Lucy is the campus’ application accessibility czar. After working for the Disabled Students’ Program, she helped build the campus’ web accessibility team, to ensure that our web sites and applications are accessible to those with disabilities. We met in her office in the Banway building.
The position you have is pretty unusual in higher education. Tell us about what you needed to to do get to where you are.
The three most important things I’ve learned at Berkeley are networking, networking, networking. Even from the very beginning, I reached outside of the unit I was in, and learned about groups across the campus. I joined Micronet, I joined Webnet, I was part of the Webaccess team. My unit [the Disabled Students Program] was very supportive of me being a resource for people dealing with disability issues on campus. I had a very specialized skill set, and no connections on campus at first, and it turned out there was a huge network of people out there who were all willing to help. Micronet was my life-saver; at least monthly I would send a “how do I do this?” post, and people would give great suggestions, sometimes offer to come by my office. And it let me share my skill set while gaining from their skill set. That interaction made it worth being at Berkeley; I could reach out to this great group of people who were always positive.
The three most important things I’ve at Berkeley are networking, networking, networking.
You’re recognized as an advocate for blind computer users on campus; what are some of the things you’ve done to develop that position?
One thing I’ve done is set up a blind staff network; we have a listserv, and occasional meetings. I use it to send out tips about how to work with campus applications. Other people have used it to send out information about social events for the blind community; another was able to get the list to help him advocate for an audible pedestrian signal at an intersection he was having trouble with. It’s a list of people who have the same issues, and we can connect and help each other. We have a MeetUp group for in-person meetings of blind staff, faculty and students. I use it to show people how to use apps; at the last one I showed them how to use an OCR app that will read things to you. Sometimes I’ll help students use bCourses more effectively. But it’s mostly social, a place to vent, and we all need that at this campus.
Our big campus systems are often a challenge for staff members to use; it much be harder for someone using a screen reader.
It is, but it has gotten better; most of them are pretty good these days. And we own those applications within my unit; my director takes responsibility for making apps accessible, and if there are problems, he takes them back to the vendor, and tells them we need it fixed. We get good feedback, and good response from most vendors.
You’ve worked with the WebAccess group for a long time; were you involved with its formation?
Webaccess started with a focus on policy, but then Caroline Boyden and I took the bull by the horns, and started running clinics, where application developers could come in and have their apps tested for accessibility. We wanted to have the developers see what really happens when you view their app through a screen reader. And it was successful; we changed the culture on the campus about how to consult with disabled users about the applications they have to use.
How did you transition from running WebAccess clinics on a volunteer basis, to building your current accessibility team?
Budget cuts played a big role. Because there was such budget pressure, we had to stop running the clinics, so for two years that resource wasn’t available to campus developers. And the developers thought it was important and wanted to figure out how to get it back. So we worked with Sarah Hawthorne, the campus compliance officer, and Bill Allison of IST, to put together a pilot program. The program was a big success, we started to get more and more people coming through for clinics, we started participating in RFP processes.
And that helps surface the accessibility issue; a lot of people don’t understand why accessibility is important or how it relates to the things they’re doing.
Exactly. We’ll reach out to units; I monitor a lot of listservs on campus, and if I see someone post about a new web site, I’ll contact them, invite them to come in for a clinic. Sometimes they respond, sometimes they don’t, but now that’s our full-time job; get as many people involved as we can.
We show what works for a screen reader, and what’s needed for someone with low vision, or keyboard-only navigation. Then after they’ve made changes, we’ll reevaluate and let them know what’s improved. We’ve had one client we’ve followed through 10 iterations of their site, and it’s a million times better than it was, even for able-bodied people.
What happens when a developer comes in for a clinic?
They watch us use the site the way a user would have to, and we give them written notes with a list of issues we found. We show what works for a screen reader, and what’s needed for someone with low vision, or keyboard-only navigation. Then after they’ve made changes, we’ll reevaluate and let them know what’s improved. It’s a continual process of learning, for them and us. We’ve had one client we’ve followed through 10 iterations of their site, and it’s a million times better than it was, even for able-bodied people.
Do the developers tend to understand what they need to do to address accessibility issues?
Most of them get it pretty quickly, and we provide a lot of tools to help them out. We have sample source code, instructions on implementation, examples of an accessible nav menu. We’re building those resources more and more; as we find more things that are helpful, we add them to our web site.
We want to provide a helpful, friendly service that’s free. We started out recharging for clinics, but people were reluctant to pay for it; we realized it needed to be centrally funded if we were going to get where we needed to be.
What were the key success factors in getting funding for that effort?
That period when the campus didn’t have access to the clinics did a lot of good for us. Developers had seen the value, and when they weren’t available anymore, they really didn’t know where to go. Enough people complained that higher administration saw there was an issue that needed to be addressed. Also, there was turnover at the top, and people who understood what we were doing became more involved in the decision-making process.
Seeing a screen-reader user work, not only seeing them use a site and fail, but seeing them use a site and succeed, that experience stays with a person for life. They can see that accessible development can make a real difference. People love having that warm, fuzzy feeling.
And those people were part of your professional network.
Exactly. I didn’t always deal with them frequently, but I impacted their work in some way. I first met Bill Allison [Director, IST Architecture, Platforms, and Integration], when Bill was sponsoring reviews of all the applications in his portfolio. One of those was the CalMail project, which included an evaluation of SquirrelMail vs. RoundCube. Seeing a screen-reader user work, not only seeing them use a site and fail, but seeing them use a site and succeed, that experience stays with a person for life. They can see that accessible development can make a real difference. People love having that warm, fuzzy feeling; it makes the extra work they need to do that much easier to commit to.
What are some other resources available to support disabled staff and faculty?
There’s a fairly new staff organization, the Disabled Staff Network. We talk about issues like compliance with federal regulations on hiring; how do you recruit people with disabilities? How do you publicize resources available? There’s also a Disability Management group in HR, which deals with formal requests for disability accommodations. I’d like to see more active work being done to help out disabled staff, instead of it being mostly request-based.
I got a call a few months ago from a manager who knew he had a visiting faculty member with low vision coming in, and he wanted to know what he might need to provide. It turned out that person had everything he needed, but just asking those questions is important. That manager had a much more positive experience with the faculty member, because he showed that he wanted to help. I’d like to see more of that.
Fear of the unknown is a totally natural thing. The first reaction often is, “I don’t want to hire a blind person, because I don’t how a blind person could do this job.” Well, ask them! Talk about the job requirements and find out how they’d handle them. Have that conversation, and you’ll probably realize your fear is unfounded.
What advice would you give to a hiring manager who is considering a candidate with a disability?
Fear of the unknown is a totally natural thing. The first reaction often is, “I don’t want to hire a blind person, because I don’t know how a blind person could do this job.” Well, ask them! Talk about the job requirements and find out how they’d handle them. Have that conversation, and you’ll probably realize your fear is unfounded.
Hiring someone with a disability can be a great opportunity to gain a new perspective. Think about someone who’s in a wheelchair who might be applying for a position in Capital Projects. The initial reaction might be, “there’s no way you can go out on a job site in a wheelchair,” but that person will help you make sure that all your buildings are wheelchair-accessible.
I like the metaphor of the wheelchair ramp for web accessibility. If you build the building with a wheelchair ramp in the first place, it’s going to be better for everyone. And if you build it wrong the first time, it’s going to be much more expensive to fix it later.
Right; with the ramp, you can get the furniture in, you can get the caterers in, and you can get the wheelchair in. With the web site, to make it accessible you have to make the code cleaner, more semantic, which means it will work in more browsers, work better on mobile devices, for all your users.
Any last thoughts on advocating for change on the campus?
The campus mission is education, research, and community service. Talk to your leadership about how your idea furthers that mission. Connect it to Berkeley’s big goals, which are way beyond the goals of your individual department. Show them why it’s important on that scale.