Michael Southern

Michael Southern, director of disability services at UC, said the university is working to improve its website accessibility for students with disabilities, especially issues affecting visually impaired students.

Following a report released in December from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights that determined the University of Cincinnati’s website violated federal law — noting that accessibility for disabled students was lacking — the university is working to make its web content more accessible, particularly for the visually impaired.

“We want to make sure that any student with a disability has the same opportunity to use websites and participate in campus programming as non-disabled students,” said Michael Southern, director of disability services.

After the university received the review’s negative feedback, officials realized change was in order.

“Now, we recognize that there is a problem, and we are trying to do our best to fix it,” Southern said.

Most of the issues being addressed affect individuals who are visually impaired, Southern said. These problems range anywhere from those who need to be able to adjust font sizes on a web page to those who use a text-to-speech e-reader to comprehend online content.

“I think about students who I may be trying to recruit to the university and ask myself, ‘Would they be able to get on the main page and view that site?’ ” Southern said. “And if I see a problem with that, then we need to get a team together to make sure that student will be able to get access to the same things as an individual who can see the web page.”

Ron Rateau, assistive technology specialist within UC’s disability services, works to improve the accessibility of the university’s website system by making sure it corresponds better with technology like e-readers.

“The main goal is to make sure the assistive technology software is available across campus to students and staff,” Rateau explained.

Assistive software plays a big part in how the web content is being adjusted.

“There are software programs out there that students use to make websites and information given to them by their instructors more accessible, which allows them an opportunity to access it in a format that they can use,” Southern said.

Rateau and Southern said the university is working to make its websites more compatible with a popular e-reader called JAWS (Job Access With Speech.) JAWS is an e-reader that allows people with visual disabilities to read content and navigate a desktop with text-to-speech functions, as well as featuring compatibility with refreshable braille displays.

This kind of software is much more effective when dealing with content that is displayed in simpler, less flashy ways, Southern said.

“Web developers create websites that are fun and busy and pop to catch viewers’ attention,” Southern said. “But when a person with a visual impairment needs to access that same site, it is often too busy to comprehend.”

A possible solution to this problem is to readjust the layout of a website so that technology like e-readers can better read the content, Rateau said.

It is not just web pages that are being reexamined, but also e-books and PDFs distributed to students, Rateau said.

“So, for instance, we can go through and tag some of the images in these online books or PDFs so that these images can be recognized by assistive software based on the rest of the text,” Rateau said.

Shannon Rokey, a first-year occupational therapy student, knows the challenges of using the Internet as a visually impaired individual. Rokey said she is legally blind with a recessive genetic disease called Stargardt, which causes progressive loss of vision over a person’s lifetime.

Rokey explained some of the issues that a visually impaired person may face when viewing a web page, which include the color and size of fonts.

“Font size isn't too much of an issue for me because I can zoom in on anything using my iPad, but font color is often an issue,” Rokey said. “If there isn't high contrast, then I have to strain myself to view the website. I am not a fan of those who use red on black, blue or yellow fonts.”

In Rokey’s case, she has never had too much trouble navigating UC’s sites like One Stop and Canopy.

“UC has a pretty decent website with great contrast,” Rokey said. “I had issues at first, but that was only because I wasn't familiar with the site.”

In terms of e-reader compatibility, Rokey said she is not the best person to ask, because — regardless of her condition — she feels she learns better visually. But she did have one suggestion for how UC could improve its websites.

“I think in general they could try to cut down on the amount of links needed and make a more streamlined website,” Rokey said.

Southern said UC is proud to be taking a proactive stance on giving students with disabilities the same amount of opportunity to access information as anyone else.

“It won’t be done overnight; it will be something that is completed over a number of years,” Southern explained. “But we have student focus in mind, and making the webpages viewable and accessible to them is our main focus and what we strive for.”