U.Va. Web Pages Optimized for Accessibility by Disabled Users

Oct. 17, 2006 -- An automated software service, recently purchased by the University of Virginia, has enabled all University Web pages to be automatically converted into a format optimized for users with disabilities. The “LIFT Assistive” software uses a complex series of heuristics to remove images, streamline navigation, and convert page content into semantically structured HTML markup that improves comprehension when the content is read aloud by screen-reader software.  The Lift Assistive software’s removal of images can also benefit users of PDA’s, cell phones and mobile browsers that have limited graphical capability and users who need faster page downloads, such as those with a dial-up connection.

The University Home page and top-level pages have used the LIFT Assistive (LA) software since 2004, and currently serve 3000 to 4000 visitors per month. The newly purchased University-wide licensing agreement with New York City-based UsableNet, Inc., allows any division, department, or school to add a LIFT-powered “text only” version of their Web pages, by simply adding a “text only” link with accompanying HTML code that can be downloaded from http://www.virginia.edu/accessibility/.

Pages encoded with LIFT Assistive meet or exceed the federal accessibility standards specified in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in addition to following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Internet's leading standards-setting body.

The purchase of the site license resulted from a recommendation by the Information Technology (IT) Accessibility Task Force, a collaboration of 13 members drawn from diverse sectors of the University, including the offices of the provost and the dean of students, several IT departments, the Web Communications group, and the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center. The task force identified what had already been done to improve technology access to users with disabilities and impairments, such as providing screen reader software from JAWS and Kurzweil, Zoomtext screen magnifier software and Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, explained co-chair Shirley Payne, director of security coordination and policy for the Office of Information Technologies.

The task force's report laid out a comprehensive framework for addressing increasing accessibility needs and triggered the development of a new Web site (http://www.virginia.edu/accessibility) that consolidates information on existing IT accessibility services, general guidance on IT accessibility, and other helpful material, linked directly from the U.Va. home page, explained Payne.

“Accessible web design techniques can make a world of difference for users who need them, yet are often subtle enough to escape notice by the rest of users,” said Nancy Tramontin, director of Web Communications and U.Va.’s lead webmaster. Her office will work collaboratively with the Information Technology & Communications Department and webmasters around Grounds to augment the LIFT product and further optimize Web pages for accessibility by doing things such as making sure that images have a text description associated with them, and that text-only layout and navigation options are laid out to benefit those using assistive technologies.

Funding for the first year of the new University-wide license, which includes the Medical Center and College at Wise, at a cost of $29,300, came from the Executive Vice President's Committee on Access for Persons with Disabilities, chaired by Wynne Stuart, associate provost for academic support and classroom management. Annual support costs will be paid by ITC.

Visitors can customize the text-only web page renderings by setting preferences for text size and color theme. The LIFT Assistive software will eventually be deployed on other popular Web resources including the University’s webmail, the online course offering directory and automated class registration system (ISIS), and the MyUVA portal.