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Letter to Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan About the Need for Accessibility

September 17, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Many of you will note that, recently, I have been posting comments on Twitter about my journalism school’s lack of accessibility. These comments were driven by my frustration with what I perceived to be the school’s lack of interest in improving the accessibility of its websites and other technology resources as evidenced by its ignoring and failing to take seriously previous correspondence I have undertaken with Dean Christopher Callahan.

In response to my tweets, I began receiving direct messages from Dean Callahan expressing concerns and disappointment with my approach to these issues. Haven’t I heard that before?

Stating he had previously invited me to meet with him to discuss solutions, he did so again. I never received that previous invitation. I’m not saying it was not sent, just that I did not, for whatever reason, receive the message.

Those of you who truly know how I approach these matters also know that I never take a fighting stance with anyone who is constructively engaging with me or others to improve accessibility. Doing so would be counterproductive and undeserved. The hammer approach is reserved strictly for those who outright ignore me or who show the bravery to actually make a statement justifying their ongoing discrimination against and exclusion of blind people from full participation through inaccessibility.

Trusting that Dean Callahan previously sent a constructive invitation to engage in discussions, I apologized for the character of my Twitter posts and agreed to an Oct. 5 meeting to discuss how the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication can successfully address accessibility in light of its stated diversity policies.

As part of that correspondence with Dean Callahan, I restated an earlier promise to send him an accessibility assessment of one of the school’s websites along with useful resources for making websites accessible. The following letter, sent to Dean Callahan Friday afternoon, fulfills that promise and serves as my ongoing effort to work with the Cronkite School to become more accessible to faculty, staff and students with disabilities and to educate future online media content creators and editors about the need to make sure their work is accessible to all audience members.

Hello Dean Callahan,

As you have requested, please find two examples of accessible media websites along with some resources that can be useful in making the Web more accessible to people with disabilities.

BBC

The BBC works to make its Web presence accessible. Although it is not perfect in all respects, their efforts are evolving in the right direction.

Here is a link to BBC’s accessibility help page.

The key point to be clearly understood is that BBC publicly states that it cares about accessibility and works to make positive changes in that area so as to include members of its audience who have disabilities.

National Public Radio

NPR also makes the bulk of its Web presence accessible, although it doesn’t state it as loudly as does BBC.

The organization offers a text-only site.

The use of text-only sites is controversial, and I personally disagree with the practice, as the tendency is to update the “graphical” site without providing exactly the same content on the often-forgotten text-only edition. When this oversight is noted, it represents a separate-but-unequal situation which was banned by the Supreme Court in the 1960s as it was being applied in the segregation of African-Americans.

Accessibility Assessment of CronkiteNewsOnline.com

There are a number of unfortunate elements on the Cronkite News website that currently make it difficult to use for blind readers. Further, it seems recent updates to the site are making it even less accessible.

Missing Alt Tags for Graphics

The most obvious accessibility concern with the site is the lack of descriptive alt text tags for images. These HTML tags can provide a text-based description for graphics and they should be used for all important images on a site.

The site’s navigation area sounds like this for a blind screen-reader user:

nav/home
nav/about
nav/stories
nav/newswatch
nav/news21
nav/cronkite
nav/contact

Although this is not a show stopper, the presentation could be easily improved by simply adding appropriate descriptive alt text tags to those graphics.

Other missing alt tags are more serious, as there is no way to determine the content to which they will link unless the user simply follows the link to find out. That’s not right unless a sighted user must play the same guessing game.

For example, a link near the text about downloading mobile apps just says “img/front_cn.” What’s that?

Even the link that says “img/front_azfactcheck” won’t be clear to most readers.

Navigating Stories

Navigating to and reading stories is possible by tabbing to and pressing enter on links, but it could be far better. Consider using headings on the titles for each story. When this is done, as is the case on many blogs and some other media websites, blind and sighted users alike can more easily and quickly move from story to story.

Video Links Next to Stories

A link that happens to be missing its alt text tag, “img/icon-video,” appears next to most stories on the site. Pressing enter on that link seems to do nothing, although it’s clearly meant to allow the viewer to watch a video. What is this link supposed to do once clicked?

Reading and Watching Stories

There are difficulties once a story has been opened for reading or viewing.

Let’s take the Sept. 16 story titled Ranked No. 1 in country for West Nile virus, Arizona is fighting back as an example.

A link at the top of the story is missing its alt text tag. It says “09/16-westnile-video img/tp24.” What does this mean exactly? Clicking the link seems to do nothing.

A text link labeled “watch now” also seems to go nowhere.

It is clear that some sort of video player is being used which doesn’t work on all systems.

What technology is being used to play videos on the site? Is it Flash or Silverlight?

There are some steps that can be taken to make multimedia sites more accessible.

Please see the resources coming right up.

Web Accessibility Resources

These resources are simply examples of sites that provide best practices and other information about making websites accessible.

Accessibility in the Cronkite School Curriculum

Finally, I am deeply concerned about the lack of attention to accessibility in the teaching of classes like JMC 305, JMC 460 and the Saturday online media academies.

Many resources exist for developers to make their sites accessible. Why not include some assignments and good information about accessibility in these courses? After all, creators of online media are going to find themselves confronting organizations and people who advocate staunchly for accessibility and are thus going to find themselves directed by corporate management types who wish to avoid lawsuits, public relations disasters and other similar risks to their bottom lines.

Best regards,

Darrell

After reading the letter, I invite all of you to comment. What did you like? What didn’t you like? What additional resources might help a journalism school make its technology accessible or educate others on accessibility? As always, the door hangs wide open and awaits your constructive feedback.

2 opinions on “Letter to Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan About the Need for Accessibility

  1. Darrell, this is a very well-written and well-thought out letter. I’ve heard of WebAIM and have in fact been there a few times. Let’s hope your recommendations are put to good use at the school. Incidentally I am currently in a somewhat similar situation. I’m taking a medical terminology course online, and the community college from which I’m taking this course is using WebCT version 4.1.5 . While accessibility is pretty good in some areas, there’s still a bit of work to be done. I read on the college’s website that they’re planning a switch-over to Desire2Learn. Upon doing a bit of online research, it appears that Desire2Learn is pretty accessible.

  2. I should point out that Flash accessibility is terrible. It is really a nightmare to try and make Flash interactives accessible for screen readers. There is not even a decent way for organizing the tab order for elements, and the tools provided by Adobe are only for the dumbest of cases that make you wonder why would you even do a Flash interactive while simple html would do the same. It is really a shame that we still have no useful standards. The blame is obviously on software companies and search engines, not on developers. You are missing the target, simply because it is easier to attack developers than it is to go after the big wigs. I do not think your letter is useful for anything but to prove your righteousness.

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