Volume XII Number 1, June 2008

Accessible IT: Lessons Learned From Three Universities

Sheryl Burgstahler
University of Washington
Alice Anderson
University of Wisconsin - Madison
John Slatin
Kay Lewis
University of Texas at Austin


Technology has the potential to maximize personal productivity, access to information, and collaboration among students, faculty, and staff in postsecondary institutions. However, many websites and other information technologies (IT) at postsecondary institutions are not fully accessible to people with disabilities. There is no single way to increase the use of accessible IT on campus, but there are promising practices that advance this effort, including (1) securing the support of high-level administrators; (2) involving key stakeholder groups; (3) adopting guidelines or standards; (4) providing training and technical support; (4) developing goals, benchmarks, and timelines; (5) implementing a system for monitoring accessibility progress and revising policies and procedures; (6) working with one program to create a model of accessibility policies and practices to share with others; and (7) recognizing those who promote the use of accessible IT on campus. This article summarizes the experiences of three large state universities that have addressed IT accessibility issues in multiple ways. Their experiences can help other institutions begin or revise policies, procedures, and practices in this area.


Technology has the potential to maximize personal productivity, access to information, and collaboration among students, faculty, and staff at postsecondary institutions. It is unlikely that schools intentionally exclude specific groups from the opportunities technology provides. Nevertheless, when campuses use IT that is not designed to be accessible to people with disabilities, some of these individuals encounter barriers to education and employment. In contrast, when colleges and universities design and employ websites, application software, and other IT that are accessible to all students and employees, they lead the way toward leveling the playing field and supporting full engagement in academic and career activities.

It has been estimated that more than 6% of all college and university students in the United States report having a disability (Henderson, 2001). Their level of enrollment is increasing as more inclusive pre-college programs, AT, and legislative mandates offer greater opportunities for people with disabilities to prepare for and succeed in college studies (Henderson, 2001; National Council on Disability, 2000). In light of this trend, as well as increased use of IT by all members of the campus community, IT access for students with disabilities is particularly important. In short, to ensure these students have equal educational opportunities, colleges and universities need to (1) make assistive technology available to students, faculty, and staff with disabilities and (2) develop, procure, and use accessible IT. The authors of this article summarize key issues of these two factors, discuss related efforts made by three universities, and share lessons learned that could be applied at other universities.


The availability of a wide range of assistive technology (AT) makes it possible for an individual with almost any type of disability to operate a computer and telecommunication equipment (Closing the Gap, 2007). Alternative keyboards, text-to-speech software, screen magnification, word-prediction software, grammar and spelling checkers, and other AT all play roles in giving people with disabilities access to IT that enhances their academic and career opportunities. However, AT solves only a portion of the IT access problem. Other issues concern the design of mainstream IT. For example, individuals who are blind often use text-to-speech systems that read aloud what appears on computer screens. However, these speech output systems only provide access to content presented in text format. Therefore, webmasters need to provide alternative ways to access content presented in non-text form (e.g., images, frames), so they do not erect information barriers to people who are blind.

Accessible design of IT is the electronic equivalent to curb cuts. Although curb cuts were created to assist people using wheelchairs, they also aid people pushing baby strollers and delivery carts—many users benefit from accessible design. For IT, accessible design means that the full spectrum of user abilities is considered at the design stage, and, as a result, products are accessible to all individuals, including those using a range of mainstream computing devices and AT. For example, captions on video clips benefit a student for whom English is a second language, a faculty member who is deaf, a person who wants to search for specific content in the clip, and a student working late at night while other members of the household are sleeping. Similarly, a student who cannot access graphics because of a slow Internet connection benefits from text alternatives to graphic images that are also used by individuals who are blind. In addition, providing content in multiple formats addresses the needs of students with various learning disabilities and styles. Unfortunately, many postsecondary web pages erect significant access barriers to visitors who have disabilities, particularly those with sensory impairments (Kelly, 2002; McMullin, 2002; Thompson, Burgstahler, & Comden, 2003). In addition, many distance learning courses are not offered in a fully accessible format to students with disabilities (Burgstahler, 2002, 2006; Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004; Edmonds, 2004; Kinash, Crichton, & Kim-Rupnow, 2004; Michigan Virtual University, n.d.; Schmetzke, 2001).


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibit covered entities, including postsecondary institutions, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Although legislation makes it clear that colleges and universities must make their academic programs and information resources accessible to people with disabilities, there are no standards for IT accessibility that apply to all educational institutions.

A 1998 amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that the U.S. federal government adhere to standards developed by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) to ensure that electronic and information technologies procured, developed, or used by agencies and departments of the federal government are accessible to employees and members of the general public with disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). The Access Board offers standards that can be used as a model by other entities not covered under Section 508, including educational institutions. The Section 508 standards cover software applications, operating systems, web-based materials, telecommunications, multimedia, office equipment, and other IT products.

Some postsecondary institutions have chosen to incorporate Section 508 standards into their accessibility policies. Others have adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (1999). Still others have developed unique standards or guidelines for their campuses. Some of the procurement and development processes and resources that have been put in place to help federal agencies comply with Section 508 regulations can provide model procedures and tools for higher education as well. For example, technology companies that serve higher education can voluntarily publish the accessibility features of their products in Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) available online. Universities can use this content (recognizing its limitations, since it is provided by vendors) as they evaluate the accessibility of IT prior to procurement.

Campuses nationwide are addressing the need to ensure access to both AT and mainstream IT for students with disabilities through a wide variety of policies and practices. The accessible IT efforts of the three large universities highlighted in this article—the University of Washington (UW), the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison)—have been reported in the media (e.g., Oberlinger & Ruby, 2004) and at national and international conferences. In the remaining sections of this article, co-authors describe accessible IT approaches and achievements at these institutions and highlight specific aspects of each—the bottom-up development of web accessibility policy at UT-Austin, the top-down development of web accessibility policy at UW-Madison, and the development of accessible distance learning policies and procedures at UW. Their stories provide examples of strategies that may be employed by other universities.


More than 50,000 students are enrolled at UT-Austin. Of these, approximately 1,000 register and seek services from the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). The campus community includes more than 2,600 faculty and 21,000 full- and part-time staff.

Assistive Technology

The University's ADA/Equal Employment Opportunity Services (EEOS) Coordinator maintains a small account for the purchase of "redeployable" AT for staff and faculty with disabilities, i.e., technology that could serve another individual when it is no longer required by the person for whom it was originally purchased. The ADA/EEOS office has purchased a site license for the ZoomText screen magnifier. Other purchases—often made at the recommendation of the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services or other state agencies—include headsets, assistive software, and specialized hardware.

Often, AT, including screen readers, screen magnifiers, word-prediction software, alternate input devices, and Braille note takers, required by students who have disabilities is purchased by the state agency of which the individual student is a client. Besides providing accommodations such as readers, note takers, sign language interpreters, and telecaptioners, the SSD maintains a central Assistive Technology Equipment Center (ATEC) and adaptive workstations in the main library. Established in the late 1990s, the ATEC provides computers with screen readers, screen magnifiers, word-prediction software, scanners, and other AT. IT available in the main library on campus includes computers with screen readers and Braille embossers, as well as voice recognition software. These machines are housed in separate rooms and are subject to some limitations in availability; for example, the ATEC lab is open during business hours only, and a key from library staff is required to use the library workstations.

Accessible IT

The UT-Austin web presence comprises over 2,000,000 pages residing on more than 500 separate servers, many administered locally by academic departments, research units, administrative offices, and Information Technology Services (ITS). Some estimate that there are as many as 5,000 web publishers on campus, and professionally trained developers are in the minority. Given this highly complex and decentralized environment, it is perhaps not surprising that UT-Austin has had to make two attempts to establish a policy on web accessibility.

Highlight: Bottom-Up Development of Web Accessibility Policy

Policy Development Process. The first attempt to develop a web accessibility policy was in 1999, when a task force chaired by John Slatin recommended that the University make a commitment to an accessible electronic information environment and proposed conformance with the W3C's WCAG, which had been published less than one month before the task force released its report. The task force report was unanimously endorsed by the University's Information Technology Coordinating Council and accepted in principle by the Provost, but the procedures for adopting the recommendation as official University policy were not implemented.

Several years later, the Information Technology Coordinating Council again reviewed a policy recommendation. The recommendation received the support of the Vice President for Information Technology, and, once final wording was approved, the formal accessibility policy was adopted in 2005.

A number of incremental steps in the direction of accessibility took place during the interval between the 1999 report and the 2005 policy adoption. The first step, as reported by Thompson, Burgstahler, and Comden (2003), was to require alternative text for all images on pages appearing in the Spotlights section of the UT-Austin home page. The University webmaster subsequently toughened this informal policy to require that Spotlight pages meet all Priority 1 requirements of the WCAG 1.0. A major renovation of the University website was launched in March 2002. It employed a more far-reaching accessibility requirement, which remains in force today: Any page that can be reached by following a single link from the University's home page must pass all Section 508 requirements for web accessibility. In June 2002, responding to a regulation requiring that all state agencies publish accessibility policies and link to those policies from "key public entry points" on their sites (Texas Administrative Code § 206.71), the University published web accessibility guidelines that described Section 508 as a "minimum" standard for accessibility and explicitly encouraged campus developers to exceed that minimum. These preliminary University guidelines became the basis for the subsequent accessibility policy.

As originally published in June 2002, the guidelines specified that all new and revised resources published six months or more after publication of the guidelines should comply with Section 508 standards. Legacy pages predating the accessibility guidelines were to be brought into compliance within two years or removed from active service. However, the inclusion of such deadlines in a document that did not represent official University policy was deemed inappropriate, and the dates were removed. This change helped alleviate concerns about the impact of the guidelines on web-authoring practices, but it did not satisfy everyone. For example, one faculty member who made extensive use of visual material on an instructional site felt that compliance should not be required because it did not "make sense" for students who were blind to take such a course in the first place—an example cited here because it points to a more fundamental issue of social and cultural attitudes toward disability that must be addressed in order to achieve full inclusion.

There was, and still is, concern that the requirement that all web-based video include captions would be prohibitively expensive and would inhibit faculty use of videos for instruction. It is important to note, however, that even those who have been most concerned about the costs of meeting accessibility requirements and the possible impact of those requirements on pedagogical and technological innovation have actively participated in ongoing conversations about accessibility and seeking cost-effective solutions, especially in the area of captioning. These concerns and conversations that led to the published UT-Austin accessibility guidelines helped prepare administrators, faculty, and staff for the discussions involved in transforming guidelines into policy. Addressing some of the initial concerns enabled discussions to transition into accessibility policy development. This "trial run" provided opportunities for awareness-raising and training to improve the accessibility of existing resources and develop new resources with accessibility in mind.

Awareness Efforts. Awareness-raising events included the annual Accessibility Internet Rally University Challenge (AIR University), a competition adapted from and timed to coincide with the annual Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin (AIR Austin) created by Knowbility, Inc. In AIR Austin, teams of professional web developers are matched with local nonprofit organizations. About two weeks after developers and nonprofit staff attend a half-day web accessibility training workshop, participants gather at a single location to spend eight frantic hours building the most accessible websites they can manage. The sites are judged according to predetermined criteria. The winners are announced at a banquet held at a downtown hotel. The AIR University competition adapts this activity to the university environment, recruiting participants from campuses throughout the state of Texas. Here, developers enter the web resources for which they have responsibility in their university positions. The competition takes place over several months, because many participants are working on resources and services that must be tightly integrated with administrative databases and other components of their universities' intranets, and coordinating these development processes can take extra time. Accordingly, training sessions are offered in May, and the deadline for entries is set to coincide with the AIR Austin rally day in September or October.

The university's purchase of Watchfire's WebXM also helped to raise awareness of accessibility. WebXM allows ITS to scan university websites for accessibility barriers as well as other characteristics related to quality and security. The implementation of this tool brought the concept of accessibility directly to developers' attention and provided motivation to improve their scan results. At one point, ITS announced that they would be specifically monitoring accessibility improvements over the summer. Three or four times throughout the summer months, ITS sent an email message to UT-Austin web publishers. It listed those sites that experienced major reductions in accessibility errors and congratulated their respective webmasters.

Accessibility Institute. This Institute (formerly called the Institute for Technology and Learning) has played a leading role in many of the accessibility efforts at UT-Austin—in fact, so much so that the Institute was reorganized in 2003 to focus exclusively on accessibility, reflected by the name change to the Accessibility Institute. Besides being an active participant in the AIR Austin and AIR University events, the Accessibility Institute also offers day-long accessibility workshops and shorter presentations to academic classes and other groups across campus.

The Accessibility Institute works with ITS during product evaluation and testing that takes place prior to major IT purchases. In addition, the Institute offers free accessibility consulting services to campus web publishers; these services range from automated testing and compliance checking to expert review, user testing, and accessibility planning for teams embarking on new projects. These consulting activities also furnish data for Accessibility Institute research, including studies of how accessibility considerations affect web design practices and user experience studies that include people with disabilities in the subject population. Finally, the Accessibility Institute engages in activities at local, national, and international levels concerning accessibility policies. For example, Slatin was co-director of the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group during much of the writing of the WCAG 2.0.

In summary, at UT-Austin, the process of adopting and implementing a web accessibility policy has helped identify areas of focus. Campus web developers and many others have responded to current and past accessibility initiatives with interest and eagerness to make significant accessibility improvements. The Accessibility Institute continues to receive consulting requests, especially for new projects or sites undergoing redesign. Efforts are ongoing to develop innovative solutions to significant challenges that include reducing the cost of captioning and providing built-in support for accessibility during content development.


The enrollment of the UW-Madison exceeds 40,000 undergraduate, professional, and graduate students. It employs nearly 14,000 faculty and staff members. The campus has developed an international reputation for disability research and training. Examples include the following:

The UW-Madison was one of the first universities to develop a web accessibility policy and use language that other postsecondary education institutions have replicated (Johnson, Brown, Amtmann, & Thompson, 2003).

Assistive Technology

As a service to the University, the Division of Information Technology maintains several computer labs across the 900-acre campus (University of Wisconsin-Madison, n.d.b). Originally, the AT made available to campus focused primarily on the needs of students with mobility, visual, and/or auditory disabilities. Technologies included screen reading and text enlargement software, Braille embossers, alternative keyboards, trackballs, adjustable tables, and ergonomic chairs. The needs of people with invisible disabilities, such as learning disabilities, were not explicitly addressed. Subsequently, a decision was made to install two software products on a network server: Kurzweil 3000, which provides reading, writing, and test-taking assistance for people with learning disabilities, and ZoomText, which enlarges computer text and images. Later, a network version of JAWS, which reads information on the screen by using synthesized speech or Braille outputs, was added. The network installations allowed access to these products from any of the hundreds of workstations located in all campus computer labs, rather than from isolated workstations in some labs. It has been found that the ready availability of AT benefits a broad spectrum of people—not only those for whom the software was originally designed. For example, students and staff who are not native English speakers are gaining valuable pronunciation and reading practice from the "read aloud" and "highlighting" features. Those with low-level reading or writing skills are taking advantage of powerful decoding tools, such as dictionaries and synonym lists, to provide alternate word choices. Those who are losing their vision, including the aging population, are benefiting from text magnification and voice output features. Campus web and application developers are using these technologies for testing their web pages and web applications. Most beneficial is that students with disabilities are no longer being segregated to special areas or limited to certain workstations; they can use AT on any workstation in any campus computer lab.

Accessible IT

The collaborative work of many individuals and groups on campus to promote accessibility is creating an expanding, inclusive e-culture with a growing range of stakeholders. As access issues are identified and discussed, awareness grows, and the desire to promote accessibility and find solutions increases. Accessible resources, training, and tools are more widely available. The result is a spirit of collaboration and community.

The web application eTEACH is a powerful example of how UW-Madison's Policy Governing World Wide Web Accessibility (also known as the Web Accessibility Policy) contributed to the inclusive e-culture (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007). eTEACH is a web-based multimedia video presentation tool that combines PowerPoint slides with video and/or audio and includes a table of contents for navigation ease, quizzes, links to other resources, and a control player layout (stop/start, forward/back, volume control buttons). It was developed at UW-Madison for the delivery of online lectures (eTEACH, n.d.). Students can view lectures via the campus network at computer labs on campus, in dorm rooms, or at private residences. The developer initially met most of the campus Web Accessibility Policy requirements and sought an exemption to full compliance. The needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students had been met by providing captioning for lectures, but it became clear that considerably more work would be needed to make eTEACH accessible to learners who are blind and depend on screen readers. The controls that sighted students used for advancing slides and increasing or decreasing the volume of the multimedia player were not usable by blind students. Slides could only be advanced sequentially, and the volume of the audio content was fixed and would compete with the audio output of the screen reader. What would motivate any developer to spend the additional time, do the extra work, and go through the learning curve needed to remedy these problems? In this case, the developer of the eTEACH tool also served on one of the campus committees addressing web access and had seen first-hand the speed and capabilities of blind students when they are not denied access. He took on the challenges of making eTEACH both accessible to students who use AT and easy for faculty to create accessible content (Anderson & Litzkow, in press). As a result, eTEACH now serves as a proof of concept for other software developers who may question whether such applications can ever be made accessible.

The inclusive e-culture continues to grow at UW-Madison, as do the challenges of creating access for all users. The web is evolving from a static space of text and graphics to a more dynamic social space where users can add to or remix data from multiple sources (e.g., MySpace, Google Maps, Flickr, YouTube and Facebook). As the e-culture expands, there are more people who care about and have the ability to recognize access issues for people with disabilities. Ideally, this growing e-culture will provide the needed solutions to improve access for all.

Highlight: Top-Down Development of Web Accessibility Policy

Web Accessibility Policy Development. The Vice Chancellor for Legal and Executive Affairs/ADA Coordinator appointed a campus committee in 1998 (as a subcommittee of the ADA Task Force) to research and draft a Web Accessibility Policy for the campus. For over a year the committee worked together, drafting and addressing technical support issues. Campus IT and faculty support groups were consulted and encouraged to develop training and resources for compliance.

The original policy, enacted in December 2000, was based on the guidelines developed by W3C's WCAG. These guidelines were familiar to the committee drafting the policy, as UW-Madison's Trace Research and Development Center played a major role in developing both the WCAG and the Campus Web Accessibility Policy. The final policy recommendation was circulated and supported at a high administrative level.

Some people embraced the campus policy as a clear sign that access to information by people with disabilities was a high priority. Others felt that they were being told to do something that they did not have the skills or resources to do. Early training included concepts that were difficult to grasp by those using What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editors, such as GoLive, FrontPage or Fusion, to create web pages. Now web designers were being asked to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to separate content from presentation and valid HyperText Markup Language (HTML)—unfamiliar concepts to many web designers in 2000.

Policy Update. In November 2001, the original campus Web Accessibility Policy was updated to reflect what was learned from implementing the first policy and to address rapidly changing technologies. The policy moved from being based on WCAG guidelines to Section 508 standards, as it was anticipated that software, training, and supporting material would evolve as a result of Section 508 standards being adopted by the federal government. Sponsorship of the revised policy expanded to include the Campus Chief Information Officer/Director of the Division of Information Technology. This added endorsement brought with it additional resources for awareness and training. Both the original and the updated policies included language addressing:

A major shift occurred as a result of the policy revision. The goal for the campus to make progress in web accessibility, however incremental, was re-emphasized. A working relationship between administrative policy makers and service providers, including the IT community, developed. Because the Division of Information Technology was now a cosponsor of the policy, IT staff were assigned training roles to support it. Initially face-to-face classes and web-validation services were offered to the campus at no charge. Over time, an online course was developed (University of Wisconsin-Madison, n.d.c). Improved validation tools and other resources became widely available (World Wide Web Consortium, 2007).

Web content designers, developers, and IT professionals were directed by the IT Director and top-level administrators to remove the obstacles that prevent access to information and resources. The charge was to create web pages and applications that (1) comply with campus policy and (2) function with assistive devices used by individuals with disabilities.

Training and Support. An oversight committee representing several IT divisions, including the Help Desk, Training, Application Development, Faculty Support, and Communications, was appointed to review process, progress, and resources needed; this group continues to meet monthly. Advocacy groups representing a broad base, including students with disabilities; faculty members; and the offices of Disability Services, Facilities Planning and Management, Libraries, Registrar, Housing, Testing, have come together to collaborate on campus access issues. The Web Accessibility Policy continues to be a catalyst for building cross-campus alliances and coalitions that work together to improve accessibility. Departments on campus have Access and Accommodation Resource Coordinators (AARCs) to help faculty, staff, and students address accessibility in instructional settings (University of Wisconsin-Madison, n.d.a). Knowledge of the campus policy was disseminated to each department through the AARCs; training and resources followed.

The Web Accessibility Policy has been the catalyst for many innovative programs and services at UW-Madison. For example, several computer kiosks deployed at key high-traffic areas on campus provide convenient access to the web and email. Accessibility features were enabled, including full keyboard access, adjustable keyboard settings and font size, and user-selectable style and color capabilities. Another highly visible example is the campus web portal (a single point of contact for students, faculty, and staff to access services and information) that is required to include accessibility features and testing. Each product added to the portal is functionally tailored to meet the needs of users with mobility, sight, and aural impairments, as well as compliance with the Web Accessibility Policy.


More than 50,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff work at the UW. More than 700 students register for services from the Disability Resources for Students (DRS) office. The Disability Services Office (DSO) provides similar services to faculty, staff, and visitors with disabilities. The UW hosts many different on-campus services that promote accessibility, as well as the far-reaching DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center. Since 1992, DO-IT, has received federal, corporate, and foundation funds to promote the success of people with disabilities in postsecondary academic programs and careers, employing technology as an empowering tool.

Assistive Technology

In the 1980s the Adaptive Technology Lab (recently renamed the Access Technology Lab, or ATL, to reflect increasing efforts in consulting on the design of accessible IT) received national attention as one of the first comprehensive postsecondary adaptive technology services in the United States. The ATL houses a collection of AT that students, faculty, and staff can test drive and provides a central resource that supports a distributed model of campus computing. ATL staff work with campus computer lab administrators to help them obtain the necessary hardware and software for students with disabilities using departmental labs. The ATL is part of the Accessible Technology division of UW Technology Services and works closely with DRS and DSO.

Accessible IT

ATL staff provide consultation to departments ranging from assistance in evaluating software for accessibility during the procurement process to guidance in the design of accessible websites. For years, the ATL has offered web accessibility presentations on campus and worked to integrate accessibility issues into mainstream web development courses. The ATL also has an ongoing relationship with Learning & Scholarly Technologies (a UW Technology unit that develops electronic tools, strategies, and training for faculty members) to ensure that the tools they create are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Because of its close collaboration with the ATL, this group routinely considers accessibility issues in product design and training.

The University does not have a policy that addresses specific expectations regarding the accessibility of IT. Instead, the UW approach is to apply to IT its existing policies for meeting Section 504 and ADA obligations. UW policy states: "The University of Washington is committed to providing access, equal opportunity and reasonable accommodation in its services, programs, activities, education and employment for individuals with disabilities." (University of Washington, Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, n.d.) To help campus units comply with this policy, UW Technology Services maintains a website devoted to guidelines and resources for making websites accessible (University of Washington, n.d.b); these web resources were recently expanded to include other types of IT (University of Washington, n.d.a). The site promotes the Section 508 standards and procedures as a model and resource. For web page design, it first points to Section 508 standards as minimum guidelines for accessibility and then to the more in-depth guidelines and resources provided by the WCAG. ATL staff work closely with other UW Technology staff to ensure that primary UW websites are designed to be accessible to all visitors. However, the vast majority of web content is produced by faculty and staff who are outside the control of central units.

Accesssibleweb Group. An approach used to address this problem is to foster grassroots collaboration among people from a cross-section of UW units, within which peer support, adherence to accessible web design guidelines, and advocacy is encouraged. UW Technology Services instituted a user group, accessibleweb, of individuals who develop and maintain websites across campus. Members communicate using electronic tools and meet monthly. They encourage each other to embrace accessibility, rather than simply apply a list of standards to achieve minimum compliance.

Advisory Committee. The UW has an advisory committee that deals with a broad range of access issues for people with disabilities and makes recommendations to the Vice Provost for Minority Affairs and Diversity. This group, the Advisory Committee on Disability Issues (ACDI), includes representation from key stakeholder groups, including people with disabilities. Because UW Technology Services and DO-IT staff are among its members, ACDI has served to increase awareness regarding the importance of the procurement, development, and use of accessible IT.

Capacity-Building. The Northwest Alliance for Access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (AccessSTEM) (DO-IT, n.d.b), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), hosted an Accessible Web Capacity-Building Institute (CBI) of webmasters and administrators at postsecondary institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. At this event, technology and management staff shared challenges and solutions for promoting the accessible design of websites on their campuses. The online proceedings were made available nationwide (DO-IT, 2006). This event successfully raised awareness of accessible web design, as evidenced by tripling the membership of the accessibleweb group on the UW campus. A second CBI was held in 2008 (DO-IT, 2008). It expanded on the content of the first Institute to include all types of IT and focused discussions on implications for the three UW campuses. Based on experience at the UW, it has become increasingly clear that, besides issuing directives, schools can promote technology accessibility through informal teams of stakeholders that discuss issues, increase awareness, and develop a commitment to accessible design. They can promote a sense of community and cooperation with far-reaching benefits.

Outreach. The National Center for Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT) (University of Washington, n.d.c), originally funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education, supports a searchable Knowledge Base of case studies, frequently asked questions, and promising practices on accessible IT in education. A similar collection, hosted by DO-IT's AccessSTEM (DO-IT, n.d.b), complements the AccessIT database with content related to AT and other tools and strategies that increase the successful participation of people with disabilities in academic programs and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Another complementary database is hosted by the Alliance for Access to Computing Careers (AccessComputing) (DO-IT, n.d.a), which is funded by NSF to increase the participation of individuals with disabilities in IT career fields. Together, these three Knowledge Bases provide a comprehensive resource on the development, procurement, and use of accessible IT.

Highlight: UW Distance Learning

DO-IT and ATL staff have helped the UW Distance Learning program improve the overall accessibility of its courses, thus maximizing program access and minimizing the need for accommodations for students with disabilities. An award from UW Technology acknowledged the accessibility efforts of the UW Distance Learning design team. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education (DO-IT, n.d.c), DO-IT and UW Distance Learning entered into a collaborative project, AcccessDL, with sixteen other postsecondary institutions. Participant efforts resulted in the creation and implementation of accessibility indicators for distance learning programs. Each Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicator relates to one of four key stakeholder groups in the delivery of distance learning courses (Burgstahler, 2006, p. 86) as follows:

For Students and Potential Students:

For Distance Learning Designers:

For Distance Learning Instructors:

For Program Evaluators:

In summary, efforts toward accessible IT at the UW have benefited from federal funding that supported the development of a rich set of online resources and the development and implementation of accessibility policies and procedures within the distance learning program. Capacity-building meetings, an active user group, focus on compliance with existing civil rights legislation, involvement of key stakeholder and advisory groups, integration of accessible design within mainstream services, and recognition of those who promote the use of accessible IT on campus have all contributed to increased awareness and application of accessible design.


UW, UT-Austin, and UW-Madison have demonstrated a commitment to the design and use of accessible IT and a wide variety of strategies for reaching this goal. Challenges encountered in the process include making decisions about how guidelines or standards should be selected and implemented; increasing general awareness; getting a large, diverse community to work together; securing faculty and administrator buy-in; and overcoming technical problems. The following recommendations are for consideration by campuses that wish to ensure their electronic resources are accessible to all students, staff, instructors, and visitors.

Involve stakeholders. Engage a wide range of stakeholder groups in policy and implementation processes. Collaborate at multiple levels and engage leaders from different areas of campus that include legal, disability service, distance learning, and IT professionals; relevant advisory groups; and individuals with disabilities. Include high-level management from the IT organization in the design, development, and implementation of policies, guidelines, and procedures. Employ both top-down and bottom-up strategies. Increase awareness of the concerns of different groups (e.g., the accessibility needs of students with disabilities and the training needs and time and technology limitations of webmasters).

Research existing policies and practices. Investigate how other colleges develop and support IT accessibility policies. Learn from their successes and failures. Review existing state and campus policies regarding program and information access to individuals with disabilities and, specifically, accessible technology.

Make a commitment to accessible IT explicit. Although having a discrete campus-wide policy on accessible IT may be ideal for some institutions, a broader campus policy mandating compliance with Section 504 and the ADA can still provide a foundation for promoting accessible IT. In either approach, be sure that policies and procedures address the availability of AT and the design, procurement, and use of accessible technology. Consider separating broad policies and procedures from specific accessible design strategies, since the former may rarely need updates, but the latter will require changes as mainstream technologies and tools used on campus change.

Set long- and short-term goals. Have a clear focus from the beginning and throughout implementation steps. Develop goals that campus units feel they can achieve. Take clearly defined steps and celebrate progress, however small, toward improving IT accessibility.

Promote guidelines or standards. Direct campus web developers to guidelines or standards (e.g., Section 508 standards, WCAG, institution-developed standards) that can be used to evaluate the accessibility of technology and guide technology design and purchase. A website with guidance tailored to the campus as well as useful resources can promote IT accessibility within campus units.

Develop procedures. Incorporate accessibility considerations into the development and procurement guidelines of the central computing unit as well as distance learning, libraries, academic departments, and other campus units. Support close communications between the policy makers and service providers (including disability and technology support staff).

Provide training and support. Complement IT accessibility goals, policies, and standards or guidelines with robust services. Offer technology accessibility training in separate courses and ensure that accessibility issues are incorporated into mainstream web design and other IT courses offered centrally and within departmental units. Make technical staff and online resources readily available to support those who influence the procurement, development, and use of technology.

Disseminate information. Be sure that policy and procedural statements are included prominently in information given to students, faculty, and staff across campus. Publicize widely the availability of guidelines or standards, training, and support.

Test, enforce, and reward. Routinely test websites, particularly those of central services and larger units, to ensure that accessibility guidelines or standards are applied. Offer feedback and support to units with inaccessible sites. Also consider giving rewards to individuals or teams that make exceptional efforts toward the use of accessible technology.

Evaluate and revise policies, procedures, and resources. Facilitate regular reviews and revisions of policies, guidelines or standards, and procedures, making sure to include individuals with disabilities in the review and improvement process.


Technology creates opportunities for everyone if accessibility considerations are made in design, procurement, and maintenance processes. Otherwise, technology can impose unintended and needless barriers to equal participation in academic studies and careers for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. It is important to develop a campus-wide commitment to accessibility—and a clear acceptance of this as an ongoing effort, not a one-time project. Promising practices employed by the institutions discussed in this article provide examples that could be replicated at other schools. Employing accessible design principles as technology resources are created, updated, and purchased can efficiently and effectively reduce obstacles to access.


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This article is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (Cooperative Agreement number HRD-0227995) and the U.S. Department of Education (NIDRR grant number H133DO10306 and OPE grant number P333A020044). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the federal government, and you should not assume its endorsement.


John Slatin, our friend and colleague, passed away before this article was published. John taught at the University of Texas at Austin for 29 years and was director of the Accessibility Institute on campus. He had a tremendous impact on the field of accessibility at both national and international levels. Through his poetic writing, his collaborative work on the WCAG 2.0, and his inspiring teaching, John offered his expertise, guidance, and enthusiasm about accessibility. He made it easy to be excited about the possibilities of accessible IT. A tireless advocate for accessibility, he is greatly missed.

Burgstahler, S., Anderson, A., Slatin, J., Lewis, K. (2008). Accessible IT: Lessons Learned From Three Universities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 12(1).