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Important: Blind Students Needed to Test E-Books at the 2011 NFB Convention!

June 15, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow

Dear students,

Pearson, one of the leading college textbook publishers, has set up a special session at the NFB national convention to get feedback from blind students regarding the accessibility of a new math workbook they are developing. They would like to get 15 students to meet with them during this session, and so far, only four have signed up. We would really like to support Pearson in their initiative to make online learning materials accessible. Please help us out by signing up for this session on Thursday, July 7, from 7:00-9:00 p.m. If you have any free time between 7 and 9 on Thursday, even if it’s not the whole two hours, please let me know-we may be able to work around your schedules so we can get as many student participants as possible.

If you would like to help with the testing, please email me as soon as possible at nabs (dot) president (at) gmail (dot) com so I can give your name to Clara at the national center. Thanks in advance for your help in improving accessibility for blind students.

Arielle Silverman, President
National Association of Blind Students

Categories: accessibility, college

Making a Difference by Thrusting Accessibility into the Public Sphere

January 7, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow

On Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, Karen and I enjoyed a nice dinner meeting with Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Marc Parry in a nearby Applebee’s restaurant for an initial in-person interview as part of a story he was writing about technology accessibility for blind college students. Over the following Monday and Tuesday, Marc and I spent a great deal of time reviewing and testing the accessibility or inaccessibility of a number of college-related websites.

On Dec. 12, 2010, the Chronicle published an article entitled Blind Students Demand Access to Online Course Materials, in which my contributions were prominent.

The article highlighted significant accessibility barriers with ASU on Facebook, an application designed to help Arizona State University students connect in a virtual community. The app, developed by San Francisco-based Inigral, Inc., featured controls that couldn’t be accessed by keyboard navigation and images lacking text descriptions.

An Inigral representative contacted me within a few days of the publication of the article, saying she would be in the Phoenix area and asking if we could meet in person to discuss the situation. I agreed, a lunch meeting was scheduled then postponed that very morning till January due to family circumstances.

On Friday, Marc published After Chronicle Story, a Tech Company Improves Accessibility for Blind Users on the publication’s Wired Campus blog, stating that Inigral representatives met with the university’s Disability Resource Center and work is underway to improve the app’s accessibility.

After briefly reviewing the ASU on Facebook app as of Friday, Jan. 7, I can report that significant improvements have already been achieved. The “Go to App” link can now be followed using keyboard navigation, the website is more usable and I notice fewer images lacking descriptions.

Inigral’s co-founder, Joseph Sofaer, posted an accurate Jan. 4 article about the key elements of good website accessibility on the company’s blog.

The important point I hope readers will take away is that advocating for accessibility does make a difference. One more web-based application is now going to be accessible because a blind person agreed to be part of an article published in a widely-reade higher-education publication. It is critical for us to continue going after what we know is right: the equal accessibility that affords us the full participation we must have in order to learn, live and work in society as productive members alongside our sighted peers. This means we absolutely must pound the pavement. When we encounter an inaccessible app, piece of software or website, we *MUST* contact the company about it right away asking that it be corrected. If we don’t get timely responses, we need to follow up, escalating communications as far and as high in a company’s chain of command as they must go in order to get results. It’s a lot of hard work that can’t be done by one person, so I urge each and every one of you out there, whether you are a blind person or a sighted one who cares about us, to do your part by taking each and every possible opportunity to advocate, kick the ball out of the stadium, score the touchdown and win the game for the pro-accessibility team!

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

September 17, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow

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.


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

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:


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,


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.

My First Week Back in the College Classroom

September 2, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow

Many of you have doubtless noticed that I haven’t been doing much blogging for quite sometime. Recent entries have primarily comprised redistribution of existing content with little or no additional commentary. There are numerous excuses and explanations for this absence. Some of you know the story, while many do not. In either case, I will spare all of you, my loyal readers, the pity party, doing my best to get back to the business at hand. Though I will quite likely not be blogging at the same rate as I have in the past, I will, at a minimum, endeavor to catch up with some critical topics in the accessibility arena, assistive technology and the online blind community. I most certainly do have some things to say about recent events, such as the Freedom Scientific versus GW Micro lawsuit and the NFB Target web site accessibility settlement. While you wait for my thoughts on these meatier topics, I would like to tell all of you about one of the obstacles that has been keeping me from blogging: my return to college.


In February of this year, I applied to Benetech as a candidate for the Volunteer Coordinator position. A long selection process ensued, culminating in a visit to Benetech’s headquarters on April 16. As both a Bookshare subscriber and volunteer, I was excited about the possibility of being able to work with a group of people who shared my passion for accessibility. Alas, it just was not to be… On may 2, I learned that I was not selected. I was incredibly disappointed! In addition to my 13 years of direct experience working with technology, I decided I needed to complete a Bachelor’s degree, primarily for the purpose of increasing my likelihood of being selected for the positions I really wanted to pursue. Entry level technical support positions were just no longer enough.

After consulting many in my innercircle of family and close friends, I applied to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where I was accepted in June. Though I knew I would be dealing with considerable challenges holding a full time job as a technical writer while attending ASU on a part time basis, I knew this was the right thing for me to do. It was time to start giving serious consideration to my long-term future, knowing that my current job could not last forever. Unfortunately, I didn’t know just how numbered my days of continued gainful employment really were. On June 12, I learned that SonicWALL, the company for which I had been employed to deliver technical support services on an outsourcing basis for the past five years, would be bringing all their support operations in-house. We would all have to reapply for our jobs with the new company. In early July, I discovered that I would not be getting an offer, and was ultimately laid off on July 18. I believe SonicWALL discriminated against me based on my blindness, owing to the company’s unwillingness to spend approximately one hour of a developer’s time to make its Siebel customer relationship management (CRM) system accessible to me in a “standard interactivity” mode. It is my hope that this matter will eventually be ajudicated in a court of law or settled in a favorable manner. This experience certainly finished off my desire to continue a career directly in the technology industry. It was a final sign of the long past time for me to complete my education to move on!


As a student with a significant disability, it was even more critical that I complete certain preparation steps prior to my first day of class on August 26. The most important of these steps included:

  • Enrolling in classes – I chose to start with one history and two journalism courses. Since one of those was a one credit class on English grammar for media writers, the total was only seven credit hours.
  • Registration with the Disability Resource Center – I knew I would need some additional assistance and reasonable accommodations from the university, so completing this step was among my first acts immediately after registering for courses. Regardless of one’s attitude with respect to accommodations, it is always better safe than sorry. Register for DRC, even if you think you may not need their help.
  • Acquiring alternative format textbooks – I acquired a list of all required books and requested assistance from DRC in receiving them in an accessible format. Rightly, it was necessary for me to provide receipts indicating I had purchased the print copies before the alternative format copies were delivered to me via e-mail. Alas, “accessible” does not always mean usable, and I’ll be covering this topic in greater detail later.
  • Paid my tuition and fees – This is rather self-explanatory. Almost $4,000 later, after purchasing books, paying tuition and fees, I was finally all set to begin!

When “Accessible” Does Not Always Mean Usable

It is unfortunate that, when it comes to proactivity, I did not score an A Plus with respect to ensuring the accessibility of my textbooks. When each file arrived, I performed a cursory review and saved it in an appropriate course related folder for later reading at the appropriate time during the semester. I trusted that “accessibility” and “usability” would be equivalent, despite the fact I knew better! How many times have we all run computer programs or visited web sites that were reasonably “accessible” but were so challenging as to be impractical to use on a regular basis without serious additional screen reader customization? Books are no different! Two of my journalism books have serious readability challenges! One contains characters substituted with strange Unicode values, missing text and run-together headings, while the other contains diagrammed sentence examples that are unusable to me in the “accessible” copy! While I am sure I will ultimately find ways to succeed despite these barriers, they do represent examples of the difference between “accessibility” and real usability. As always, any suggestions on how best to improve my situation with these books would be quite welcome and appreciated. The two books in question are as follows:

  • Dynamics of Mass Communication: Media in the Digital Age by Joseph R. Dominick
  • When Words Collide by Lauren Kessler

My Big Week!

As I already stated, I am taking three courses this semester. My history course (HST 109) is online, meeting one of the few outstanding general studies requirements I have yet to complete. The other two courses are specific to my major. The history and principles of journalism (JMC 110) is held at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. English grammar for journalists (JMC 194) is held on Friday mornings. These courses are located in the downtown Phoenix campus, where the Cronkite School’s building is located. All my journalism courses will be held in this building. While the Tempe campus of Arizona State University is less than half a mile from my apartment, the downtown Phoenix campus is approximately 10 miles away. Fortunately, there are free intercampus shuttles available to make the trip. I ride three buses each way in order to transport myself to and from the downtown campus. Avoiding excessive listening to headphones or use of my cell phone during these trips, I have been able to socialize effectively with my peers on the shuttles and at the Cronkite building before and after classes. One of my new acquaintances has become a note taker in both my journalism courses. All in all, though a few challenges loom, I see my return to the university classroom after a nine year absence as an unqualified success.

Categories: ASU, college, journalism
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