Collaborating for Accessibility

Last updated: March 26, 2021

A recent collaboration between members of UW-IT’s Accessible Technologies (AT) and Academic Experience Design & Delivery (AXDD) groups and Trumba, the vendor that created the software on which the UW Event Calendar runs, has led to improvements in accessibility—not just for the UW but for all of Trumba’s customers. Conversations with those involved in the collaboration illustrate how critical accessibility issues are, how workable they can be, and how attention to accessibility early in the design process can create a product that works better for all users, whether or not they are using assistive technologies.

Accessibility not on everyone’s radar

For Hadi Rangin, IT Accessibility Specialist, the mission is clear. “Our primary job is collaborating with groups in UW-IT to ensure that products that are developed and purchased are accessible to everyone. Accessibility is not on everyone’s radar. Lots of products are purchased or developed without regard for the needs of people who use assistive devices.” Regarding vendor products, Dan Comden, Access Technology Consultant, noted, “sometimes vendors provide accessibility info, but it’s not always accurate or up to date, after a few version changes, accessibility features are lost.”

Consider accessibility during design (and implementation and test)

Whereas accessibility should be considered during the design, implementation and testing processes, Hadi said that “in most cases, accessibility is not considered until just before or after deployment, which is frankly too late. Trying to add patches here and there does not work. Accessibility cannot be accomplished with patching here and there. But if you consider accessibility at the time of design process, it is free and complete. If you do it at any other time, will be incomplete, wishy washy, or expensive.”

Strong support for accessibility at UW-IT

In contrast to earlier experiences at other institutions, Hadi says that he has been “pleasantly surprised at the strong support for accessibility within UW-IT. People are so proactive, they think of accessibility during design and engage Accessible Technology staff during the testing process.”

“We [in Accessible Technologies] would like to create an atmosphere in UW-IT that acknowledges the efforts of the Service Managers and vendors who do recognize the necessity of creating and purchasing fully accessible products.”

Involvement of Service Managers is critical

Dan and Hadi emphasize that this work cannot be accomplished without direct support of Service Owners/Managers. One example, is the collaboration between UW-IT and Trumba. Hadi met Laura Baldwin (AXDD Service Manager for the UW Event Calendar Service) at a gathering for new UW-IT employees. Hadi described to Laura the obstacles he experienced in trying to use the event calendar. “Laura was on board right away,” Hadi said. “Then, Laura involved Fang [Lin],” the software engineer for Trumba implementation at UW. Dan Comden, Access Technology Consultant, noted, “Laura and Fang didn’t need to be sold on the necessity of Trumba being accessible. They understood why, and simply asked how to proceed.”

Fang Lin worked extensively with Hadi and Dan to explain the intricate inner workings of Trumba and to identify which issues which might be coming from Trumba software itself, and which might be arising from the specific implementation at the UW. Once they had documented the specific issues related to the vendor product, Fang coordinated to bring Trumba and UW-IT together and worked tirelessly to make the collaboration successful. Further collaboration between Fang and AXDD Technical Writer Heidi Stahl produced instructions to help ensure that calendar owners at the UW can publish calendars that are accessible for all users.

Laura and Fang are strongly dedicated to making technology accessible. Laura said, “I think it is really important to provide technology that everyone can use, and Dan and Hadi are a fantastic resource for the UW and our vendors. I learned a lot watching them use Trumba with screen readers.”

“As a best practice, we [Hadi and Dan] never evaluate a product for accessibility or usability without involving the relevant Service Owner or Manager,” said Hadi. “A product review has no meaning unless the Service Owner or Service Manager is involved. Our approach is to educate them and ask them to take the leadership about implementing any improvements.”

Face-to-face collaboration

“To begin, we sit together and demonstrate, for example, issues with using the application with the keyboard” explained Dan Comden. He went on to say that “keyboard accessibility is the first standard for accessibility, not just for folks who can’t see the screen, but also for folks who choose not to use the mouse. Then together, we define the common functional tasks for prospective product.”

Hadi described a typical initial consultation. “We’ll have the Service Owner or Service Manager attempt to complete those tasks without using the mouse, relying only on the keyboard. That is the power of collaboration, getting them to try a task that they are comfortable doing with a mouse, and experiencing first hand the challenge of doing it with a keyboard. In this way, they learn about accessibility and become engaged in the process, and it helps them to lead the effort to make a product more accessible.”

“If they can’t complete a task with the keyboard only, we consider that a show stopper. We prioritize issues based on severity of impact to completing those functional tasks. We always tell them — we’re helping you, but it is your responsibility” to implement the changes necessary for accessibility. “We can’t check every corner of the application,” said Hadi. “They learn the principles from our consultations, apply them, and in many cases, we will test the changes. Rather than refer them to outside resources, we sit with them and discuss with them the issues at the code level.” Dan added, “it’s always easy to list the problems, but we also suggest solutions, which Service Managers and Service Owners seem to appreciate.” Dan and Hadi encourage Service Owners/Managers to set up regular biweekly or monthly meetings for ongoing consultation.

And while the Accessible Technologies team may have more educating to do, Hadi is pleased to note that, “People at UW-IT understand the principles of universal design, and they know that accessibility is not far from usability. The issues we deal with are indeed usability issues, and people with accessibility issues are more affected by any existing usability issues in a product.” Because of this close connection between accessibility and usability, improvements to accessibility mean improvements for all users.

Working with Trumba: One of the best

Hadi said that, with respect to working with vendors, he has sometimes found smaller companies easier to work with in terms of making real change happen. For example, “in the case of Trumba, the CEO is also a main developer. It made this process so much easier, made for a very productive collaboration. Their efforts to make the event calendar more accessible have been genuine. The product continues to improve with every iteration.”

Dan Comden described a similar experience. Working with Trumba “was one of the best examples we’ve had doing this in a timely and effective fashion.” To begin with, “Laura and Fang were immediately responsive about the issues were and in reaching out to Trumba. Then, almost immediately the vendor went to work fixing the priority things that could be easily fixed. They’ve been great at following up and paying attention to the important issues.”

Trumba’s view

Dan Hickman, Trumba CEO, spoke warmly about his experience collaborating with UW-IT. “We really appreciated the help and the extensive evaluation that the UW-IT team did before involving Trumba. It can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of people with accessibility issues; Hadi’s perspective was so useful. In addition to his experience as a person who relies on assistive technologies, he has a background in computer science and development. That combination of attributes means that Hadi understands the challenges of making software more accessible. He doesn’t just point out the issues that need fixing. He has great ideas and is current on the latest options for solving a problem.”

In addition to all the responsibilities of being a CEO, Dan Hickman also devotes significant time to development work at Trumba. He has been the primary contact with UW-IT, doing most of the work himself, along with another Trumba developer. “We meet monthly to identify the specific items we’re going to work on next, determine whether or not something is an accessibility issue, and sort through different solutions. Then we have the month to work on them, during which we’ve had great discussions about how to improve accessibility. Hadi helped us discover issues that we hadn’t even realized would pose problems for people using assistive devices. Hadi and the rest of the UW-IT team have been understanding about needing to work in the improvements along with other needed developments.”

Work in progress

Dan Hickman is happy to report that they have taken care of most of the high priority issues. “Forms as originally designed needed to be updated to allow a user to enter data in a form and navigate through a form using a keyboard. The processes of submitting and taking action on events have been made accessible. Messages to validate actions are also now accessible. He anticipates that making the software fully accessible will require a few more months of work. Although they’ve taken care of the issues that have the most impact, Dan observed that there is a “long tail” of accessibility issues that they still want to address. “Although it may just take a day to implement a fix, the discussions about how to do the work, and the coordination with ongoing general improvements take time.”

“We were lucky to be able to take advantage of Hadi’s expertise, and to leverage that to improve the product not just for the UW but for all Trumba customers.”