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>  News Releases >   2003 >   February

Dartmouth website goal: Access for all

Posted 02/05/03, by Tamara Steinert

Sarah Horton, Instructional Technology Specialist for Computing Services
Group raises awareness of 'universal design'

When the Dean of the College's Office began evaluating its web communications with students last year, it uncovered an issue that was new to most people in the division.

"We found out that our websites weren't very accessible to people with certain disabilities," said Assistant Dean of the College Mary Liscinsky. "We'd really worked to make our site visually interesting with graphics and that sort of thing, but I'd never thought about how that might create problems for people using screen-reader technology."

The Dean of the College's office isn't alone in being unfamiliar with web accessibility issues, according to Sarah Horton, Computing Services Instructional Technology Specialist, who, along with Student Disabilities Coordinator Nancy Pompian and Director of User Communications for Computing Services Bill Brawley, is helping staff from the Dean of the College areas identify and solve problems on their websites.

"Generally, the 'look' of the web is what gets the most play, and that has led to access problems," Horton said. "If the only real text on your web page is the copyright statement, many people are not going to be able to use it. Image-based pages are difficult for people who use screen reader software, or who need to enlarge text to read it, or who access the web on a PDA, or who are bandwidth-disabled. The good news is that web designers are starting to realize that access and functionality are better than good looks."

Web developers are using principles of universal design to create sites that are useable by anyone, Horton said. This approach is already used extensively among architects to ensure access to physical spaces. Common examples found in the physical world include curb cuts and access ramps. With universal design, accessible elements are included in the initial design rather than as an afterthought.

Using these principles on the web means creating flexible pages that people can adapt to their needs and preferences, Horton said. "You want to present information on a page in a lot of different ways so that people with different abilities can access it. So, if you have a video clip, it should include captioning for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. If you have an image, it should include alternate text that describes it. When you present text you want to make sure it can be enlarged for people who need large type," Horton explained.

Although building accessible websites sounds like it requires more time and money, Horton says they can actually save both in the long run.

"Accessible sites are easier to maintain because they rest on solid technologies and good coding practices," she said.

The web accessibility group includes (from left) Ellen Arnold, Associate General Counsel; Bill Brawley, Director of User Communications, Computing Services; Nancy Pompian, Student Disabilities Coordinator; Sarah Horton, Instructional Technology Specialist; and Michelle Meyers, Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

Horton first became involved with Web accessibility when she was invited to be a member of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative. Last winter she convened a campus committee to write web accessibility guidelines for the College; the booklet "Working Toward an Accessible Dartmouth Web" was published and distributed this fall. The booklet has already prompted several inquiries for more information around campus, and the group hopes to continue an awareness campaign on the issue, said Horton. In addition to Horton, Pompian and Brawley, the group includes Michelle Meyers from the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Associate General Counsel Ellen Arnold and a representative from the Public Affairs Office. Horton also authored an article on web accessibility that appeared in the June 10, 2002, issue of The New York Times.

With a greater number of services moving online, accessibility is likely to become an even more pressing issue in the future. Already a handful of lawsuits against companies such as Southwest Airlines and America Online have argued that websites are required to be accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The outcomes of these cases have been mixed so far, with no clear legal requirements emerging.

Most of the College offices working on accessibility are doing so because they believe it's the right thing to do, according to Horton. "It's been a very grassroots effort, and that's part of what's exciting about it," she said. President James Wright lent his support to this ideal in the guidelines booklet, encouraging people around campus to use principles of universal design on their websites.

"An accessible computing environment enriches the diversity of our community by welcoming students, educators, professionals and guests with disabilities," he said.

In the Dean of the College's Office, making appropriate changes to the 20-plus Web sites under its purview fits into the office's overall mission, Liscinsky said.

"Dean Larimore has been very clear that we need to make every effort to ensure that all Dartmouth students have access to the same opportunities, and that just wasn't the case with our websites," she said. "We're still learning the language of web accessibility. It's been a good learning opportunity."

A quick accessibility check

  • Turn off the web browser's image loading feature. Is the site still useable? If not, people with visual impairments might not be able to use the site.
  • Turn off the computer's volume. Is any audio content accessible through captions? Without this feature, people who cannot hear will not be able to take full advantage of the site.
  • Put aside your mouse. Are all the links and form fields navigable using the keyboard? Not all computer users are able to use a mouse.
  • Set your monitor to display in grayscale instead of color. Is all the text still legible and readable? If not, people with certain vision impairments, such as color blindness, could have difficulty with your site.

More information about making your website accessible is included in the booklet "Working Toward an Accessible Dartmouth Web," available online at

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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