University offers ACCESS

By Jonathan Wroble

Forty years ago, a ramp outside of a campus building was considered adequate for disabled access. Today, with technological developments, more and more is being done to enhance accessibility for disabled persons.

That’s the reason for the Accessibility Common Courseware Exchange for Software Studies program, an IBM partnership with various universities across the nation. The program aims to educate students, professors and Web designers on how to make technology more accessible for the disabled and the aging.

“We want to make sure that Web resources are available to everybody, including people with disabilities,” said Jon Gunderson, University Director of Information Technology Accessibility. “If we don’t design for accessibility, we’ll be locking a lot of people out of opportunities.”

Without accessibility technology, the number of people that might be left out is significant. According to the World Health Organization, more than 750 million of the world’s 6 billion people have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive disability. The U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile, reports that half of the U.S. population that turns 55 by 2008 will experience a disability after age 65.

On March 23, the University teamed up with IBM to start building a repository of learning materials to educate on accessibility. Gunderson compared the repository to a library, where people can head to “check out” diverse materials.

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“(The information) is collected all in one place,” he said. “So if an instructor was entrusted with teaching a course on accessibility, they could go there to find materials to use in their own classroom.”

Gunderson himself has already added 22 lectures, assorted assignments and resource links to IBM’s repository. They are taken from his online course titled “Rehab 711: Designing Universally Accessible Web Resources,” which has also been taught on campus as Library and Information Science 490.

“To create a truly inclusive society, all forms of information technology need to be more accessible,” said Dr. Bonnie Jones of the U.S. Department of Education in a statement.

In a recent survey of more than 200 institutions, IBM found that the majority of university faculty members do not incorporate accessibility into coursework, often due to a lack of knowledge on the topic. The company is hopeful that its new repository will address this issue.

“It’s an important time right now because so much education is being put online,” Gunderson said. “Most Web designers have no education in accessibility.”