By Micaela Myers
Whether it’s new buildings or the creation of a website or video, the University of Wyoming is taking steps to become more accessible to persons with disabilities.
When it comes to facilities planning, the scope goes well beyond the building itself. “What you want to do ideally is not only think about the access within the building, but also access from the point at which the person with the mobility impairment or other disability might leave a car or leave public transportation and make their way into the building,” explains Laurence Blake, interim UW Facilities Planning director. “So we think about an accessible path or route as well. We try to make that entire distance or length of travel accessible, so it extends beyond the entrance to the building.
“In general, on our new construction and also on our renovations of existing buildings, our architects are required to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those are minimum requirements; where it makes sense, we look for them to go beyond that,” he continues.
Older buildings present a unique challenge. “As an example, the entrance to the Education Building,” Blake says. “The Education Building has an elevated entrance that was previously accessed via stairs, and it has a lower entrance to the east of the main entrance. The landscape architect did some creative grading and created new sidewalks that stay below the slope requirements and make a more gracious entry.”
Renovations are still needed for many of the older buildings.
Signs also are key for accessibility. “If you provide signage, it has to meet the ADA requirement,” Blake explains. “You have to make sure the background color and the text color have enough contrast so that persons with limited visibility can make out the letters or numbers. Typically we’ll have raised letters and a Braille strip. The doors to offices, classrooms and public spaces will all have ADA door signage.”
While signs and ramps are more obvious images of accessibility, digital accessibility is also an important consideration. “We’re in the beginning to middle phases of the work that needs to be done,” says Jesse Ballard, manager of Information Technology’s Academic Support Unit. “I was brought on to the UW Accessibility Committee and then given the responsibility of forming a subcommittee to look at websites and online resources. … The committee looked at all the various elements on campus, and we drafted a report that was submitted to the larger Accessibility Committee identifying two places that needed resources allocated to them in order for the accessibility issues to be addressed.”
In part, the subcommittee recommended hiring a website coordinator to oversee and take ownership of Web accessibility at UW. “You have to make sure that a website can be read by a screen reader,” Ballard says. “So if someone is visually impaired and cannot see what’s on a Web page, they can use a screen reader program that narrates the content of the page to them. Also, if a website contains pictures, a screen reader can read the descriptions provided for those images. Our content management system on campus is accessibility friendly. It guides Web authors to place the information in the correct location.”
However, those who post content to the pages must write descriptors for the photos. “You use words to try and paint a picture for the person who is using a screen reader,” Ballard explains.
Contrasts on images and between fonts and backgrounds also need to be clear for those who are color blind, he adds.
On the content management side, UW Institutional Marketing has completed the first phase of a two-phase plan to address ADA compliance. The first phase included addressing template and programming issues. Phase two will prevent images from missing alternative text and provide other tools to site authors, including video transcript links. In addition, UW Institutional Marketing has developed Web accessibility guidelines and has begun to address ADA compliance in training sessions.
The subcommittee also recommended hiring someone to become a central resource for captioning UW videos. “Videos are becoming very prevalent in online classes as well as marketing efforts, and a lot of them don’t have any captioning,” Ballard says. “So if somebody is hearing impaired, and they’re watching a video with no captions, all they’re seeing is the images, but they don’t see the content or conversation that’s occurring behind it.
“Both those positions will go a long way in helping us get all of our online resources more accessible to not only the campus community but the global community as well,” he says.
Canvas (WyoCourses), the new learning management program for UW was chosen, in part, for being accessible. “It’s really fortuitous for the campus that we implement it now because all new courses that are put onto it should have a basic level of accessibility built into them,” Ballard says.
The campus portal WyoWeb was also recently revamped, he adds. “As we [went] through that process of rebuilding it and making it more user friendly, we [kept] in mind the need to make it more accessible so that those issues [were] addressed up front. We’re trying to make accessibility something that’s considered whenever we’re doing something online.”
Accessibility issues are important not just to students and visitors but to faculty and staff as well. In fact, the university is working to hire more people with disabilities.
“We take our hiring statement seriously, including the emphasis on equal opportunity,” says Mandy Watson, recruitment supervisor for UW’s human resources office. “That vision for diversity in the workforce has always included veterans and people with disabilities as well as the other groups who are underrepresented.” However, the university is now upping its efforts to recruit veterans and people with disabilities. This will include dedicated outreach and training for faculty and staff involved in hiring. “UW’s commitment to this effort will be a continuing process of gathering resources for outreach, training and implementing best practices,” Watson says. “Diversity is such an important piece to UW, as it expands the quality of services and the experiences we can provide to our community by enriching our workforce.”