Innovation and Accessibility: The UMass System Office Focuses on a Dual Approach

Filed in Featured, General, Innovation by on December 20, 2016

two hands putting together A.D.A puzzle pieces

It is early November and a conference room in the UMass System Office’s Collaborative Services Facility is filled with staff from every department within the President’s Office. Those who cannot attend in person are present via a web conference. They are all intently reviewing a presentation about proposed regulations from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on web accessibility compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Though the regulations have not been finalized yet, everyone in the room agrees – we need to do the right thing. After all, it is part of our mission statement “to provide an affordable and accessible education of high quality and to conduct programs of research and public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, the nation and the world.”

Most of the pending regulation requirements are straightforward and have been considered good practice for years– closed caption on videos, alt text on tables within reports, properly labeled form fields, etc. The University Communications Office and the UITS Web Services team have already made great strides in making public-facing web content accessible, including core code and the implementation of a closed caption process for videos. Additional code and design work is already in progress with technical changes to the sites planned to roll out by the new year. Finally, all web content editors will receive training in early 2017 on creating accessible Microsoft and Adobe documents.

The section of the DOJ regulations that raises the most questions is about third party systems. The pending regulations will set Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the standard for universities. Vendors typically used older (2001) Section 508 standards for compliance. The pending regulations only apply to universities. Thus a hot topic is how we can determine if a third party system is WCAG 2.0 accessible since that is the standard we need to meet. It’s a discussion that will evolve over time, but has already started to reshape our procurement process with new ADA requirements language recently built into the RFP process.

“It is amazing to see how energized, engaged and collaborative people can be when they work together to do the right thing,” stated Ralph Zottola, Chief Technology Officer of Research Computing and IT Strategy, Research, and Communications.

Though there’s much to be done with third party systems, the team is reassured by the fact that one of our third party systems has already undergone major updates for ADA compliance under the new standard. In the summer of 2016, UITS completed a joint effort with a vendor to apply the WCAG 2.0 standards to a student-utilized system at Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell – the GreyHeller Student Mobile experience. “We want the students to be able to directly enter data and interact with the systems using the modern accessibility tools for mobile devices that they have available to them,” stated Wendy Mulcahy, Manager of Student Applications at UITS. GreyHeller worked directly with the UITS ADA review team to update code that was identified as within violation of the WCAG 2.0 standards. When the system went into production, all accessibility violations that could be identified were fixed. These fixes were validated through an automated testing tool as well as through screen reader testing by the UITS ADA review team. As the code continues to change and shift, UITS hopes to engage student testers to validate the accessibility of the system.

“The true test is when someone that actually needs to navigate the system by means of assistive technology is able to successfully navigate to and access the content he or she was planning to access. For example, if a student requiring assistive technology ends up spending double the time completing a simple day to day task such as registering for classes, or worse, can’t complete the process, we’ve impacted their educational experience at the University going forward. Technology must adapt and be innovative while also retaining usability,” stated Kristina England, a member of the UITS ADA team.

While the DOJ’s regulations aren’t finalized yet, the System Office has decided it is necessary to move forward with incorporating ADA compliance into our processes and technologies. With our first third party system review completed and improved accessibility across our public-facing sites, there are still many other next steps to consider as we strive for both innovation and accessibility. Our current activity list includes:

  • Integration of accessibility guidelines into the procurement, planning, and design process for third party systems going forward.
  • Continued improvement of public-facing site accessibility when feasible.
  • Development and rollout of regular Adobe and Microsoft accessibility training to all of our departments.
  • Ongoing Accessibility Task Force with representatives from each office.
  • Proposed development of a student work study group for ongoing testing of public-facing and third party systems.

For more information about the UMass System Office’s accessibility initiatives, please contact Kristina England at

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