New campus committee will focus on digital accessibility

a person types at a computer screen, transcribing a written powerpoint slide about chemistry into a devices that will narrate what the slide says to those who can't easily see computer screens

In this 2017 photo, a staffer at UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program transcribes a written instructional slide on chemistry for students who would not be able to easily read the screen during a course lecture.
(Photo by Noah Berger)

UC Berkeley has launched a new high-level committee that will focus on making sure the campus’s digital infrastructure is accessible to everyone – from blind staff who use screen readers to narrate what they see on web pages to deaf students who need captions to follow a video lecture. 

The new Information Technology Accessibility Policy Advisory Committee will report directly to Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost (EVCP) Ben Hermalin and be a conduit to bring “campuswide decisions and issues straight to the EVCP,” said Ella Callow, co-chair of the committee and director of Berkeley’s Office of Disability Access and Compliance

The goal is to make sure the accessibility of Berkeley’s digital properties is as high a priority as the accessibility of programming and of buildings, which have been audited and remediated for decades with ramps, elevators and other accommodations. 

“What we want to do is ensure that the digital domain continues to be more and more accessible in the same way that we continue to improve physical accessibility,” Callow said. “It has to be thought of in exactly the same way.”

Over 4,000 students are registered with the campus Disabled Students’ Program, and more than 20% of staff, faculty and students self-report as disabled. 

The committee will serve as a home for the extensive information technology (IT) accessibility work — across almost a dozen campus entities — that has been going on over the last decade. Priorities include evangelizing accessibility standards across the 65,000-person campus community, updating rules for procuring new technology and supporting researchers, instructors and other stakeholders. The committee members will include students, staff and faculty. 

“Having that structure and intentionality is what you have to have to address these issues,” Callow said.

Committee co-chair Jenn Stringer, the associate vice chancellor for IT and chief information officer at Berkeley, said that the creation of the committee would mean the work of digital accessibility “is not just behind the scenes anymore.”

“We are engaging with the committee to ensure that we are not just implementing policy, but that we are engaging with the community to ensure that people have access,” said Stringer, who uses captions to follow most Zoom meetings. “For us, this is a civil rights issue, this is a social justice issue. Berkeley understands that better than anyone, and perhaps that’s why we’ve been quietly doing all this work, because that’s what we do.”

This video shows many different perspectives and situations when it comes to web accessibility. (Video by the Web Accessibility Initiative)

The launch of the committee follows a string of successes in improving digital accessibility at Berkeley, including: 

  • 2012: Open Berkeley, a low-cost website solution that builds accessibility and security into the platform, along with Berkeley branding, was piloted. Berkeley IT launched Open Berkeley across the campus in 2015.

  • 2018: A full-time ADA/Section 504 compliance officer was hired and the Office of Disability Access and Compliance (DAC) was created. Of the six current DAC staff, four are disabled people and the majority are BIPOC. 

  • 2018: SiteImprove, an automated testing tool that monitors public-facing websites and provides a report of accessibility issues that can cause websites to be unusable by people with disabilities, was introduced. 

  • 2018: Berkeley’s Research, Teaching, and Learning Services developed and delivered ongoing synchronous and asynchronous training and resources to support instructors' creation of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)2.0 AA-compliant digital content. Level AA is the level used in most accessibility rules and regulations worldwide. 

  • 2019: DAC created a grievance process for disabled people, whose complaints have included those experiencing barriers in the digital domain. 

  • 2020: DAC, in response to the pandemic and the campus closure, created a resource page and provided training on holding accessible remote events. This information includes how to secure and provide Communication Access Realtime Translation and American Sign Language for online events and how to create captioning for video of online events posted to websites. 

  • 2020: Research Teaching and Learning Services developed WCAG 2.0 AA- compliant and pedagogically-effective learning management system templates for instructors to deliver remote and online teaching and learning opportunities for their students.

  • 2021: DAC and Berkeley’s IT department collaborated to manage a running docket of IT concerns brought to them by buyers, stakeholders, web administrators, students, staff, faculty and non-affiliates. To date, almost 100 complex matters have been resolved, and work continues. 

  • 2021: Berkeley banned no-code website platforms and accessibility overlays, both of which reduce accessibility. All Berkeley websites are required to add an accessibility link to their home pages so disabled people can locate Berkeley’s accessibility policy, grievance portal and non-discrimination statement.

  • 2022: Over 270 campus websites are using Open Berkeley as their website platform.

  • 2022: Berkeley provided $2 million to support a three-year project to bring the top 200 most traveled, public-facing Berkeley websites into compliance with the WCAG 2.0 AA standard.

But even despite these achievements, Callow acknowledged that there would always be work for Berkeley to do to make its websites and digital tools universally accessible. 

“Accessibility is a goal you are trying to reach,” she said. “Nothing will ever be fully accessible for everyone, whether you’re talking about architecture or the digital domain. You have to own that there will always be a new challenge.” 

“You’re never going to be able to check boxes off and say you’re done, nor should we think about it that way,” she added. “This is a living process.”

Members of the campus community should feel confident that their colleagues are ready to assist them and collaborate with them to ensure access for disabled people at Berkeley. Any concern can be raised as either an issue of concern or a formal complaint through the reporting system on the DAC website. Additionally, community members can contact DAC via email.