by Max Freund
From the editor: Often the news stories of the day focus on confrontation and controversy, but sometimes, when the case has concluded, the benefit of the litigation we bring goes far beyond the initial victory. In the article below, which appeared in the Daily Iowan on November 29, 2010, we see a university looking for a compelling reason to do what it believes is right and finding that reason in the work of the National Federation of the Blind as we work to change the accessibility of technology at Penn State University. Here is the article:
Universities have been put on notice: Have accessible technology or face the consequences. And the University of Iowa is paying attention. The UI is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its Web accessibility guidelines, and officials said a recent complaint against Penn State University has shed light on how important the issue is.
"We have been waiting for that shoe to drop for quite a few years," said UI Web developer Joshua Kaine. "We knew it was a matter of time until an educational institution was essentially sued over this issue."
On Wednesday approximately fifty Webmasters from various UI departments will meet to work on the first step of making the university Websites more accessible to people with such disabilities as blindness or limited motor skills. Officials have not yet determined how many UI pages have poor accessibility. For example, many sites aren't coded to be properly read by screen readers—the standard software to help visually impaired users navigate the Internet. "If you can put your head around reading a Webpage with your eyes closed, that gets you to about 90 percent of understanding why Web accessibility is important to people with limited vision," Kaine said.
The first step is to create an accessibility policy that all UI Websites must adhere to, and this week's meeting should ensure many departments have a vested interest in the new guidelines, said Mark Hale, a research and development project leader for Information Technology Services. "We can make a policy at the top and do nothing about making it work, and that would be pretty ineffective," he said.
The next step will be to provide departments with easy-to-use Web development tools and a new Web-accessibility coordinator to provide expert support and to ensure the standards are met, Hale said. The coordinator's salary will be at least $40,700 but will likely be higher, he said.
Even as developers work to improve the UI's accessibility, technology officials nationwide are considering the effect of a seven-page federal complaint the National Federation of the Blind filed with the U.S. Department of Education against Penn State on November 12. The complaint cited numerous issues with accessibility on campus. Daniel Goldstein, whose Baltimore-based law firm filed the complaint on behalf of the Federation, said many technological shortcomings led to the situation at Penn State. For example, even after the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice deemed the Amazon Kindle inaccessible, Penn State used the similar product Nook from Barnes & Noble in a study. "That Penn State took no guidance from two federal agencies certainly made it worth taking a look at," Goldstein said.
Numerous attempts to reach Penn State officials for comment were unsuccessful. UI officials said the complaint will reinforce accessibility nationwide. "I do think it strengthens the case for the importance of activity among people on campus," Hale said. "Just as no president wants to be sued, it is easy for other administrators to say, `I do not want to be the cause of a lawsuit.’ So from the top it heightens the emphasis."