We talk web accessibility with David Carpenter and Jennifer Garvey of Colorado State University. David is the Director of Operations and Jennifer is Assistant Director of IT for Web and Business Systems at Colorado State’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

In this discussion, we shy away from the technical details surrounding accessibility, and instead focus on how to effectively align people and resources within an organization to get the work done. You’ll hear from David and Jennifer about some of the challenges they faced–and even mistakes they made–during their early web accessibility initiatives. And they share important lessons learned about how to more effectively engage both internal resources and external partners to get the work done. And perhaps most importantly, they detail practical examples of how they’ve integrated web accessibility into the fabric of their organization so that accessibility remains an on-going priority and not just a one-time project.


Links in this Episode

Stories of Inclusive Technology Video Series

Transcript

Jarrett Smith:  

You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher ed and the broader world of marketing to find actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts.

In this episode, we’ll be talking about web accessibility with David Carpenter and Jennifer Garvey of Colorado State University. David is the Director of Operations, and Jennifer is the Assistant Director of IT for Web and Business Systems at Colorado State’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

In this discussion, we’ll be shying away from the technical details surrounding accessibility, and, instead, we’ll be focusing on how to effectively align people and resources within an organization to get this important work done. You’ll hear from David and Jennifer about some of the challenges they faced and even mistakes they made during their early web accessibility initiatives, and they share some important lessons learned about how to more effectively engage both internal resources and external partners to get this work done. Perhaps most importantly, they detail practical examples of how they’ve integrated web accessibility into the fabric of their organization so that accessibility remains an ongoing priority and not just a one-time project. This was a great conversation with tons of practical insight. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Jennifer Garvey and David Carpenter.

Jennifer, Dave, welcome to the show.

David Carpenter:         

Thanks, Jarrett.

Jennifer Garvey:   

Thanks, Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:  

Web accessibility is such an important topic. Before we get into that though, would you please just tell us a little bit about Colorado State University and your roles there?

Jennifer Garvey:  

Sure. I’ll start. My name is Jennifer Garvey. I’m the Assistant IT Director for Web and Business Systems in the College of Health and Human Sciences at CSU. I’ve been at CSU for 17 years. I started out in Business and Financial Services, worked there for five years and then moved over to the academic side and have been working with Dave since then, and I oversee all of our websites in the college. We are one of eight colleges at the university.

Interesting thing to point out is we are the College of Health and Human Sciences. Within our college is the Department of Occupational Therapy, and then within that department is the Assistive Technology Resource Center, so accessibility is a big priority for our college. I absolutely love working at Colorado State University, and I’m so proud to be part of a really strong IT group that Dave is largely responsible for creating.

David Carpenter: 

I’ll take that as my intro. I don’t deserve that kind of praise. My name is Dave Carpenter. I’m the Operations Director for the College of Health and Human Sciences at CSU. I’ve been at CSU and actually specifically in this college for it’s 20 years this month. I started as a student hourly employee, came up through the computer labs and worked through the IT ranks, ultimately ended up as IT Director, which is around the time that Jen joined our team, and then in the last four to five years or so, I’ve acted as the college’s Operations Director where I still oversee the college’s IT group and all of its various functions, but then I also have responsibilities that extend beyond that into budgetary financial stuff, facilities, HR personnel, those types of issues.

Jarrett Smith:

Good deal. Let’s just jump in because web accessibility is top of mind for so many folks. We were all just at eduWeb, and there were so many presentations on accessibility and how important it is rightfully so. All those conversations are being had. I think they set the table for everybody. Could you tell us where you were a few years ago with regard to accessibility? What were the core challenges you were facing as an organization?

Jennifer Garvey:        

Our biggest challenge a few years ago was that we … I have to back up and give you some back story here. It had been a few years since our last refresh, and we went through a college name change in 2013, and that was the last time we had a major revamp of our college websites. In that time, we developed just a deeper awareness and commitment to accessibility. We’re all coming up to speed together on on this topic. For years, it’s been an issue, but there hasn’t really been a lot of enforcement, and it’s just one of the things that people say they do, but I think we just got tired of hearing that and then not taking any action.

One of the major priorities that we had with our rebrand or refresh effort that we undertook in 2015 was accessibility, and it was basically three big projects wrapped into one. We were moving from asp.Net, just static sites, over to a content management system. We were redesigning our website. We had three main goals: accessibility, responsive and then branding. Then we were revamping our content. The accessibility piece, it’s something that we’ve had a policy at the university since 2004, but it was just this policy that was nicely written, but not enforced, and so we were like, “We’re going to make these people accountable,” but I didn’t really know how to go about that other than doing my own testing. So we hired an internal developer, and they just said all of our sites that we develop are accessible, but they aren’t. It was obvious from pretty early on that that’s just something they say, but maybe weren’t backing it up with action.

David Carpenter:  

Like an afterthought in many ways.

Jennifer Garvey:

Yes, and another concept that has come out of our Assistive Technology Resource Center is the idea of universal design as a proactive approach, avoiding building barriers from the outset of a project. So this concept, it was a newer concept for me, but I absolutely love it. It’s just like, “Yes, this makes sense,” and I knew from the get go that this is not the approach that the developer was taking. He wasn’t being proactive. He was just like, “Oh, this will take care of everything in the final sweep,” and it wasn’t getting the attention that it needed. I waited a little too long to sound the alarm bells in our IT group, but once I did, man, it was like, “Okay, we’ll get the dean involved.” Maybe you take it from there, Dave.

David Carpenter:  

We tried to be patient, and they were working through a lot of stuff. One of the key problems with this particular project, it wasn’t very well scoped, and there was only one person working on it, and he was wearing multiple hats, and it’s too much to ask one person to do. It was just not well-formed, the project itself, and that’s on us as much as it is on them. We were a little bit naive and just assumed that it would all work out. I don’t think we assumed that they would meet their deadlines. We assumed they’d be close, and they weren’t. So a bunch of time passes, and we get to the tail end of the project, and Jen’s sounding these bells that she’s referring to about, “I don’t think this thing can be made accessible,” and so it ultimately came to a head, and some pretty long-winded emails basically stating that this is something that we’re committed to and it doesn’t feel to us like they were committed to it, and so we ultimately decided, after having the templates that were developed, we had them analyzed by WebAIM, who they’re just a fantastic group out of Utah state. We had them analyze the templates that were delivered to us. They basically said, “There’s no way you can make these accessible without completely and totally redoing them.”

So we made the decision with our dean’s support to scrap the entire project after about two years, which for Jen and for all of us, it was a very painful decision to have to make after having spent that much time and effort.

Jarrett Smith:       

I can imagine that must have been so frustrating and such a difficult moment when you just realize that this is just not going to work, but kudos to you all for realizing that and being willing to suffer through that. I’d be really curious, in retrospect, looking back on the project and how it was formed, you mentioned this really wasn’t as well conceived as it should have been. What were some of those key elements that you feel now looking back really should have been in place that would have helped the project be more successful?

Jennifer Garvey:           

I have a whole bulleted list here.

Jarrett Smith:              

Well, I’d love to run through that bulleted list because I think as folks are kind of thinking through their own internal projects, it’s good to recognize points of weakness that you may not have thought about early on. You may just save someone some pain, Jennifer.

Jennifer Garvey:        

Great. I would love that. Well, one of the sessions that I was in at eduWeb, they chatted about the three S’s: stakeholders, scope and schedule. I took that away, and I was like, “Yes, that’s basically what it came down to for us,” but I’ll just go ahead and give you my idea of what I see as a successful project and what we did.

Basically, all of our takeaways from the failed project mapped directly to a requirement on our RFP. The client team needed to have more people. That was on us. I just, for some reason, was like, “Oh, I’ve got this. I don’t want to bug anyone,” but you need people on the client side.

One of the things that’s the most important is to have people meeting on a regular basis discussing issues that come up because the biggest issue for me, as an IT person, that’s laser-focused on accessibility is not going to be the same issue that’s the biggest priority for our Director of Operations. So you need to all be coming together discussing what the issues and priorities are and meeting on a regular basis. So bigger client team and different skill sets, not just IT people, not just developers, but people from all around. Those are your stakeholders.

Then I mentioned the meeting on the regular basis thing. Our developer, we asked for weekly status meetings, and they declined, and I don’t know why. It wasn’t, like, “I’m the customer here. You can’t decline that request.” They basically said, “No, we’ll only do monthly or milestone meetings instead.” Putting your foot down there and just say, “No, I want to be updated as this project is moving along.”

Then there should be more than just one person on the dev team. I don’t know why that didn’t seem ridiculous in the beginning, but as far as we could tell, there was a single developer working on that project, and as I mentioned, it was three big projects combined into one giant project, but I blame his boss for that. It’s like, “You’re not managing your projects very well or your teams very well.” So more people on the dev team, people with expertise in different areas. When we worked with our vendor on the second project, the one that succeeded, well, there was a designated project manager. We had a user interface design, user experience expert. We had an analytics expert, both front and back end developers, a designer, a content strategist, and there were more. There was an IT guy, and there were a couple more people that were involved. They weren’t at every status meeting, but they were on the periphery, just a solid team on the vendor side, and the client should have access to every member of that team. I shouldn’t have to go through the project manager if I have an analytics question, and that’s how we set it up. That was our requirement, and that’s what they gave us. I could just, in Basecamp, have access to the analytics guy. That was nice.

Speaking of access, we had access to all of the tools that the vendor was using. They used Trello and Basecamp, GitLab for their code repository, just to name a few. We had access to everything, and that was helpful for transparency so we could see where we were at. It was really nice.

One of the things we incorporated or one of the requirements that we made was we had the vendor work directly with WebAIM. We already had developed a relationship with WebAIM, and it’s a good one, but the vendor at first pushed back and said, “Well, why don’t you have the relationship with WebAIM? We don’t want to have our own side contract with them.” We said, “Nope, if you’re going to do this, you’re going to work directly with WebAIM because we don’t want to be the middle guy saying, ‘Oh, well WebAIM gave us this list of issues. Now, you go fix them.'” We wanted them to be working directly with them, and it’s great because I think they established a good relationship with WebAIM and will probably work with them in the future.

That’s how we set it up to ensure success with the second project. Are there any other requirements, Dave, that I’m missing that-

David Carpenter:       

Yeah, the one big one that was critical to us and we built an RFP based upon our experience was the accessibility one. Jennifer refers to the relationship that we made the vendor have with WebAIM, but we specified in the RFP and then all the way through the project, we made sure that they knew that accessibility was a critical component of anything that they wrote. We made them speak to that in their bid and then we wrote it into the contract, that testing would take place multiple times through the project and they would work with WebAIM directly on that testing. So calling it out as a specific requirement and then getting that into the contract was a critical part of the success of the second project.

Jarrett Smith:   

Absolutely. That makes so much sense. The other advantage, and I think you brought this up in your talk as I recall, is that when you are dealing with a vendor, one advantage that you have there is that there is a legal contract in place, and so it gives you more leverage, more control in that relationship than when it’s a internal project. If you, say, didn’t have the option or maybe somebody listening to this doesn’t maybe have the option of working with someone external pulling in a vendor, how would you recommend they approach that?

David Carpenter:          

That’s interesting.

Jennifer Garvey:    

That’s a great question.

David Carpenter:      

Jen did mention this a little bit in her talk. There are ways to try and get at it a little bit. If you’re doing something internal, you lose a little bit of the legal strength of an actual binding contract, but you can hold other units within your institution. You can hold them accountable to some standard, and then you can do it in a number of ways. You could have a really well-defined statement of work that’s signed off on by administrators. So it’s not just an email that somebody says, “Here’s the things I’ll do,” but instead it’s some sort of statement of work or memorandum of understanding or whatever terminology you want to use that clearly defines your scope. These are the things you will do. This is the amount we will pay you to do that work, and then to give it some weight, you make sure that whatever administrator you have access to, that they’re the ones that are signing off on these things. Then you’ve got some sort of binding agreement between the departments and something to put the point at if you end up in this scenario we ended up in.

We just didn’t have that. We didn’t have anything like that. We had an email that said, “Yeah, this is the work I’ll do, and this is the amount of time I think it’ll take, and it’s going to cost you this amount of money.”

Jarrett Smith:          

That makes so much sense. I think anybody who has really spent any time thinking deeply about accessibility within the context of a large organization like yours certainly knows that it’s not a one-time project. You can meet WCAG 2.0 and then they’ll release 2.1-

Jennifer Garvey:     

Well, that happened.

Jarrett Smith:       

Which happened. That’s a real thing. So you really have to bake it into the organization if you want those changes to be durable. I would love for you all to talk about some of the things you’ve done and maybe seen work well or thought could be better in terms of really trying to bake it into the organization itself so that it really is more of an ongoing piece that’s really prioritized and front of mind for people.

David Carpenter:     

It seems to me, it’s my point of view that universities do a really excellent job of identifying problems and then developing policies to try and speak to those problems, but then I think where we fall flat, at least at CSU, and I would imagine this is true elsewhere, is actually getting things in place to solve those problems. I mean, so we can develop the policies, but then actually doing the work to meet the policies or to get the actual task done, that’s much harder, and it’s double hard or maybe quadruple hard at a larger institution. That’s certainly true at CSU. The university has some excellent policies about accessibility, and they refer to universal design and they refer to our requirements to be compliant, and those have been in place for years now. I think it’s around three years or so was the last refresh of our web accessibility policy, but from our perspective, and I think I speak for our whole college, in this case, we didn’t think that was enough. So having a policy and being compliant didn’t feel like enough, and so we did a few things.

The first thing was to reframe this issue, the accessibility, and we refer to it as electronic inclusivity. We reframed it instead of a compliance issue. It’s an inclusivity, it’s a diversity issue. It’s something that we’re not doing it because we have to, but we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. We’re not doing this because we’re afraid of being sued. We’re doing it because there are people that depend on it and we need to do right by them.

So once we reframed the conversation that way it seemed to turn people’s, I don’t know, open their eyes a little bit and then it seemed to open them fast. We reframed the discussion that way, and then the university has got this thing in place to try and make sure that each college at CSU and each division actually has a blueprint, a plan in place, to meet some diversity goals, and with the support of our college’s administration, we got this electronic inclusivity issue identified as one of those goals, and it had some tangible things that we were to do, and it included getting WebAIM on campus to do some training. It included developing other training out of the HERC that Jen referred to earlier and just getting people the information they need to do this right.

So we got some momentum going, and we just tried to carry it forward and that’s led to where we are today, which is we had these websites that we just got launched that were developed with accessibility in mind, and then Jen made sure that all the content that went in there was accessible. Then, actually, she had my support and the dean’s support to refuse any content that a content manager tries to put up, to refuse that and say, “No, we’re not going to put it on the website if it’s not accessible.” That’s how we got the administration on our side.

Jen, if you want to talk about what we’re doing with the ongoing training.

Jennifer Garvey:      

Sure. Last fall, we had WebAIM come in and do a two-day training that Dave mentioned. It was great. The first day was more general for web content editors and other interested parties. Our dean even attended that, which [crosstalk 00:18:40] I was so impressed and so happy, that it was great to have him there to show support. They talked a lot about legislation in the beginning of the day and then dove into, “Okay, here’s the tools you need to make your content accessible, Word documents, PDF files, PowerPoint,” and then we talked, I think the bulk of the day was about web content.

Then the second day was more developer centric, and we invited people from other colleges and administrative units to attend so it wasn’t just our college. We are trying to be accessibility champions and spread the word that, hey, we are totally committed and we want to share our resources with other people, and I feel like that culture is changing at the university.

We have an accessibility subcommittee now, and it’s made up of, I think, 12 people, and these are people from different colleges, different administrative units. There was a website, it’s called accessibility.colostate.edu. These people are keeping an eye on things, and it’s nice that it’s not just a central unit, but it’s spread out across the university.

Someone from our Assistive Technology Resource Center is a member of that subcommittee. They developed a website with tons of guides and just links to resources. Our Assistive Technology Resource Center partnered with CSU Ventures to develop a series of videos for electronic inclusivity, and it’s called Stories of Inclusive Technology, and it’s a seven or eight series of videos that really help individuals understand what it is to be someone with a disability and to have barriers erected in front of you, and it helps you understand how people with disabilities are pretty damn forgiving. For the most part, they’ve gone through their lives just constantly adapting to their environment. If you’re someone that has empathy and you watch these videos, it’s so convincing. The electronic inclusivity training that was developed by our Assistive Technology Resource Center, they showed snippets of the videos throughout the training, and this was this spring we had this training. We invited one or two people from each academic unit to attend this training, watch videos, get tools, make goals for how they’re going to implement accessibility in their daily lives. It covered more than just web content, but it was, I think, extremely important, and we had faculty, staff and administrators. I think we had at least one department head attend.

So you have people at all different levels in the units that are now aware and they know what this is, and if someone comes to them and asks, like, “Oh, yeah, I’m just another resource now.” So we have these accessibility champions in the units now. I honestly don’t expect them to be holding their own trainings, but it was another step we took to help move things along.

So from where I sit, I have 10 main web content editors in our college that I help guide, and we have one in each of our academic units, and then we have a bunch of other people that support web content for different programs, smaller programs and centers. So I have around 30 people total that I’m trying to keep trained, and I’ll be nagging them on certain things, from our accessibility scans that we do monthly.

I’m really wanting to shift the training focus to more of an on-demand format. We have access or we have a subscription to site improve, and we have been told by assistive technology folks that this is like the gold standard in this type of software, and I absolutely love this software, and there’s a whole module for … It’s called Site Improve Academy. There’s a bunch of different courses in there that I’m currently going through and just hand selecting which courses I think would be the most appropriate for our content editors. It’s set up so that it’s on-demand, I set these users up, they can log in and just do a short 20-minute training whenever they have time. They don’t have to leave their desk for two hours and go to an afternoon training somewhere. It’s really focused on convenience and then being able to track their progress, which is great. Each course is set up with a number of modules. There’s incentive built in where when you finish a module, you get a little achievement badge. I don’t know. For some reason, I like that.

I think other people might, too. Then, at the end of the course, you get a certificate. That’s what I’m looking at for this. I want to do an annual certification process for all of our main content editors because standards do change. You mentioned the WCAG 2.1. I want to make sure that we’re staying up-to-date on the standards.

Awareness, training and then ongoing efforts to remediate are the three things that I’m focused on the most right now. The awareness, I think we’ve got dialed, where we’ve got accessibility champions throughout the college. The training is what I’m working on now. We’ve done some trainings, but I want it to be on-demand and convenient, and then the ongoing efforts, scanning and the whole website governance piece, we already have the support of our dean that says, “Hey, if you find inaccessible content, take it down.” I always have that to stand behind, but the accessibility scanning that we do monthly, some of this is still in its infancy stage. I’m currently getting all of our web content editors set up in Site Improve and training them how to read the scans, and then if they need assistance, learning how to fix the issues. So each error that shows up directly maps to a WCAG guideline, and then you’re given a description of the error, why is this an issue, a description on how to fix it, and then there are links to further documentation on how to meet the WCAG criteria.

Most of the errors that are web content editors are dealing with are not difficult things. Most of the issues that I see come in on our scans are missing alt text, non-descriptive links, using header levels incorrectly. These are things that it’s just me being annoying, like, “Hey, by the way, so and so, you need to … We’re doing this again. We’re seeing this again.”

The other thing I’m trying to encourage our editors to do is test as soon as content changes. So don’t rely on the monthly scans, but build testing into the workflow. What my expectation is, you get a content edit, you update in WordPress, which is our CMS, and then you immediately test with the online WAVE tool or the WAVE plugin, whatever you use. Site Improve also has a plugin.

Right now, I’m just trying to get everything dialed, but that awareness piece is critical, because now everyone understands why it’s important, and it’s really nice to know that most of these people, they really don’t want to do it the wrong way. They’re not lazy. They don’t want to do it the wrong way. They just haven’t been aware of the issues or been trained on how to fix them. So that’s what we’re focused on now.

Jarrett Smith:           

It sounds like you’ve come so far in terms of taking the intent of those policies and really bringing it down into reality and making sure that the focus on WCAG compliance and just accessibility is durable. I think starting with the way that you framed it, it’s a no brainer nowadays that folks know, hey, we need to ramp into our building, and when you start to put it in those terms, that this is just the right thing to do, just like we have a ramp into our building and other modifications to our physical space, the digital space is so important. We need to make that accessible, also. So I think that’s such a smart move, and you all have backed it up with so many concrete steps.

If folks want to reach out to you to find out more, maybe pick your brain about an issue they’re having, what are the best places to get ahold of you two?

Jennifer Garvey:      

Feel free to email me at jennifer.garvey@colostate.edu.

David Carpenter:         

Same for me. It’s just dave.carpenter@colostate.edu. Colostate is C-O-L-O-S-T-A-T-E.

Jarrett Smith:         

Perfect. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today and sharing the insights and lessons learned. [inaudible 00:27:13] some hard experiences, but then ultimately how you overcame that and ended up in a much, much better place. Thank you so much.

David Carpenter:      

Right on. Thank you, Jarrett.

Jennifer Garvey:           

Thanks, Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:         

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