December 2, 2010

Cornell: Sites Will Be Upgraded for Disabled

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Until he found a way to circumvent blocks of irrelevant text, Zachary Mason ’12,  a blind student and Sun science writer, needed as long as 5 to 10 minutes to read a single e-mail on his CMail account, “just to find what the e-mail was telling me, who sent it and what was involved.”

Mason said he uses the program Jobs Access With Speech to transform a website’s images and text into an input he can understand.  Yet the ease with which Mason uses JAWS depends on the programming of the website he is trying to access, and Mason called CMail’s internal framework “miserable.”

Mason’s predicament may improve soon. Yesterday, Cornell Information Technology Director Steve Schuster said the implementation of improved web accessibility standards is “probably coming in the first or second quarter of this coming year.”

This promise comes after the University Executive Policy Review Group failed to approve Policy 5.11, Web Accessibility, in Fall 2009. If approved, Policy 5.11 would have given people with disabilities easier access to Cornell’s websites by requiring the University to meet the web accessibility standards of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Although CMail is not run by Cornell, the policy would have required all “outside vendors” to comply with 508 standards, and Cornell would have had to discontinue its use of CMail had the policy been adopted, according to Schuster.

Vice President of University Communications Tommy Bruce defended the board’s decision, saying the new accessibility standards would be most efficient if “folded into the overhaul of CIT, where it belongs.”

Bruce noted that since CIT had been “put under a review as part of Reimagining [Cornell],” there has been “suddenly a possibility” of adding web accessibility to CIT’s “principles and standards.”

Bruce also said Policy 5.11 would have “put a lot of pressure on people to retroactively adjust [their webpages].”  He added the University should instead set web standards for changed or new webpages, since “websites undergo change on a regular basis.”Like Bruce, Schuster said web accessibility would be better implemented via other means. “If you create a policy that says everything has to meet 508 standards, there are websites or other services you may have to change twice,” Schuster said.

In assessing Cornell’s current web accessibility, Schuster said there are “some sites that do a fantastic job” but that there are “others that simply don’t.”  He said that Cornell is “very close to 508 compliance.”

Still, in evaluating, Crista Earl, director of web operations for the American Foundation for the Blind, said some parts of Cornell’s website would not meet 508 compliance.On the homepage, Earl said, a prominently displayed picture of a female birdwatcher with binoculars was both incorrectly labeled and linked.

Earl called the site for CornellCast, a video news program run by the University, a “very incorrectly coded page.” “I came here to watch a particular video but I don’t know how to do that because I have a whole bunch of crazy links and a whole bunch of incorrectly coded links,” Earl said. She gave the “very messed up page” the grade of an F.

While the University is not legally mandated to meet 508 section compliance, Daniel Goldstein, a Baltimore lawyer at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, said Cornell is bound by Section III of the Americans with Disabilities Act to make sure “the blind user has access to all of the same kind of information and can engage in all of the same transactions as the sighted user with a substantially equivalent ease of use.”

In November, Goldstein filed a complaint on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind against Penn State University for, in part, a web site that is “not fully accessible to blind students,” according to a PRNewswire released by the NFB. “If you get online to get sources at 11 at night and it takes you 10 minutes and it takes the blind student three hours, then [the students are] not competing on an equal basis,” Goldstein said.  “Under those circumstances, Cornell has a significant risk of exposure to a lawsuit, or to the Department of Education or Justice taking action.”

Associate University Counsel Patricia McClary painted a different picture of Cornell’s legal obligation. “We have a legal obligation to make accommodations for individual students or employees who may need a disability- related accommodation,” McClary said, but added Cornell does not have a legal obligation to preemptively accommodate people with disabilities. “If a student came forward and said they needed access to some website that was not accessible, we would have to provide access for that material,” McClary said.In an e-mail, Goldstein ridiculed McClary’s understanding of Cornell’s legal liability.  He said “The interactive process comes into play with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act — accommodating employees” but has “absolutely nothing to do with the responsibilities of a place of public accommodation under Title III, an entity receiving federal funds or a governmental entity.” Goldstein said that under McClary’s interpretation of the law, “every building on campus could be inaccessible until a student in a wheelchair made a request to enter the building,” a notion he rejected.

Joe Clark, an expert in the field of web accessibility and author of Building Accessible Websites, said 508 compliance indirectly applies to Cornell, since the University must provide accessible websites in accordance with the ADA. Clark said “it stands to reason” that Cornell must provide web accessibility “under the ADA, even if there isn’t unequivocal case law.”

Regardless of Cornell’s legal responsibility, some members of the committee listed other rationale for its decision not to accept Policy 5.11.

In an e-mail, University Treasurer and Chairwoman of the EPRG Patricia Johnson defended the decision to proceed with improved web accessibility “in an operational manner rather than as a formalized [U]niversity policy.”  Johnson wrote the policy was not approved because, among other things, “there is no guarantee that compliance can be achieved in a predictable time frame, given the current economic climate.”

Associate Dean of Engineering David Gries said “it is infeasible to require course websites to be completely web accessible.” Gries noted instructors should be as accommodating as possible if there is a student with a disability in a course, because websites are so frequently changed, but “Maintaining everything as completely web accessible takes time and effort, and that time is often not available.”

Earl and Clark assailed both these notions, arguing that web accessibility is both cheap and easy.  Clark said it was “harder to make an inaccessible site,” adding “you have to go out of your way” to do so. Estimating how many students 508 compliance affects is difficult though Director of Cornell Students with Disabilities Kappy Fahey  said, “By and large, students with disabilities are able to use the web for course work and student life independently.”

Talia Shear  ’12, president of the Cornell Union for Disabilities Awareness, said Cornell students are “absolutely affected by this.” Saying at least 500 students at Cornell are registered as having a disability, web accessibility standards are “something that they really should have and shouldn’t wait to have,” Shear said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Crista Earl, director of web operations for the American Foundation for the Blind.

Original Author: Jeff Stein