engage with us in our efforts, and assist us in moving toward a coordinated enterprise-wide technology accessibility inclusion model that moves beyond compliance.”

The ITAL Program is just one of many efforts to shift thinking and promote widespread culture change that advances the purpose of the EIT Accessibility Policy.

“This group is really a testament to how this campus stands behind their commitments to accessibility,” said Rachel Chartoff, Marketing and Data Management Coordinator at the Grainger College of Engineering, and newly-minted liaison, “any institution can set guidelines, but we’ve made an effort across campus to educate and support designers, developers, and content creators on creating accessible websites and applications.”

Learn more about the IT Accessibility Liaisons Program including how to get involved.