Perspective on the future of UAOnline’s format: Screen readers, equity and accessibility lab rats

A UAA student who uses a screen reader gives their perspective on the future changes to UAOnline’s format and advocates for more free screen readers on campus

Photo provided by Unsplash - Photo by Christin Hume

The Board of Regents Academic and Student Affairs Committee met on Nov. 9. During this meeting, the regents discussed future changes to the UAOnline format – including easier access for use on smartphones  and better compatibility with screen readers.

Screen readers are software that assist people who are blind or visually impaired to help navigate online systems and read various texts.

UA’s Chief Information Technology Officer Benjamin Shier shared a presentation on the need to modernize the University of Alaska’s 30 year old Student Information System; which will lead to a format change of UAOnline systems.

Shier mentioned UAOnline’s interface proves difficult to use for blind or visually impaired individuals using screen readers to register for classes or check billing information. UA will be adapting to a different format in an attempt to make the use of screen readers easier.

The project has been given a deadline of two years to complete. UA systems aim to be completely up to date by December 2025.

Kesly Tallant is a UAA student who uses a screen reader every day and often accesses UAOnline. In an interview with The Northern Light, Tallant gave her perspective on the discussion of future UAOnline format changes.

Registering for classes is one of the biggest problems Tallant has with her screen reader but as she demonstrated how she registers for classes with it – it became clear she is already used to the current format, no matter how difficult.

“Should you change it now? It’s already okay, the next thing you pick could be worse. I don’t know what the better solution is here. I don’t want to learn a whole new system – that would be miserable. This thing was hard enough to figure out,” said Tallant.

Tallant explained she has been at UAA since 2017 and is aware that many universities are trying new formats in an attempt to make things better for students, but she is unsure if there is a better option right now.

“I came to UAA to be a student and I have hardly, barely been able to do that. I feel like a very big lab rat in the aspect that I’ve pointed out a lot of things that are wrong. I feel an advocate would be a good umbrella term, but really, [I feel] like an accessibility lab rat. It’s like ‘hey let’s see if this works.’ It feels like I’m the first blind person to attend UAA,” said Tallant.

Many students may look forward to the platform’s upcoming changes, but those who have already learned to navigate the current obstacles may feel overwhelmed.

Tallant also mentioned she doesn’t so much agree with the term “not accessible.” “I get frustrated with the accessibility conversation because I'm obviously able to do most of it, but there's just certain things I'm not able to do,” said Tallant.

Accessing the platform is not the trouble that Tallant has. Difficulties originate more within the program itself and the ability to contact administrators and advisors to assist with navigation problems.

Tallant explained the different “brands” of screen readers. “The main one that’s used by the majority of the blind community is called JAWS – Job Access With Speech. It’s expensive, on the lower end, $800 for one license and that’s just one license on one device.”

Although JAWS is an expensive lifetime purchase, Tallant mentioned NVDA – NonVisual Desktop Access – a free screen reader competitor of JAWS.

“I would love to advocate for the university to get NVDA more in some of these labs. It’s as simple as downloading it from the internet,” said Tallant.

Tallant has noticed many labs on campus and even the library have very limited or no access to screen readers such as NonVisual Desktop Access.

Tallant finally recommended that those working to develop a program involve the people who fall under the wide spectrum of accessibility. “Instead of equality – equity – because those are two different things. I’m very new to this conversation but the idea of universal design. Not so much “equal” because that’s never going to be the case in my mind. But universal design, in my head, means that you have multiple ways of accessing one thing. Not one thing fits all.”

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