Opening University of Notre Dame Admissions Portal to Students who are Blind

University of Notre Dame

Perkins Access to Boost Accessibility of Notre Dame’s Admission Site

Erik Runyon had been trying to figure out how to make the University of Notre Dame’s website more accessible for years. So when a trusted colleague recommended Perkins Access digital accessibility consulting service, he was ready.

“We had our assumptions, but we really wanted to put them to the test,” Runyon said. “Until someone actually uses your sites with a device like a screen reader you don’t know for certain.”

As the university’s technical director for marketing communications, Runyon even tried to hire a student with visual impairments to test the website. But he was unable to find students who could help identify potential problems with the site.

 “I really wanted feedback from a daily user of accessibility tools,” Runyon said. “We realized what we experience might not be what others experience.”

Runyon was immediately impressed with the expert testing team from Perkins Solutions' digital accessibility service, Perkins Access. Their willingness to work within his budget and scope was a real plus. He and the Perkins Access team agreed they should focus on the critical entry point for students: the undergraduate admissions site.

“It was a good balance between costs and the testing being done,” Runyon said. “We were really getting some knowledge that could be taken forward into successive projects.”

The testing, completed in fall of 2015, went quickly. Runyon was happy to learn his Web team was already doing a great many things right. But the Access Report, which summarizes potential accessibility barriers at specific locations (URLs), did identify some required and recommended fixes.

“They weren’t show-stoppers, just little things we could do to make the usability better,” Runyon said.

Page layouts and recurring page headers required code modifications, and the Perkins Access team added an accessibility link at the bottom of pages for people experiencing problems. The link connects students who have questions and issues directly to the university’s disability services.

Perkins’ testing also found that the site that books campus visits, managed by an outside vendor, used color only to indicate available appointment times, making navigation impossible for people who are color blind. And a graphical map showing Notre Dame admissions counselors throughout the country was almost a complete roadblock for assistive devices.

The admissions department appreciated the feedback and fixes, Runyon said. “They want everyone to apply and find their counselor as easily as possible.”

Runyon’s team manages Notre Dame’s main website, along with 500 affiliated university sites. They also create or update about 70 sites per year.

“Perkins’ recommendations will make all the websites more accessible in the future,” Runyon said. “Designers will think about color contrast and accessible style protocols. The accessibility link will be added to more pages. And critical navigation tools, such as drop-down menus, will be more accessible via more Web browsers.”  

Most importantly, his team’s “starter code” – the basic code used to create all new sites – was improved to reflect Perkins’ recommendations, Runyon said. “That can improve everything, going forward. These are the lessons I found the most valuable.”

For Runyon, making every one of Notre Dame’s websites accessible, and creating the best possible user experience for every visitor, is a critically important goal.

“You want to make sure every user and device can access your site well,” he said. “People with visual impairments aren’t the majority of our users, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to get the information they need and accomplish their goals.”