December 22, 2010

SIUC website ranked in top 20 for blind students

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Chronicle of Higher Education ranks Southern Illinois University Carbondale among its top 20 Best College Web Sites for Blind Students.

SIUC ranks 19th on a list of 183 universities and colleges nationwide published earlier this month in the Chronicle. The universities and colleges included in the survey represent the 15 major athletic conferences, since those institutions are of similar size and mission, according to Jon Gunderson, coordinator of assistive communication and information-technology accessibility at the University of Illinois, who conducted the review for the Chronicle. Gunderson’s review included university home pages, main pages from admissions offices and colleges of liberal arts, and other pages with links on the home page.

“This ranking reflects our longstanding commitment to accessibility in everything that we do,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said. “Websites are portals to our University and very much part of the educational process, and we are dedicated to providing access to all students, faculty and staff.”

Jessica Mann, a web site developer in the web services arm of University Communications, said, “We’re very proud of our ranking. Everything we do, we run through accessibility checkers -- it’s part of our commitment to accessibility.”

By “accessibility checkers,” Mann means in part the Functional Accessibility Evaluator (FAE), developed at the University of Illinois to help web designers follow guidelines established by the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act. The FAE is one of several tools SIUC uses to test website accessibility.

Janet Douglas, associate director of web services, noted that accessibility is a legal requirement. However, she said, she wants SIUC’s web pages to meet those requirements in the most user-friendly way possible.

“Everyone needs access to information -- no matter what the disability,” she said. “Accessibility is a tradition at SIUC, and it’s one we take very seriously.”

Douglas said web accessibility isn’t just a University concern for students, but also for faculty and staff. Sometimes that means major changes – older methods of website building are often not compatible with the latest in accessibility aids. And, she noted, software acquisition must take accessibility into consideration, including programs such as accounting or other record keeping that may be used only by a limited number of people.

Douglas keeps up to date with the most recent changes through list-serve emails and weekly telephone conferences with accessibility and human services groups.

“Every time we touch a website, we check it for accessibility,” she said.

Though website building comes through Douglas’ three-person crew, accessibility experts at Disability Support Services on campus are often able to contribute to the process. Kathleen Plesko, director of DSS, said website accessibility is an ongoing process, one that requires “attention, knowledge and revision.”

SIUC uses text that is coded for text-readers as an alternative to images for students who are blind or visually impaired. In addition, online applications such as password boxes, and select or submit buttons are compatible with text-readers.

SIUC also provides accessibility aids such as arrow-through functions for those with limited mobility, and embedded subtitles in video for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“We do have a long way to go, but I think here in Illinois, where the requirements are more inclusive than the federal guidelines, we are already a step ahead,” she said. “No one today would build a building without access ramps, for example, and as we are building websites, we need to have that same approach to accessibility.”

Visit the Chronicle of Higher Education at to see the entire survey.