PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As part of its ongoing effort to ensure a fully equitable experience for individuals with disabilities, Brown University is taking major steps this fall in implementing a strategic action plan for web accessibility.
The University is training web content editors across campus on website accessibility, developing new policies and procedures to ensure digital accessibility standards, and engaging in a project to rebuild the Brown.edu website with the primary goal of achieving broader accessibility.
Collectively, the processes, procedures and actions being implemented to improve digital accessibility complement Brown’s broader effort to ensure an equitable experience for all members of and visitors to the University community.
“If things are done well digitally, it can significantly remove barriers for people with disabilities,” said Catherine Axe, associate dean and director of the Office of Student and Employee Accessibility Services (SEAS). “If done poorly, it can create them. As we seek to attract people with a wide range of experiences to Brown, we need to ensure that the global experience of Brown — both on campus and on the web — is equitable.”
The web accessibility efforts expand upon initiatives that date back to 2014. The continued proliferation of video and other image-rich content on sites across Brown’s web presence prompted examination of how the University could ensure that its academic and administrative units could benefit from an understanding of accessibility concerns.
A working group in May 2018 developed the “Strategic Action Plan for Web Accessibility at Brown University,” which details expansive efforts for eliminating barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing and interacting with the University’s web content.
Industry standards for website accessibility include, among others, elements such as text-to-speech capability, text enlargement, text descriptions for images, title and header formats that enable web page navigation without a mouse, visual notifications for sounds, and controls for users to select colors and contrast levels that they can see. Joel Pattison, Brown’s director of web and digital communication strategy in the Office of University Communications (OUC) said the goal is to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from the information and experience on a website.
“We are committed to ensuring that users who have disabilities — whether visual, auditory or other — have the same quality of access to information on the University’s website as those who do not,” Pattison said. “Not only will these actions ensure compliance with all standards and best practices for the web, they align with Brown’s broader priority of creating a more fully diverse and inclusive community.”
Chief among the action steps underway is a comprehensive rebuild and redesign of the University’s Brown.edu website. To expedite the rebuild of the site, Brown has partnered with an external web design and development firm with deep expertise in higher education digital content accessibility, Pattison said.
With early information architecture and design stages of the web rebuild nearing completion, Brown will take delivery of a set of functional, fully accessible web templates by December 2018. The University is scheduled to relaunch the Brown.edu home page in early 2019, Pattison said, and will begin to systematically relaunch other highly used Brown websites later in 2019.
The plan also outlines policies and procedures to evaluate all new Brown web content for accessibility. Among elements of the plan achieved to date are the restructure of Brown’s web services staff to ensure oversight of websites across the institution’s digital channels, a pre-launch checklist to evaluate the accessibility of new web content, and a clear mechanism for users to report inaccessible content.
Pattison noted that OUC has already worked to make frequently viewed pages on the Brown.edu site accessible. In spring 2017, OUC began to implement solutions to ensure that all new sites complied with accessibility standards. Those efforts emanated from OUC’s Departmental Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which outlined a strategic approach for ensuring that all communications efforts were aligned with the University’s vision for a more diverse and inclusive community.
Building on a previous plan
The new plan builds on efforts by a working group formed in 2014 to recommend improvements to digital content accessibility. Convened by Student and Employee Accessibility Services, the group in 2016 published guidance for University departments on the implementation of accessible technology. It also proposed and helped to implement new policies on video captioning and making online course materials accessible.
The new 2018 strategic action plan articulates a clear set of policies and procedures to expand upon and institutionalize that earlier work, Axe said.
As Brown worked to develop the plan during the 2017-18 academic year, it became one of dozens of colleges and universities contacted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) regarding complaints that web pages on the institutions’ websites were not accessible to people with certain disabilities.
In a formal written agreement with OCR, the University committed to steps that parallel many of the actions expressed within its current strategic action plan. OCR acknowledged that Brown had already engaged in improving digital accessibility and “currently works extremely hard to ensure that its community understands that any accessibility concerns are remedied appropriately and expediently.”
Pattison said the formalization of Brown’s efforts toward improved accessibility comes at an exciting time for Brown.edu and the University’s other digital channels.
“The internet is all about open and equitable access to information,” Pattison said. “That openness very much aligns with Brown’s values and mission — we look forward to reflecting it even more fully as we move toward a new and improved Brown.edu in the months ahead.”