For people like Rebecca Marrall, hearing loss needn't be a barrier
Western Washington University is making strides toward ensuring that technology is more accessible to everyone on campus.
Western’s Accessibility Consortium is currently working to improve the electronic accessibility of Western’s online educational spaces. The consortium is a campus-wide group of information technology professionals, educators and student service professionals who have dedicated themselves to creating more accessible technology for everyone on campus.
They are working toward ensuring that all videos are captioned for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, creating website shortcuts for people with mobility concerns who cannot use a keyboard in the traditional way, and striving to make all content on sites accessible by screen reading technology for blind and low vision people.
Rebecca Marrall, the Discovery Services librarian and head of the Resource Discovery Unit, also serves as a liaison to the Accessibility Consortium. Marrall doesn’t just have a professional commitment to improving electronic accessibility, but a personal commitment as well.
Marrall has been hard of hearing her whole life, and ever since she was born accessibility has affected her. Luckily, the American’s with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, when she was 7 years old. This act gave civil rights protections to all individuals with disabilities.
“I know people who are older than I am who didn’t have the benefits of legislative protection. It is a privilege that I am very grateful for every day,” Marrall said.
In 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law. It states that any public entity, such as a public education institution, must make sure that its content is equitably accessible. Physical spaces need to be accessible, and so does technology.
As a public institution, Western is required by law to provide equal access to programs and services for the entire Western community, including those with disabilities.
"Put aside legality for a moment, and look at it from a perspective of empathy," Marrall said. "It is not appropriate or reasonable or fair that a group of people who have a disability of some kind can’t access the same material."
Marrall has a bilateral hearing loss, and is severely to profoundly deaf in the high frequencies. Therefore, she relies on captioning within videos, and would not be able to access video or film content otherwise. Watching a video without captions causes her to miss about 70 percent of the content, she said.
The Accessibility Consortium is hosting captioning training sessions for developers and teachers, as well as PDF creation workshops. Max Bronsema, the director of Western’s Web Communication Technologies department, coordinates these workshops.
“The consortium is fantastic simply because we have so much representation from across campus,” Marrall said. “We have people who are very knowledgeable and committed. When you have a group like that it makes the work really exciting and engaging.”
She has worked as a disabilities counselor in the past, and in that time Marrall got the chance to work with many people with a wide range of disabilities. This experience exposed her to the fact that sometimes the electronic infrastructure isn’t accessible.
"It’s frustrating, and it can be heartbreaking if the frustration keeps building and isn’t addressed," she said. "There’s no reason it needs to be like that. We rely too heavily on technology not to be proactive and make these spaces accessible."
Marrall acknowledges that these changes won’t happen overnight. With all of the different departments and faculty, students and staff all being potential content creators, there is a lot of content to make accessible. But it is necessary, and right, to ensure that all of Western’s spaces are accessible to people of different abilities, she said. The number of students with disabilities has increased significantly, increasing from 650 to around 1,000 students at Western in the past five years. This increase proves it is the right time to begin ensuring the implementation of these accessibility requirements.
Each member of the Consortium brings expertise and commitment to this work. Along with Marrall and Bronsema, members include Anna Blick, assistant director of Disability Resources for Students; Justene Merriman, multimedia designer; Jesse Sturgis, multimedia designer; and Terrill Thompson, University of Washington’s accessibility expert.
“On every level, this is a win-win,” says Marrall. “If you provide information and resources in different ways, then you give all learners the ability to access that information in ways that may accommodate different learning styles, not just someone who has a disability.”
For more information on the available tools and resources created by the Consortium, visit http://wp.wwu.edu/webtech/standards/. The Consortium invites anyone interested in registering for a workshop to do so at the WWU Training Site, at http://training.wwu.edu/.