This is the second installment in a series profiling each member of the accessibility team within Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Operations. Michelle McManus is an IT consultant within the team. Recently, we discussed her role.
How long have you been on the TLT accessibility team and what are highlights of your professional background?
“I started in 2011, but there wasn’t an accessibility team then. It’s been the accessibility team about a year now. At the end of July, I’ll be full-time for a year. The TLT accessibility team was started in March or April of 2013.
“I got here through people that I knew, because they knew I was job hunting, and they knew me from my being a student. It was through Susan Hayya [of University Libraries], how I actually found this opportunity. But my background before is education. I worked in daycare previously in the State College area. It was quite a few years ago, and then I hadn’t worked for quite a while. Susan introduced me to Binky [Lush] first because she knew the Library needed some help, and Binky introduced me to Christian [Vinten-Johansen].”
What are your primary areas of focus within the team?
“Primarily I focus on testing websites using JAWS, because the automated testing software to check for accessibility doesn’t necessarily pick up on everything. It doesn’t do a great job of distinguishing between accessibility and usability for websites. So that’s primarily what I do. I do presentations to show people the differences, to teach them what they need to be looking for as far as building accessible websites.
“We do demo presentations using screen readers, just to show people what works and what doesn’t. People send me individual issues that they’re having and I work through those. I try and help them determine what they need to do. I’m trying to learn some of the code and some of the different aspects of putting together and developing websites so I can better inform people as well.
“We all pretty much work together on different projects, and the goal is to make Penn State’s websites accessible to everybody, but primarily, students are the first priority, because they need to access coursework and they need to be able to find any information that they need.”
What is an initiative you are working on right now?
“A big thing that has come up with a lot of people is working with PDF files, because a lot of them aren’t accessible. People will either scan them in, which means I can’t read anything at all [with a screen reader] so they’re definitely not accessible, or they end up being straight text, and there’s no way to search for any information in the file. So that’s a big issue: determining how to fix these files so that they are accessible, whether you use another file type to do that, you make it a web page, or recreate your PDFs. You determine how you want to do it as the person in charge of that website.
“So I’m educating people and testing PDFs to see whether they are accessible.”
What is a unique skill you bring to the job?
“I guess for me, it’s just the fact that I use the screen reader all the time. It’s just a normal thing for me, to look for different aspects in websites and what I do every day. It wasn’t something that I had to specifically learn as far as the screen reader goes, since I use it all the time!”
How long have screen readers been around?
“There were quote unquote screen readers in the ’80s. I mean, they didn’t do much. You could do some word processing and maybe play a couple minor games. Now you can’t really play any games because the games are way too advanced. The first thing I used was an Apple IIe, and like I said, basically what I used it for was word processing, but it got me through writing my papers in college.”
What is your favorite aspect of your job?
“Probably teaching people what accessibility is and how to make websites accessible. I like people interaction.”
What is one accessibility issue you wish everyone was more aware of?
“The thing for me that kind of stands out is that the general population isn’t aware of what people with disabilities are able to do. They think you’re helpless or they have a general idea that we’re not capable of performing as well as they do.
“My other thing is, you know those wheelchair ramps on the corners? I don’t understand how people in wheelchairs actually use them, because if they’re wet, they’re slick. The other thing that people dothe snowplows are horrible at thisthey plow the snow right at the corners where the ramps are.
“And sometimes with blind and visually impaired people, the mindset is worse for the general population because they don’t understand what we don’t do. The people in wheelchairs, they can see you in a wheelchair. But generally, for visually impaired people that don’t use a cane, they don’t see that there’s anything different about them.”