U.Va. expands Web accessibility for school

It's using Lift Assistive software to optimize college-run sites

The University of Virginia is using Lift Assistive from New York-based UsableNet Inc. to convert all of the school's Web pages into a format optimized for users with disabilities, according to Nancy Tramontin, director of webmaster services at the university.

The school's home page and top-level pages have used the Lift Assistive software since 2004 and currently serve 3,000 to 4,000 visitors per month, according to a statement. The new universitywide licensing agreement with UsableNet allows any division, department or school to add a Lift-powered "text-only" version of their Web pages, Tramontin said.

"This software provides a text version of all our Web pages so that they can be read by screen readers [which reads the contents of the screen aloud to a user] so that people who are blind can read the text," Tramontin said. "We've had this software on most of the university's main pages, but it's now going to be on every University of Virginia Web page. We'd like to see this on all of our pages by the end of the year."

Because the Lift Assistive software removes images from a Web page, the text can be sent to PDAs and cell phones, as well, she said.

Visitors can customize the accessible text-only Web pages by setting preferences for text size and color, according to the school. The Lift Assistive software will be deployed on other popular Web resources, including the university's Web mail, its online course offering directory and automated class registration system, and the MyUVA portal.

"There's a link at the top of the Web page that is hidden from visual browsers, but when a user with a screen reader visits the page they use key strokes to hear a list of the page links, headers, images or other content," Tramontin said. "So they can use key strokes to say show me all the headers on this page and then the user accesses the link to the text-only version where they remain for the duration of the visit on the site."

Angie Matney, a first-year law student at U.Va. who is blind, said the school's decision should make it easier for her to access pages using a program called Jaws for Windows, from www.freedomscientific.com. "Jaws essentially converts the information on a Web page into speech or Braille output," she said. "The Lift program simplifies what's on the screen before it is sent to Jaws."

Matney said she went through the link on the university's main page and pulled up the law school's sites and it did present a less cluttered view of the Web pages.

"It was very well organized," she said. "Traditionally, a lot of Web sites will offer an alternate Web site in text-only form, and I tend to steer clear of those because I found that they are not updated frequently. What I really like about the software that [the university] is using that it allows for the dynamic, real-time creation of that alternate page."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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