Campus News

Accessibility for all

Carolina’s Digital Accessibility Office empowers members of the campus community to create digital resources that anyone can use.

Photo illustration of a close-up of a computer keyboard. One of the keys is green with a handicap symbol and the word
Digital accessibility does not happen with the press of a button, but a computer keyboard can help when it comes to making digital content accessible to all. (Adobe Stock image)

Being online is a vital part of 21st century survival and success, even more so during a global pandemic. However, some websites, videos and online documents are impossible to access effectively for individuals with disabilities, including those with vision, hearing and mobility challenges.

These days, digital accessibility is just as important as physical accessibility, which is where Carolina’s Digital Accessibility Office comes in. Launched in the summer of 2019, the DAO helps improve the quality of the University’s many websites and other digital content. The office’s four staff members strive to be a resource so that Carolina’s digital environment is as accessible as possible to all.

What exactly is digital accessibility?

First, a few words about accessibility. A common dictionary definition of accessibility is “the quality of being easily reached, entered or used.” The opposite of accessibility is when a wheelchair user wants to reach the second floor of a building without an elevator or ramp. Not only does a scenario like that make it impossible for individuals with mobility issues to get around, but it’s also inequitable. Basic infrastructure should support every person’s needs.

Digital accessibility is no different, only it involves an environment that is accessed online or with a screen.

The DAO offers its own definition: Digital accessibility is a practice ensuring that content, resources and technology communicated electronically can be used regardless of ability, disability or assistive technology.

Some examples of digital accessibility include:

  • closed captioning for online videos, Zoom meetings and other digital media;
  • alternative text for images and pictures so users who are unable to see an image are still able to access its content, typically through a screen reader;
  • using headings that organize page content in ways that are easy to read and understand for people using screen readers; and
  • including appropriate color contrast between text color and background.

Five years ago, the University created the Digital Accessibility Advisory Team to begin making digital services more accessible. Establishing the DAO was part of the advisory team’s work. Initially, the DAO was funded for two years to fix immediate accessibility concerns, but due to the office’s successes in its first 18 months of work, in June 2021 the DAO’s funding will be renewed and budgeted completely through Information Technology Services.

Head of Digital Accessibility Brad Held, who previously served as assistant director and accessible technology coordinator for Student Accessibility Services at the University of Central Florida, leads the team. He is joined by three digital accessibility consultants, Sarah Arnold, Kat Moore and Chelsea Porter.

A screenshot from the digital accessibility tool SiteImprove showing two colors--gold text on a lavender background--that fail the color contrast checker.

The screenshot above, from the digital accessibility tool Siteimprove, shows two colors that fail the color contrast checker.


A screenshot from the digital accessibility tool SiteImprove showing two colors--white text on a black background--that pass the color contrast checker.

The screenshot above shows two colors that pass the color contrast checker.

What does the DAO do?

Held said the team typically gets a range of emails and service requests all day, every day from people across campus who want to ensure their websites and digital materials are meeting Carolina’s standards for accessibility.

“It’s manageable right now,” Held said. “As a four-person team, it’s keeping us busy. And as we start to grow, there’s going to be even more requests for consulting and educational materials.”

Held said that, ideally, the DAO works to empower content creators and designers to proactively flag their own accessibility concerns and be able to fix issues themselves. This is different from the work of the University’s Accessibility Resources and Services office, housed in Student Affairs. That office provides accommodations for individuals who need access to something inaccessible to them, such as extended time for testing or making examination materials available in alternative formats (for example, large-print tests).

“The DAO works with people during the design phase, so there isn’t necessarily a retroactive need for accommodations,” Held said.

To empower designers and content creators, the DAO team offers training opportunities to help individuals determine the best ways to create accessible content, while also teaching people what digital accessibility really means.

“Whenever we give presentations or overviews about our office and what we do, we usually start by giving examples of things that are considered digital that need to be thought about with accessibility in mind,” Held said. “This list ranges anywhere from a newsletter to a textbook that’s been adopted in a digital format to emails, software and many other things.”

The training programs created by the DAO include:

  • digital accessibility awareness;
  • video captioning;
  • web accessibility basics;
  • social media training; and
  • document remediation for Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and PDF files.

Since the office formed in 2019, the DAO has worked hard to uphold the University’s mission of sustaining an equitable and inclusive community of students, faculty and staff, which is part of Initiative 1: Build Our Community Together in the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. In addition to creating and engaging with over 90 training sessions that have reached over 850 staff and faculty members, the DAO has ensured that the majority of UNC-Chapel Hill websites have information about accessibility and a point of contact if someone does have an accessibility issue. The office also purchased several accessibility testing tools, like an automatic web scanning platform (Siteimprove), screen magnifiers and screen readers.

Better design for everyone

Digital accessibility doesn’t just help people with disabilities. Held said the DAO advocates for universal design — creating tools, environments and resources that benefit everyone, regardless of disability status.

Held said there are a number of things we do every day without thinking that were created with the idea of universal design in mind, like using speech recognition on our smartphones.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a city I’m unfamiliar with and asked Siri where the Starbucks is instead of typing it out,” Held said. “But that speech recognition technology was originally for people who don’t have physical dexterity or were unable to type on the computer.”

Similarly, the television captioning so many patrons in loud bars and restaurants rely on began as a way to make video content accessible and equitable for individuals with hearing loss. It’s not unlike curb cuts in the physical world, Held said. Required in the U.S. by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, curb cuts make sidewalks accessible to people in wheelchairs but also help parents pushing strollers, bicyclists and others who may not have a disability.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year and the world turned to digital technology to reduce the spread of the virus, the DAO found itself with new, high-priority projects and initiatives to tackle. The DAO’s involvement in accessibility reviews for websites like Carolina Together and the coordination of live captioning for large-scale public Zoom meetings was crucial in maintaining the University’s mission of inclusion during an unprecedented time.

“We were working with captioning services, making sure that open meetings offered through Zoom at the University were able to be accessible for the public,” Held said. “People might forget that in the physical world, if you can’t hear someone, you might get closer to them or ask them to speak up. If we’re at home and you can’t hear someone, you turn up your volume — but there are some individuals with hearing loss so significant that captions are the only way to access the video.”

What’s next?

Digital accessibility awareness has come a long way, Held said, but it still has a long way to go. The DAO plans to continue to provide guidance for inclusiveness in course content and digital resources on campus while also working to procure new technologies that will make creating accessible resources easier.

Held said he knew when he accepted his position at Carolina that there was a culture of inclusion and the desire to help people across all different areas at the University, something that he said makes the University stand out from other parts of the country.

“Digital accessibility is diversity,” Held said. “And everything we’re doing at the University to further that idea is really important, because we’re including as many people as we can, and we’re not losing any voices in the process.”

What can you do?

Furthering digital accessibility and universal design is not just up to the DAO, said Held. Here’s what you can do to make sure your resources and tools are accessible to all:

  • Visit the DAO’s training page to see what training courses are available. Topics include captioning, web accessibility, social media accessibility, document remediation and procurement.
  • Explore DAO resources to find accessibility tips that are available via documents and video.
  • Use Siteimprove, a website scanning tool that can help determine whether your website is accessible to everyone
  • Report an accessibility issue to the DAO if you see one.
  • Request accessibility consulting, web assessments, course assessments and onboarding tools through the Online Help Request.