How ISU Extension and Outreach became a digital access trailblazer

About three years ago, ISU Extension and Outreach updated its online store where anyone can download the publications produced by extension faculty, staff and partners. For the first time, the store's website was digitally accessible, meaning it was designed so people with disabilities could use it. Screen reader software, for instance, could turn text into speech for people with low or no vision. Interactive features such as links, forms, buttons and dropdown menus could be navigated without a mouse, making them compatible with assistive input devices.

But inside the website was the store's online content, thousands of documents available to the public -- none of them built to be accessible. Neither was there a plan to make future publications accessible.

For more information

ISU Extension and Outreach developed document accessibility training available to any Iowa State employee. Self-guided courses for Microsoft Office, Adobe InDesign and Adobe Acrobat Pro are available online.

Additional resources are available on Iowa State's digital access website. To request custom training or consultation, email Cyndi Wiley at

Extension IT systems analyst Kristi Elmore asked extension store manager Chris Johnsen what he thought about revising existing publications to meet accessibility guidelines. He was immediately on board. Elmore then talked to Robin Ertz, the IT manager in extension's professional development unit, about training extension staff to make sure new documents were accessible. She was in, too.

They had no idea what they were signing up for.

"We definitely underestimated the time," Elmore said. "We just saw there was a need and decided to do something about it."

They quickly learned few U.S. organizations have taken on both mass document remediation and widespread staff training. When they talked to peer institutions, Ertz said, they often would hear a similar project was considered but halted after organizers realized how difficult it was.

"We only found a few that ventured into something even relatable to this, but nothing of the same magnitude," said Rachel Tendall, an extension digital designer and assistant brand manager who joined the team early on as a design and software expert. "We couldn't find any materials. We ended up working with a company out of Canada to run us through some trainings."

A little more than two years later, the foursome had put an estimated 3,000 hours into its eAccessibility Initiative and convinced extension leadership to hire two full-time staff to work on document remediation and training. It's a rare effort, one Iowa State's digital accessibility coordinator hopes to leverage in the university's push to make more web and digital course content accessible.

"What extension is doing is big. There are just not many other universities at all in the United States that are doing what they're doing," Cyndi Wiley said.

Unique focus

While templates for Iowa State websites are digitally accessible, site content is likely to be inaccessible without training and planning. So when Wiley consults with departments and units on how to adopt digital accessibility, she encourages them to start by ensuring a few areas -- social media or newsletters, for example -- use basics such as alternate text and video captions. Her recommendations typically focus more on changing practices than major revisions.

"Extension chose to do both. That's what's unique about it. To look at those two aspects is mind-blowing," she said. "What you find, not just here on campus, is there's a limit on time, resources and expertise. Those are the three things that get in the way of a lot of things."

It took more than a year after the first discussions before the eAccessibility team took a proposal to extension administration in late 2017. It was another year before document accessibility specialists John Robnett and Ron Nelson were hired. Meanwhile, the team developed training for extension staff, including videos and workshops offered in Ames and county offices around the state.

Wiley said she plans to incorporate some of extension's training in a faculty-focused digital accessibility course she's developing for Canvas.

"They were one of the first meetings I wanted to schedule when I arrived to campus," said Wiley, who started in her post last November.

The interest extends well beyond campus. The team has presented about the project twice at the National Extension Technology Community conferences and in a webinar for the organization. The project has drawn the attention of numerous schools considering how to make digital accessibility a higher priority.

"It's something that everyone is thinking about, but it's about how to get started," Elmore said.

Staff reaction

In designing the training curriculum, the team was careful about what they asked of staff, as the extra diligence does take more time. Yet they wanted the attentiveness to accessibility to be thorough.

"You take out one portion, and the document's not accessible. So, what are we looking for? Are we looking to be accessible or not? We decided there really wasn't much we could leave out to produce an accessible document," Elmore said.

Employees took to the charge reasonably well. Because accessibility often requires special care with graphics and charts, some staff responsible for publications were concerned about the aesthetic impact of the new approach. That was largely fear of the unknown, Johnsen said. 

"Something that is beautifully designed might not be accessible. But something that's accessible can be beautifully designed," he said.

To help make accessibility practices simpler, extension IT built a custom menu bar in Microsoft Word to collect the needed headings and styles that help screen readers make sense of text.

"A lot of work has been done to make it as easy as possible," Robnett said.

Touting reasons

Emphasizing the reasons why digital accessibility is important also helped staff embrace the initiative, team members said. That includes both the impact on people with disabilities and the broader value of inclusive design.    

"Everyone can benefit from best universal design practices," Tendall said. "Incorporating universal design practices allows you to more effectively communicate to the widest range of consumers. People are more apt to see the value in learning how to do this when they see how this can benefit them both personally and professionally."

For example, video captions can help English-language learners, people who are deaf and people who just want to understand a video with the sound off. Contrasting colors are essential for people with color-vision issues, but they also make documents more readable if they are printed in grayscale. Larger font sizes have wide benefits, too.  

"I'll be honest, when we first started working with Ariel 12-point font, I felt like it was a kid's book, a large print kind of thing. But actually, now I don't have to use my glasses to read," Ertz said.

In training sessions, it's common for a participant to share a personal connection, often a family member, client or county council member who will benefit from being able to access digital content. That's probably made getting buy-in from staff easier for extension than it would be in other workforces, Elmore said.

"Almost all of our staff are working with Iowans face-to-face," she said. "They understand the importance of bringing the message to all Iowans, not just some."

'Icing on the cake'

Over their first year, Nelson and Robnett have completed about 10 percent of the 2,500 extension publications selected for accessibility remediation. That's about 2,000 pages fixed out of more than 27,000, Johnsen said. 

It is often tedious work. Nelson works on agriculture and natural resources publications, research-heavy articles that often have thorny data-presentation issues. Robnett works on 4-H, human sciences, and community and economic development documents, frequently rebuilding them from scratch because the native document is unavailable. It is helpful to have the source document to create a "tagged" PDF document, which makes screen readers more effective.

"You really have to tear it apart, almost line by line, when you only have the PDF document," Robnett said.

To help check their work, Robnett and Nelson vetted samples with a focus group of five people who are blind, a recommendation from the initiative's advisory council. Robnett said a recent session brought some good feedback. One panelist noted: "It is very evident you have a desire to cater to real users and not simply create a program to satisfy a requirement."

Wiley said that extra step is the "icing on the cake." 

"There are so many people doing this kind of work who aren't testing with actual users," she said. "Extension is really becoming the model for how you do this work."