CITES’ updates benefit visually impaired users

By Colleen Vest

The new design and updates for the express e-mail page and other University Web sites are not strictly visual. New technology was added to improve navigation for blind or visually impaired staff and students.

Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services launched a new Web interface for express e-mail on Jan. 6.

“We updated applications to make it more accessible for screen reader programs, which are primarily used by blind people,” said Daniel Jacobsohn, director of application services for CITES. “We also updated the look and design to be more modern and consistent with the other Web sites for this University.”

A screen reader is a software application that identifies what is displayed on a screen, then converts it to audio or other interpretation devices, said Andrea Van Proyen, manager of strategic communications for CITES.

“With the old layout, the quick menu on the left of the express e-mail page was inaccessible to people using keyboard navigation and screen readers,” said Jonathan Hsieh, accessible development specialist for CITES. “So by adding headers on pages and updating the code, the navigation has improved and the sites are compliant with more browsers.”

Although the design is slightly different, the changes focused on making the Web site easier to use, Hsieh said.

“The provost started an accessibility initiative last year for campus Web sites, with a focus on updating express e-mail,” Jacobsohn said.

CITES worked with someone who uses a screen reader to know what needed to be improved for express e-mail, Van Proyen said.

“I went to a workshop on accessibility and one of the presenters who’s blind showed us how the screen reader works,” she said. “It’s a completely different experience using the voice technology, which is really quick.”

The express e-mail update and other accessibility projects took about six months to complete, Jacobsohn said.

“It was actually finished earlier than January, but we held off so we weren’t disrupting students in the middle of a semester or during final exams,” he said.

No new servers or applications had to be purchased, so the update did not cost anything, Jacobsohn said. The new page layout may be easier to use with cell phones and other portable devices because of improved accessibility and the formal design for screen readers, he added.

“It is like the cut-curb effect – those areas that you can just walk onto the street instead of taking a big step down. Those were originally designed for wheelchairs, but ended up helping everyone,” Jacobsohn said. “This technology is similar because it was specifically designed to help certain people but everyone will benefit.”