Volume XIV Number 1, March 2014

Continuity and Change in E-Text and Online Information Accessibility in Higher Education: A Rip Van Winkle Perspective

Daniel Hilton-Chalfen

In some ways I'm the last person who should be writing for this special 20th anniversary issue. I have been out of the campus adaptive technology field for a long, long time. But in another quirky way that makes me uniquely qualified to give the Rip Van Winkle perspective on how e-text and online information accessibility in higher education have changed in 20 years, and what challenges persist.

Since my disability retirement in 1997, I have enjoyed phone chats and meetings with adaptive technology (AT) specialist Patrick Burke. Patrick has been my window to the changing AT and higher education world, as seen through his experience running University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)'s Disabilities and Computing Program (DCP). Those updates, along with past issues of Information Technology and Disabilities (ITD) Journal and ATHEN E-Journal and topically related websites, constitute the sources of my knowledge about AT and higher education's present. 

In my article in the Campus Computing department of the first issue of ITD (Hilton-Chalfen, 1994a), I identified some key areas to follow in coming issues. Two of them, access to online information and access to course-related print information through e-text, occupied a big portion of adaptive tech providers' time then, as it does now. The two have become increasingly intertwined, so I’ll bounce back and forth between them in my attempt to look back at IT in order to look forward.

A common refrain on campuses in 1994, which I mentioned in that first ITD Journal, was "Why can't we just get the computer file from the publisher?" This was something of a lost cause at the time, especially given the wide array of inaccessible file formats publishers used, assuming you could even get the file and edit it before the semester started. The alternative—scanning print documents; followed by painstaking editing for speech, Braille, and large print output; and finishing in time to be useful to students—was quite a challenge. From what I gather, many of those challenges remain. But I am delighted to learn of the substantial evolution of accessible e-text and related support services in higher education since ITD Journal Number 1.

Twenty years ago Patrick and I were involved in an effort, in collaboration with UCLA Library IT partners, to prepare for universal access to a new library online information system (Hilton-Chalfen & Farb, 1995). A leading proposal for the new system was to provide structured online information using Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). Coincidentally, The International Committee on Accessible Document Design (ICADD) had come out with the SGML document type definition (DTD) to facilitate the creation of structured text files for Braille, speech, and large print output. So our UCLA working group developed an ICAAD-to-Braille (grade I) translation program as a proof-of-concept for accessibility to the proposed SGML-based library online system. Along came web-based library information systems and that effort was set aside. Fortunately, thanks to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessibility group, ICADD's e-text mark-up specifications would be folded into basic HTML.

Subsequent structured e-text developments included the DAISY Consortium's standard DTBook DTD, which enabled production of DAISY books with audio and searchable text. DAISY books, widely available from Learning Ally, Bookshare, and others, can be produced on-campus with a site license. As a former struggling provider of accessible e-text, I am thrilled to awaken in 2014 and learn from Patrick about the EPUB 3.0 accessible e-book publishing standard for the web, which integrates and moves beyond the previous efforts (EPUB is a product of the International Digital Publishers Forum's EPUB working group, (International Digital Publishing Forum, 2013)).  

The rise in the use of EPUB by a growing number of publishers heralds great new prospects for equal access to fully usable structured e-text books in education. Patrick says "the revolutionary change is that EPUB has broken into the mainstream in the past two to three years. It's now supported by Adobe Digital Editions (used by various publishers) and Amazon's Kindle, although these formats have proprietary restrictions." The long-standing Gutenberg Project "now provides a vast source of older literary works, in many languages, and many formats, including HTML and EPUB." However, "many other publishers and online education companies are still using PDF or other formats." Hopefully, as more publishers realize that there is a dependable e-text mark-up available across many different operating systems, they, too, will make their files available in EPUB.

Students and AT providers have more options available than ever before to get e-text in alternate formats. AccessText Network, administered by the Georgia Institute of Technology (AccessText Network, n.d.), facilitates requests from any higher education institution for files from publishers in various formats, including EPUB. This resource can streamline the laborious and costly efforts of the past that strained to produce a reasonably accessible file when the student actually needed it. The Alternate Text Production Center (ATPC) of the California Community Colleges (Alternate Text Production Center, n.d.) demonstrates the power of a system-wide service by supporting the e-text accessibility needs of over 112 community colleges. Another exciting recent option for text accessibility in education is RoboBraille (Synscenter Refsnaes & Sensus ApS, 2004) an online resource (free to individuals and institutions with site licenses), which allows the conversion of many different inaccessible document types into more accessible formats, including EPUB. Patrick notes that it "does not replace usual disability services, but it can reduce their workload. Plus it's much more flexible, letting the student decide in each case what the preferred output format should be."  

We continue to move away from the Tower of Babel that was e-text accessibility in 1994. Problems remain with the duplication of effort by many colleges and universities creating redundant e-text files of varying quality, with all the related time and cost inefficiencies. Graphics, math, scientific notation, and video remain challenging, as does access to Learning/Course Management Systems (LMS/CMS), courseware, and interactivity. But there, too, EPUB 3.0 reflects significant progress (see EPUB, ibid., especially EPUB 3.0 Overview, Section 1 "Introduction" and Section 4 "Accessibility").

Patrick highlights additional challenges that remain for higher education: "Universities (or "academic purchasers") aren't fully tuned into this issue. If a professor requests a book for a course reading list, the university acquires it whether the publisher produces an accessible format or not. That's where a lot of the work still lies ahead: working on accessible purchasing guidelines, getting campus bookstores on board with those guidelines..."

Jeff Senge's pioneering 1993 study of the California State University (CSU) system gives a broad perspective on the state of information accessibility in higher education in the early 90s (Hilton-Chalfen, 1994b). The study detailed the widespread challenges of providing alternate text access to vital public campus information, including course catalogs and class schedules, admissions and registration materials. At the time, web-based campus-wide information systems and access to information through graphical web browsers were still on the horizon. The study also emphasized the legal mandate for providing information access in alternative formats, including e-text. At the time, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Letters of Finding highlighted the legal consequences of campuses not adequately providing these and related text accessibility services (Hilton-Chalfen, 1994c). Such OCR letters provided powerful support for struggling campus AT specialists in their advocacy efforts to raise awareness of print, e-text and online information accessibility needs, and of the resources needed for AT, IT, and disability services, to support that access.

Though related challenges persist, the integration of e-text and online information accessibility practices into higher education has come a very long way since 1994.  I am heartened to read a recent study (Thompson, Comden, Ferguson, Burgstahler, & Moore, 2013) reporting a great number of campuses and university systems that today have policies mandating print accessibility services and web accessibility. This was practically unheard of in 1994. A mandate is no guarantee of implementation, as the study's authors point out. But these policies are an important indicator of widespread growth in awareness at the top levels of colleges and universities. They are also a recognition of the dedicated efforts of AT, IT, disability services, and 504/ADA specialists over the last 20 years to bring about the institutional culture change that led to that awareness and subsequent policies.  

This cultural change and its impact are evident at the federal level in Section 508 (of the Rehabilitation Act), where efforts are underway to update the section and incorporate the latest World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessibility guidelines. Section 508 has influenced law at the state level, with a significant impact on higher education. In her article on Section 508 and higher education, Cynthia Waddell stated  "Today every State in the Union has an accessible web law or policy in place that has adopted the World Wide Web Consortium Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, the Section 508 web standards or some other standard.” (Waddell, 2007) Increasingly, we have seen Section 508 applied specifically to higher education through state law (e.g. in Illinois and Texas).

The result of the synergy of federal and state law, campus grass roots AT efforts, and increased awareness of institutional responsibilities at all levels of higher education, is exemplified in the ongoing history of accessibility at California State University (CSU). CSU adopted a system-wide IT accessibility policy based on the California accessibility law in 2004, and in 2006 created the Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) (California State University, n.d.), which included web accessibility. Just this past August, the CSU Chancellor alerted CSU presidents of recent legal actions in higher education concerning access to online course management systems, course content and texts, and library online information (Smith, E.P., personal communication, August 13, 2013). He pointed out CSU campuses' responsibilities to address those needs, and of the ATI resources available to them. While these accessibility issues echo those of 1994, the Chancellor's letter symbolizes a significant change in institutional awareness and commitment when compared to the findings of Senge's original CSU study. 

This kind of historic change does not come easily, especially in a large university system with a long history of both fiercely independent campuses and the IT departments within them. Thus, it was gratifying for me to hear from Patrick about this year’s letter from the President of the University of California (UC) System mandating a policy of online information and IT accessibility and related support services at all UC campuses and labs (Lau, 2013). This system change resulted from decades of effort on the part of many people. Again, policy does not automatically translate into concrete action. There are the universal concerns about "unfunded mandates" for example, especially during times of economic recession. The UC Electronic Accessibility Leadership Team (EALT), which formulated the UC policy language, is looking for ways to address those concerns, such as funding system-wide software purchases (now in-place for automatic web testing software), developing system-wide services like video captioning, supporting individual campuses in creating their accessibility committees and timelines, and getting the word out. This is the hard, nuts and bolts work of putting policy into practice. The past, present, and future issue for accessibility policy and related services is, as Patrick comments, that "the biggest problem we have with policies is that the web world is moving at light speed and the bureaucratic world (of higher education) moves at its own glacial speed."

As in 1994, I believe collaboration will be vital to timely and usable access to e-text and online information in the higher education future; within campuses, between campuses in a community college or university system, and even between college and university systems. CSU's policy and the ATI were a role model for the UC policy. Conversations back and forth with UC's EALT group and CSU's ATI group have grown into considerations of joint purchasing guidelines for vendors. As Patrick says, "It is hard enough to get system-wide agreements. We are contemplating larger agreements between systems." Looking ahead, we can envision more inter-system synergies, perhaps even between the college and university systems of different states and countries. These might include not only joint purchasing agreements, but shared alternate media production and a solution to joint file sharing that satisfies publishers’ financial concerns.

As with higher education's accessibility experience since 1994, the journey ahead from 2014 will be marked by unforeseen developments and consequent challenges. Steve Noble, taking the editorial reigns in ITD Journal's 10th anniversary issue in 2004, looked back to look ahead: "I humorously note that in early 1994 there were only a total of 3,000 websites around the world. Ten years later, that number now exceeds 50 million." When Steve wrote those words 10 years ago we could not know what our online information universe would look like today. We do know that 10 years from now academic content delivery and the role of IT in higher education teaching, learning, and scholarship will look very different, and campus AT specialists and the students, faculty, and staff they serve will be greatly challenged to keep up. We can easily predict that legal and institutional mandates in the future will be no guarantee of action, let alone of full accessibility and usability. We can also state with confidence that advocacy and diligence will remain key to culture and system change at the college and university level. As it was when the ITD Journal was first published 20 years ago, 20 years from now it will still be the dedicated commitment of people like the readers of and contributors to ITD Journal that will make all the difference.  

Thanks to Patrick Burke, MA, for the comments he provided on this article. Any inaccuracies or misrepresentations of facts are my own.

Daniel Hilton Chalfen, Ph.D. developed and ran the UCLA Disabilities and Computing Program from 1984–1997, chaired EASI from 1990–1992, and edited the ITD Journal's Campus Computing Department from 1994–1996. He lives with his family in Boulder, Colorado.


AccessText Network. (n.d.). AccessText Network. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from http://www.accesstext.org/index.php

Alternate Text Production Center. (n.d.). Alternate Text Production Center. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from http://www.atpc.net/

California State University. (n.d.). About the Accessible Technology Initiative. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from http://www.calstate.edu/accessibility/

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Thompson, T., Comden, D., Ferguson, S., Burgstahler, S., Moore, E. (2013). Seeking Predictors of Web Accessibility in U.S. Higher Education Institutions. Information Technology and Disabilities Journal, 13(1). Retrieved from http://itd.athenpro.org/volume13/number1/thompson.html.

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Hilton-Chalfen, D. (2014). Continuity and Change in E-Text and Online Information Accessibility in Higher Education: A Rip Van Winkle Perspective. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 14(1).