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Exceeding community-wide expectations in digital accessibility

A person, working on their IPad, in a collaborative work setting

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), one of the nation’s most heralded institutions, began its path to website accessibility in response to a single complaint. From there, UNC-CH has created an accessibility strategy that spans across its individual colleges and embodies the system’s unique values. This is the story of how they did it.

The impetus to start something now

For Brad Held, UNC-CH’s head of digital accessibility, and Sarah Joy Arnold, digital accessibility consultant, everything began when Carolina received a complaint from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint stated UNC-CH’s websites failed to meet accessibility requirements.

“Our office was literally formed out of the resolution to meet that requirement,” Arnold said.

The task facing UNC’s newly formed digital accessibility team seemed massive. They had hundreds of people working on scores of websites across the system, all operating under different guidelines and principles. The team knew they needed a comprehensive tool to meet this large demand but as they began to review their options, Arnold and Held knew UNC-CH didn’t want to simply be reactive. The department wanted to institute proactive improvements as well.

“We knew this tool would be something we would push and promote to help people add it as part of their normal processes,” Arnold said.

Matching Carolina’s unique vision

UNC-CH defines accessibility as “a practice ensuring that content, resources, and technology communicated electronically can be used regardless of ability, disability, or assistive technology.” What it means to the University extends beyond that, however. Both Held and Arnold say it all must match the university’s “culture of helping.”

“We want to be inclusive and build our community,” Arnold added.

Choosing the solution to match their goals

UNC-CH began their search for an accessibility solution by piloting several platforms. Arnold said the team made sure to invite users from the University Libraries, School of Medicine and other groups that were heavily impacted by the OCR complaint. As the trials began, Arnold said it became obvious everyone wanted to see the Siteimprove solution.

“It was so easy, it made sense. Overwhelmingly everyone wanted it,” she said.

Quick wins started to appear… quickly

“We wanted to get the tool as quickly as possible,” Arnold remembered, “because we were still in OCR monitoring and the deadline for rereview was coming.”

UNC-CH’s Siteimprove account officially went live in March 2020 and the team put the tool to work monitoring its sports, library, and student accommodation websites – all deemed high priority by the OCR review. Almost immediately, Siteimprove’s solution was identifying issues the team could address to support its accessibility goals. This allowed the team to provide clarity to applicable site managers so corrections could be made in accordance with the tight OCR deadline. UNC-CH was able to meet the OCR deadline and the case was officially closed a couple months later.

In addition, the team was also able to improve the campus website template used by many of the University’s websites. Siteimprove found issues with links being identified by color only, color contrast issues, and a missing accessible name for the site search. This allowed UNC-CH to correct all of these mistakes and set a better foundation for future website creation efforts.

Long-term benefits of the Siteimprove solution are ongoing

When the web accessibility team first brought Siteimprove to Carolina, they were monitoring 125 sites. Today that total has grown to 206 and as the site count has grown, so too have the site scores. “Our overall accessibility score has gone up from 78.7 to 84.2 (old module),” Arnold said. “On NextGen, it’s gone from 82.8 (160 sites) to 84.3 (206 sites).”

The team sees Siteimprove’s impact only growing from there.

Arnold said the team is looking to add sites from UNC-CH’s School of Medicine – over 400 websites – as well as from the main network. “Our plan is to assign people from our department to monitor those sites, teach accessibility and monitor progress,” she said. And she’s sure that progress will be swift because of the excitement Siteimprove’s solution is already generating. “It’s been fun to hear people talking about it,” Arnold said. “That word of mouth spreading is really helping.”

For their part, the digital accessibility team is working to generate awareness of what the solution can do as well. Arnold creates a quarterly newsletter that is sent to Siteimprove users across campus. Each edition of the newsletter is full of best practices and tips to allow users to get more from their Siteimprove experience.

“We’re finding ways to get people involved,” said Arnold. “During the summer we’re reaching out to stakeholders who aren’t impacted by the OCR but are vital and we’ll use Siteimprove to reach out and get those teams involved as well. Siteimprove paves the way for these conversations.”

UNC-CH began its journey facing a challenge common to many higher education institutions. But it’s the work done by the digital accessibility team that has exceeded OCR expectations and left the university, its staff, and students in a stronger, more accessible environment for years to come.


The University of North Carolina




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