Beginning Thursday, Jan. 18, NIU has a new policy for “Producing, Developing, Maintaining and Using Technology.” The university policy becomes effective the same day as an update to the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act, which affects all Illinois universities, and the refreshed version of Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.
All electronic and information technology must be accessible to people who have visual or hearing disabilities or who can’t use a mouse or a keyboard. That applies to everything from online course materials, to videos shown in class or assigned to be viewed outside of class, to web applications like myniu.niu.edu, to copiers and printers.
To help the campus meet that responsibility, the university has hired its first information technology accessibility officer — Katy Whitelaw, who previously worked for the Division of Information Technology and the Division of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications.
“Basically, the state and federal laws say that a person with disabilities should be able to get the same information, engage in the same interactions, receive the same services and access the technology in the same time frame as a person without disabilities,” said Whitelaw.
“Our first to-do is to buy only accessible technology going forward so that eventually, that is all we have. I’ll be a resource for people who are purchasing technology hardware and software.”
As an example of what has changed since 1998, when Section 508 was last amended, Whitelaw said, “There are a lot of PDFs in Blackboard. If the PDF is a scan of an old newspaper article, it will be inaccessible to someone with a visual or print disability using a screen reader. Screen readers can read digital text but not an image of text.”
In many cases, she said, accessibility increases usability for everyone. “For example, videos need to be captioned for viewers with hearing difficulties. But studies show that students with normal hearing who watch a video with captioning retain more information than students who watch the same video without captioning.”
“Even if you haven’t had a student who is blind or deaf in a class, if you have inaccessible course materials, now is the time to make them accessible,” Whitelaw said. “The Disability Resource Center will work with you to caption videos and create accessible PDFs.
“Some of these processes take a long time. But if everyone gets the textbook on the first day of class and creating an accessible version will take days, that really puts the disabled student at a disadvantage,” Whitelaw said. “Often a student faced with such a problem will just drop out of the class or even drop out of the university.
“Instead, we want to become a center of excellence for accessibility. It will help us recruit students with disabilities and support them all the way to graduation. We’ll lower the legal risk of noncompliance — and we’ll have a more diverse campus.”
Whitelaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 815-753-5467.
The new university policy is based on changes to the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act. Those, in turn, were based on updates to the federal Rehabilitation Act, which had not been amended since 1998.