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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.


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.

Art Takes Off Down the Recycle Runway in New Airport Exhibition

February 19, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A new art exhibition at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport features clothing made from recycled materials.

The artist, Nancy Judd, an environmental educator with over 20 years of experience in the recycling industry, began her career in art school.

“I watched the garbage can next to the pop machine fill up with cans and that felt wrong to me,” Judd said. “With the blessing of the art school’s administration, I put a recycling bin next to the machine and was wondering what happened to the material and what it got made into.”

Commissioned by companies such as Target, Toyota and the Glass Packaging Institute, Judd spends hundreds of hours making each couture garment from materials including aluminum cans, canvas, crushed glass, paper and reclaimed thread.

She said the airport exhibition includes 14 pieces from her collection representing over ten years of work.

“There’s a dress here which is made from 12,000 pieces of crushed glass that are individually glued to a floor-length evening gown made out of upholstery remnants,” Judd said.

She said the goal of her business, Recycle Runway, is to make garments that attract attention in public venues to the issues of environmental stewardship.

“It’s our everyday, moment-to-moment decisions we make, that have caused the environmental crisis we’re in now and it’s those same moment-to-moment decisions that can help us hopefully move out of this little pickle we’ve gotten ourselves in,” Judd said.

She explained the environmental impact of a simple decision to eat an orange.

“Did you buy it from a big-box store where it was shipped in from Florida or Mexico, or from a local farmer who is keeping the money in your community,” Judd asked. “After you eat it, what do you do with the skin? Do you throw it in the landfill where it sits for as long as 20 years or do you compost it and make it into a valuable nutrient that adds back to the land?”

Judd said she goes into schools to talk with children about environmental awareness.

“I bring dresses made out of aluminum, plastic and paper and I use each garment to talk about recycling”, she said. “I have them write down a pledge on a strip of recycled white office paper stating their name and something they’re going to do, which they haven’t been doing before, to help care for the planet. Those strips of paper are being made into paper link chains that will be sewn to this huge Scarlett O’Hara-style dress. It will be exhibited in the Atlanta airport next year for 12 months.”

Judd isn’t alone in her reliance on recycled materials.

Professional artist Sherrie Zeitlin of Phoenix said money for materials was tight when she started working with K-12 children in schools around Maricopa County 15 years ago.

“What I found was the schools had no money,” Zeitlin said. “I would empower the schools, before I came in, to collect the ribbons and wrapping paper left over from the December holidays, or to collect newspaper, plastic, zippers and even old socks for use in art projects. These materials would be cut up and woven into wall pieces.”

She said this early history was the basis for her 2004 founding of the Art Resource Center.

“I put together a center where I could collect the detritus from industry, corporations and individuals to offer back to any nonprofit organization to be able to make art projects,” Zeitlin said. “It’s all offered free of charge.”

She said she has used recycled materials in her own weaving business making large-scale constructions for architects and interior designers.

“I would go to salvage yards and buy metal and plastic for use in weaving,” she said. “I remember I did a huge weaving for a Dillard’s department store all out of plastic. It looked like a big bride and it went into the lingerie department.”

Zeitlin said the use of recycled materials is a huge trend in the art world.

“It’s a necessity,” she said. “In Feb. 2010, where nobody has any money anymore, it’s a financial issue. ”

“With all the detritus in this world, it’s necessary to just use it up in a different way,” Zeitlin said. “One of the mantras for the Art Resource Center is ‘recycling art worthy materials for creative minds’.”

Lennée Eller, program manager with the Phoenix Airport Museum, said her organization hosts exhibitions by studio artists like Judd and Zeitlin in 25 spaces around the airport system including locations in Terminal 4, Terminal 3, Terminal 2, the rental car facility and even the Deer Valley and Good year airports.

“We showcase the artist’s work through the changing exhibition program for 6 months, then we bring in a new group of work,” Eller said. “The idea is that every artist, gallery and museum has an opportunity to have their work displayed. Over the years it’s been wonderful, because I’ve shown a multitude of diversity.”

Eller said most of the museum’s displays are located outside the security areas for easy access by the airport’s nearly 20,000 employees and 40 million passengers who pass through annually.

“What you see are people who have come early and are getting ready to go down the concourse,” Eller said. “Here’s an interesting secret. If there are a lot of people in line (at the security checkpoint) people will panick and go stand in line. If there are not a lot of people in line, they will stay and go shopping or stop to look at the art.”

Eller said the art draws local residents who are looking for something free to do.

“I have people come and just do the airport tour,” she said. “They come to have coffee and do a walk about just looking at all the shows.”

“We’re the gateway to the state,” said Eller. “It’s really about putting our best foot forward when you’re welcoming people and you want to show them what you’re about.”

Nancy Judd’s Recycle Runway exhibition is on display through Aug. 8 in Terminal 3, Level 2 of the airport next to Starbucks.

Eller said the Phoenix Airport Museum strives to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities who need special assistance accessing exhibitions. They are invited to call 602-273-2105 to set up an appointment.

Categories: journalism

My First Week Back in the College Classroom

September 2, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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: journalism

Is Revisionist History at Work in the Blind Community’s Own Online Media Outlets?

July 13, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Is revisionist history at work in the blind community’s own electronic media outlets? Can important information and the opinions of certain people in the community simply be made to disappear from our public knowledge without comment? It appears, unfortunately, that there may be two clear cases of exactly this sort of thing happening in a prominent online technology news magazine produced by the American Foundation for the Blind.

In the March 2007 issue of AccessWorld, an article entitled A View from Inside: A Major Assistive Technology Player Shares Some Industry Secrets, featuring Chris Hofstader, has been pulled from the magazine without explanation.

In the AccessWorld News section in the July 2007 issue of the same magazine, the following brief story is carried concerning the Freedom Scientific Versus Serotek lawsuit:

On May 14, 2007, Freedom Scientific filed suit against Serotek Corporation, claiming trademark infringement for use of the term “FreedomBox.” The claim stated that “Continuously since May 15, 2000, the Plaintiff has used the mark ‘Freedom Scientific’ to identify its products tailored to blind and low-vision users, including software that translates the Internet and digital information into braille or audible synthesized speech, and to distinguish these products from those made or sold by others, by, among other things, prominently displaying the mark ‘Freedom Scientific’ on the products, their containers, the displays, and marketing associated therewith.”

On June 7, Freedom Scientific and Serotek jointly announced that they had reached an agreement that Serotek was inadvertently infringing on Freedom Scientific’s federally registered trademark. “It is unfortunate that we had to take this action,” said Lee Hamilton, president and CEO of Freedom Scientific, “but trademarks are valuable corporate assets, and they must be protected, or they are lost. This agreement accomplishes that, and we have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.” Serotek will rename FreedomBox and other affected products. For more information, visit the companies’ web sites: and .

There is absolutely no coverage given to the Save Serotek Petition or any other efforts made by members of the blind community requesting that Freedom Scientific cease this action.

We all may want to start asking some serious questions about the blindness organizations to which we are members or on which we rely to provide the services we need. Does the organization’s leadership really hold the needs and desires of the blind in their hearts and minds, do they have their own personal agendas or are they catering to special interests? Do agencies, companies and other organizations donate money to these non-profit organizations, then use that fact later to exert undue influence over their actions and policies? After all, how could these organizations bite the hands that feed their small budgets? Can the people in charge of the most prominent organizations of and for the blind be trusted? It is up to all of us to ask and insist on candid answers to these and many other hard questions.

Objectivity versus Opinion, or the Difference Between Journalism and Evangelism

May 19, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When I was in high school, I had a teacher’s aid named Gloria. Gloria came to the United States a long time ago from Burma. She’s a Karen, a member of an ethnic group that has been fighting for independence for more than 58 years. The Karen are officially represented by an organization known as the Karen National Union. Unfortunately, according to the news reported on the Karen’s web site, it would seem their struggle is not currently meeting with much success.

So, by now, I’m sure you are all asking yourselves, “why in the world is Darrell prattling on about some obscure ethnic struggle for independence”? Don’t worry. I’m just setting up the stage for the rest of the discussion. It will become more relevant in very short order.

The Karens are not impartial when it comes to their independence. They believe it should be granted, that it is their right to fight for it, and some are willing to give their very lives for the cause. Others believe it is better to cooperate with existing governments in the region. They are branded by the independence fighters as traitors who have sold out their people. One part of the Karen National Union’s operations involves their web site, where news relating to their struggle is distributed for all to read. When you visit their web site, it quickly becomes obvious that they have a clear agenda. There are no statements of balance or impartiality.

The Blind Access Journal is a similar web site, though the struggle is obviously quite different. In our case, the struggle is for the blind community to be granted equal accessibility, alternative transportation options and all opportunities otherwise granted the sighted on the basis of their being physically able to see. Similar to the Karens, we also have an agenda. Though not stated as a political platform or similar document, any reasonable reader could be expected to understand that the Blind Access Journal, and, thus, its publisher, Darrell Shandrow, is an advocate or evangelist for accessibility. This means, by nature, that I am not objective. I am not going to act as though discrimination, inaccessibility or lapses of accountability in the products and services provided to us are at all acceptable by any stretch of the imagination. I am not only going to report such issues, but also work strenuously to have them rectified in a manner that benefits the blind community. My very close friend and colleague, Jeff Bishop, states the differences between opinion and balanced journalism quite clearly with respect to blogging about issues in the blindness assistive technology field.

As part of my evangelism, the most recent assistive technology issue about which I have been writing is the trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Freedom Scientific against Serotek. It should be quite clear to everyone that I have strong feelings concerning what was done and the potential ramifications not only for a small player in the field, but for the entire blind community. Being the undisputed leader in the market, Freedom Scientific has the ability to significantly benefit or severely harm the ability of all blind and visually impaired people to use technology as a vehicle to equally participate in society. By taking this action, I unequivocally believe that Freedom Scientific may set into motion a series of events that could result in the loss of innovative new technologies we need to develop and grow in the blind community right now. The company holds sway over the entire blind community, be it individuals, organizations or dealers of assistive technology products. This is unavoidable, given Freedom Scientific’s overwhelming market share. Unfortunately, when that influence is put to negative ends, the results can be absolutely disastrous not only for companies, but also for real people and their families. For example, the RAM and RIM products now offered by Serotek represent a huge potential to push open many doors to employment previously closed by the need for remote access to computers owned by sighted people. If Freedom Scientific does end up litterally suing Serotek out of business, the results could mean real consequences for real people in the blind community up to and including the inability to acquire new jobs or even the loss of existing employment!

Earlier today I asked someone, who must currently remaine nameless, a simple question about the reasons for the Freedom Scientific versus Serotek lawsuit. The resulting conversation involved their expressing concerns about the quality of my “journalism” and the possibility of that person contacting people who might decide to curtail my participation in certain activities I currently enjoy and which, I hope, benefit the blind community. It is for this reason that I must make one thing extremely clear: I am NOT a balanced, impartial “journalist”. I am, instead, an accessibility ADVOCATE or EVANGELIST who is promoting equal participation on the part of the blind and visually impaired in the world around us. Though I have not and never will intentionally mislead anyone, I do not feel obligated nor possess the necessary resources to fully research everything I write on this blog. I am also not required to present everything in a “balanced” or “objective” manner. For that matter, even the paid “journalists” don’t always get this right, and that is their job. Just read and compare mainstream media sources like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard, or watch CNN and Fox News for an hour each to understand my point. This is not the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel!

I hope this post has helped all of you clearly understand the fact that I am not a professional “journalist”, I am not always going to be objective and that I do most certainly have an agenda to look out for all of you, my brothers and sisters in the blind community! Your e-mails and comments are quite welcome and encouraged!