Celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month with Bill Casson
Bill Casson has only worked at the University of Denver for 10 months, but in that short time, he’s seen the University advance its work in digital accessibility and made his own mark on that work.
As digital accessibility specialist for DU’s IT Department, Casson inspects existing technology, tools and processes to dismantle barriers for employees and students with disabilities. Though he began his schooling and career in computer science and software, he quickly pivoted to accessibility work, putting his skills to use at CU Boulder, Charter Communications and Hilton.
In celebration and recognition of Disability Employment Awareness Month, Casson, who identifies as blind, shared with the DU Newsroom details about his work, the progress he’s seen and what still needs to be done.
Why is digital accessibility work important to you? Why did you want to put your efforts there?
Well, actually, none of my schooling was in that direction. My schooling has all been in computer science. Obviously, as a blind person, I do have an interest in accessibility and making things accessible and reducing those barriers for everyone. I have to deal with them and I'd rather not, and I'm sure there are other people also would rather not. So, part of this is to help get rid of those barriers for our students and staff, [so they can] get to all the resources the University has.
Can you explain what that work entails? What you do on a day-to-day basis?
A lot of it is auditing, such as going through and testing different websites and services for accessibility and usability. One of the first things I did was Kronos, and then I’ve done things like Cornerstone and tested some of the potential portal replacements for that project. I’m currently in the process of evaluating some of the options we have for project management system replacement. That is in progress. Some of it is doing research, and some of it is advising people and working with people to remediate issues.
What progress have you seen during your career in terms of making workplaces more accessible?
There’s definitely been more and more emphasis on accessibility. People are starting to believe that it’s something they should be doing. There’s also been a lot of legal stuff going on, making it more and more obvious that they have to do that and that there will be consequences for not doing it. So that’s definitely part of it as well. And so, as the years progress, more and more companies and industries are starting to try to comply with that. The government’s starting to require it more. So, things like that.
What about DU specifically? You’ve been here 10 months. How much work needed to be done when you arrived and how much has been accomplished?
Well, lots of work [needed] to be done; lots of work still [needs] to be done. But being able to evaluate some of the products before we decide on what we’re buying has been great. There’s been a couple of different situations where our testing has impacted our choices, so it’s great to see that that’s happening.
What are the things that you’re looking for when you evaluate a new product that the University is looking at buying?
I’m looking at the usability with a screen reader. I will go through all the different functionality that we might be using it for. So for the project management system I’m testing now, I’m testing things like, can I create new projects, can I create tasks, can I assign tasks, can I create due dates, can I sort tasks into different projects? Things like that. So I’m just making sure all that can be done without too much trouble and noting anything that makes it harder to use or that is inaccessible.
What are some of the things that make systems that we use difficult to navigate?
Well, things that aren’t identified or labeled properly. So, one of the obvious things is images and whether they’re labeled properly with some sort of alt-text that describes what they are. For controls, things like drop-down menus and having a way of activating them or to navigate through them. I also ensure everything reads in a way that makes sense. Because while, for you, you might look at it and notice that it is in three columns, the screen reader just takes everything linearized into one long flow. So, instead of having sections, it’s just a long flow. Those sections have to make sense when it’s in a single flow rather than in like those three distinct sections.
What are some common best practices that can be implemented in terms of digital accessibility in the workplace? Are there key things that everybody should be doing and everybody should be looking for?
That really depends on the role as far as digital accessibility goes. Content creators are going to be the ones who are going to be most affected. It’s going to be people who are creating PDFs like our faculty and a lot of the departments for the website and people who are sending out emails. That’s the major thing for our campus communities. Making sure that images are tagged so that screen readers can read them. And making sure that things are organized — those are the biggest things. For PDFs, they also should be tagged and OTL has some articles on that.
Are there any new technologies that have evolved to help you in this work?
There’s nothing major, but each year or so, major screen readers release new versions, and they'll add some functionality — things like image recognition. The ability to take an image and extract what’s in it using AI is getting better and better all the time. [So is] optical character recognition, the ability to take text and convert that into speech or text. That’s been around for a very long time, but that’s getting better. The Zoom transcripts also give some access for people who can’t hear as well, to understand what’s going on in the actual live Zoom call.
What work still needs to be done? What's most pressing?
I think a lot of what’s going on here at DU is going to be education, helping people understand that these issues exist — helping them understand why they should care and then helping them address the issues. But I think as a broad discussion, there’s not as much as we would like. Every year, there are some conversations around disability and accessibility, but it’s still not something that most people run into.