Looking into Laura Weiss’s piercing blue eyes, you’d never guess that she’s blind. Although she sometimes returns the gaze — a habit she picked up from the first 30 years of her life when she still had vision — all Weiss can see now are faint blurs in her peripheral vision.
It’s this characteristic that places Weiss, a social sciences junior, among the 71 students at Cal Poly categorized as “disabilities students” who rely on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to receive an education.
The law was passed in 1998 and outlaws discrimination against people with disabilities. Recent revisions involving electronic compatibility have forced the California State University to adopt a system-wide goal of achieving full ADA compliance for all digital information by 2012.
The university has already begun implementing ADA compliance with three focus areas of Web accessibility, instructional materials accessibility and software adoption.
Trey Duffy, director of disability services at the disabilities resource center on campus, explained the process simply.
“Anything that can be heard needs to be seen and anything that can be seen needs to be heard,” he said.
For Web developers, compliance ranges from avoiding color combinations that could trigger seizures to closed captioning videos for the hearing-impaired.
A Web page that is unreadable to a computer program is the equivalent to a physical world without ramps and elevators, Duffy said.
For Weiss, accessibility is very personal.
“It’s about making people with disabilities be the best that they can be,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the DRC, I would not be able to make it through college.”
ITS and DRC have approached the process of ADA compliance in three phases. The first step, which is now over, was raising awareness. Cal Poly is currently transitioning between step two, knowledge, and step three, skills.
Mary Shaffer, who is in charge of overseeing the compliance process at Cal Poly, said that an overall change in perspective needs to come to the university. Instead of accommodating for the individual needs of individual students, the goal is that everyone plans ahead before they buy, design and teach.
The first area of focus is the Web. To be compliant, the biggest concern is that all sites need to be formatted in a way that is accessible to anyone who is partially or fully blind or hearing-impaired.
This means that every photo must have a description –known as alternate text — written into the programming language behind the scenes of each Web page. This description isn’t visible to the everyday user unless they put their cursor over the image. [Click here to see a COMPLIANT SITE and here to see aNON-COMPLIANT SITE].
But to a blind person, this text is important because when the Web page is run through a computer program specially created for a blind person – or semi-blind person like Weiss — the description of a photo would read something like, “Photo of a student riding a bike.”
For a deaf student viewing a Web page, all audio must be transcribed so that it can be visually read and all video must be closed captioned. While that might not mean much for a professor using a Web site, for organizations like CPTV, it would mean hours of extra work for each video produced.
“We’ve been working extensively with departments to redesign or retrofit,” Shaffer said.
Each college has Web accessibility coordinators who oversee progress at a college-wide level. On a departmental level, there are staff or faculty site managers who are in charge of department Web sites.
Valanche Stewart is the Web accessibility coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts. He said that so far, the College of Liberal Arts is leading the way at Cal Poly, with four department Web sites that are 100 percent compatible and another three that are awaiting approval.
“There’s a little resistance to change, but they’re adapting,” Stewart said.
The priority has been in getting all department sites compliant, but starting in the fall they’ll move forward to ensure that all sub-sites and faculty sites are compliant, Stewart said.
“It’s a good thing we have three more years,” Stewart said, referencing the 2012 goal. “We’re probably going to need all of them.”
He said that the biggest difficulty isn’t the technical work, but changing the mindset.
“Once you show them how to do it, they can make it part of their workflow,” he said. “I’m optimistic we can reach 100 percent compliance by 2012. But when a site is compliant, you’re not done. . . it needs to be an ongoing habit.”
For practicality purposes, Shaffer and Duffy said the emphasis is on compatibility of new sites, rather than retrofitting of older sites. But the act isn’t only limited to the Web; any class material that is electronically conveyed needs to be accessible too, including PowerPoint slideshows.
Weiss is a student with retinochoroiditis, meaning she can still see movement in her periphery. She uses a monoscope in class to zoom in the projector screen.
To get an idea of how she views the world, she said to hold your fists up to your face and focus on them without looking away. Everything in the farthest edge of your peripherals — usually indiscernible blurs– is the only thing she can see.
At the end of the day, she reviews her class materials in a digital format on one of her two massive computer screens at home. She uses a program called Zoomtext that magnifies the text to a size so large that only four words fill the screen at a time. She puts the monitor to her face and listens as the robot-sounding voice reads the text back to her.
When her class materials are not provided in an accessible digital format, the DRC steps in to make accommodations.
Duffy said the DRC scanned 78,000 pages worth of non-compliant material in 2008-09 and turned it into a digital format. If full compliance was achieved by the 2012 goal, though, the DRC would no longer have to play the middleman between publishers and disabilities students.
“We’re basically putting ourselves out of a job,” Duffy said.
In addition to Web sites and instructional material, compliance also extends to instructional software. Before departments purchase software more than $15,000, it will be screened to ensure that it can be available in multiple formats to accommodate for those with disabilities.
A challenge, Duffy said, is that the virtual world can be controlled by anyone.
In the real world, architects are licensed and forced to follow building guidelines for accessibility. In the cyber world, anyone is qualified to create a Web site, making it hard to enforce.
“Our approach is knowledge, not enforcement,” Shaffer said. “Strict enforcement at this point is going to make us an enemy in the long run.”