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Cornell Web space opens doors to everyone, including those with disabilities

When Ezra Cornell said, "any person … any study" in 1868, little could he have known the impact it would have on Cornell's Web sites more than 100 years later. Today, the university is moving to make all its sites -- from the Cornell front page to individual course Web sites -- accessible to all users, including those with visual, hearing or other disabilities.

"It takes more time to be a student with a disability," says Katherine Fahey, director of student disability services in the Cornell Center for Learning and Teaching. However, access to the Web gives these students more independence. No longer does a vision-impaired student, for example, need an assistant to copy printed materials into Braille, if the material is available on an accessible Web site.

Accessibility takes many forms, not all of them obvious, such as arranging text so that it flows logically when read aloud, providing subtitles for video, avoiding color combinations that confuse the colorblind or including text descriptions of images.

Federal and state laws, notably the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, require accessibility on government sites. Even though higher education is not covered by these laws, the university is taking a proactive approach by drafting a formal policy to ensure that university Web sites conform to the standards set in the federal law. The policy, now in review, should take effect within a year, says Tracy Mitrano, director of information technology policy in the Office of Information Technology.

Students are responsible for requesting accommodations they need. But "we have reached a point in time where a student should not have to request that a ramp or an elevator be installed to make a building accessible, and a student should not have to request that a Web site be made accessible," Mitrano says.

Course Web sites, many of which have been built up laboriously over many years and often include interactive features, may be the biggest challenge.

"Making a Web site accessible is an elaborate adjustment once a class has started," says Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education. Faculty members want to do the right thing, she adds. "Putting the burden on the individual student is not the way to go. However, faculty are not sure what will be required of them to make their sites accessible. It will mean retraining for a lot of people."

The draft university policy requires that new and redesigned sites comply within a year after the policy goes into effect, allowing course sites up to two years and other types of sites even longer. There are exceptions where a site includes technology that can't be made accessible or the change creates an undue burden. "Nothing about this policy is intended to interfere with the university's mission," Mitrano says. "If it does interfere, that is an exception."

Cornell offers a free Web Accessibility Primer and advanced accessibility courses for designers and developers at http://cornell.veplan.net/Education/search.aspx?lf=web+accessibility.

"We are trying to provide as many training and support resources as we can to make it as easy as possible to make Web sites accessible," says Diane Kubarek, director of the Office of Web Communications. As a general rule, she says, Web design that follows today's best practices is already well on the way to being accessible.

"By making Cornell's Web space accessible, we are proactively stating that Cornell wants the best students, employees and faculty at this university," Mitrano points out.

Review the draft Web Accessibility Policy at http://www.cit.cornell.edu/policy/webaccess.

Shaley DeGiorgio is a staff writer for Cornell Information Technologies.

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