How the Univ. of Washington aims to make online systems and content more accessible – GeekWire

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Shira Zur
2023-05-29 11:00:00

Winners of the UW Digital Accessibility Awards, honored for their work in digital accessibility over the past year. See below for names. Additional winners were announced via video call. (UW Photo)

Taking small steps to make digital content more accessible can make a big difference.

That was one takeaway from the University of Washington’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day held earlier this month on campus in Seattle.

The event, hosted by UW IT Accessibility, featured workshops and honored individuals demonstrating a commitment to digital accessibility.

The workshops provided tips on how to fix headings, write alternative text for images, and correct color contrast to help increase digital accessibility.

“There are lots and lots of other things involved in accessibility — it’s not just about headings, alt text, and color contrast — but those are three simple things that go a long way,” said Terrill Thompson, manager of the UW IT Accessibility Team.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day is an annual global event that began in 2012, after tech workers Joe Devon and Jennison Asuncion noticed that many in their field weren’t familiar with tools and techniques to make digital content accessible. The event encourages groups around the world to facilitate conversations about digital accessibility. UW began celebrating the day in 2017.

Much of the internet continues to remain inaccessible, with more than 96% of homepages containing a failure under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, according to the WebAIM 2023 report. 

Since the UW is heavily reliant on third-party vendors for its technology products, the main challenge in getting the university to be more digitally accessible boils down to whether vendors are open to creating accessible products, according to Thompson.

“We have to make clear that there’s a market for accessibility,” Thompson said. “The more people demand it, the more [vendors] are going to pay attention to that.”

The UW IT Accessibility Team consists of nine members with expertise in various digital accessibility areas. They help students, staff, and employees tackle accessibility issues.

This year’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day was intended to be more interactive, allowing people to ask questions and focus on their individual efforts, said Gaby de Jongh, a UW IT Accessibility Specialist. 

“Usually people rely on other people to make things accessible,” de Jongh said. “So what I’m hearing now is … ‘How can I make this accessible?’ rather than, ‘What can you do to make this accessible for me?’”

Some UW employees are tackling larger-scale issues. Hana Levay, a collection assessment librarian at the UW Libraries, wants to cancel subscriptions that Libraries has to inaccessible products. She said some companies aren’t aware that their products aren’t accessible and don’t offer the most basic accessibility functions, such as navigating a page without a computer mouse. 

“If I can’t do some of these common actions of research, that’s a big red flag,” said Levay, who accepted the Trailblazer Award.

Private companies that aren’t regulated by law to create accessible products often don’t have accessible databases, Levay said, which is a challenge for large organizations like UW Libraries whose services rely on various vendors.

Fixing accessibility for users with disabilities will improve everyone’s experience, Levay said.

“Anyone can become disabled at any time,” Levay said. “So if you have already created an accessible resource, then it’s ready for whoever needs it.”

Award winners pictured in the photo above, from left to right: Scott Bellman (The DO-IT Center); Eric Chudler (Center for Neurotechnology); Tiffany Sevareid (University Marketing and Communications); Shannon Garcia (Disability Resources for Students); Will Darling (Center for Teaching & Learning); Tohm Judson, standing (UW Bothell Marketing & Communications); Nick Rohde, seated (UW Information Technology); Tim Knight (School of Public Health); Elizar Mercado (School of Public Health); Lalitha Subramanian (Continuum College).

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