While at the 2018 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego, Content and Marketing Specialist Vivian Cullipher set out to interview folks on their involvement in CSUN.
Here, Vivian talks with Elizabeth Simister, Accessibility Manager at Blackboard. Blackboard provides education technology and services to K-12, higher education, and private and public sector organizations.
Elizabeth Simister Interview Topics, CSUN 2018
To hear the entire :11 interview at once, try the full playlist on SoundCloud of the clips below. Otherwise, segments are listed below, with a transcript following each audio player clip:
- Introduction, and Reasons for Being at CSUN 2018 [“Introduction” Transcript]
- Why a VPAT® Presentation? [“VPAT Session” Transcript]
- Schools, Office for Civil Rights Complaints, and Blackboard [“OCR and Blackboard” Transcript]
- A Few Elements to Consider When Receiving an OCR Letter [“OCR Considerations” Transcript]
- Creating Inclusive School Environments [“Creating Inclusive Environments” Transcript]
- A Note about Blackboard Ally [“Blackboard Ally” Transcript]
- Elizabeth’s Journey into Accessibility [“Accessibility Journey” Transcript]
- Best Part of CSUN? [“Best Part of CSUN?” Transcript]
This CSUN accessibility interview was recorded Wednesday, March 21, 2018. For more interviews and conference highlights, visit our CSUN 2018 Conference Backchannel. If you’d like to see more content like this, comment below!
For more on VPATs and OCR issues, please visit the Resources section below.
Introductions, Reasons for Being at CSUN
Transcript, “Introductions, Reasons for Being at CSUN”
VIVIAN CULLIPHER: This is Vivian Cullipher. I’m here with Microassist at CSUN Assistive Technology Conference 2018, and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with some really cool people, and take some really good interviews. And right now, I am with Elizabeth…
ELIZABETH SIMISTER: Simister.
VIVIAN: Simister. Simister, who is with Blackboard, and you are the accessibility manager there, is that right?
VIVIAN: Okay. So introduce yourself as far as telling me what you do at Blackboard, and why you’re here at CSUN.
ELIZABETH: My name is Elizabeth Simister. I am the product accessibility manager at Blackboard. My main role there is making sure that whatever we’re putting out into the marketplace is accessible as possible, through a variety of different methods, vendor testing, internal testing, education of our clients, education of our employees.
The reason that I’m here at CSUN is partially to stay up on the latest legal changes that are occurring, changes to things like WCAG, changes to things like Section 508, and just get a really good understanding of those, as well as some of the technologies that are out there and how they might impact what we do.
Why a VPAT® Presentation?
Transcript: Why a VPAT Presentation?
VIVIAN:Another one of the reasons that you’re here is because you have two presentations, is that correct?
ELIZABETH: That is correct.
VIVIAN: So, one on VPATS and what is it, Vendor Product Accessibility Template?
VIVIAN: And OCR, and you can say the acronym for that. Why did you choose those two topics?
ELIZABETH: So, one of the reasons why I chose to talk about the Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates is when I first started, before it, I was getting a lot of questions about, “Why does this say supports with exceptions? And, all of our competitors or some of our competitors, they just say supports.” And, I’m like, “Actually it’s a really good thing. Let me explain why.” It turned into a blog, and then I turned it into a CSUN topic, because it’s a question that over the years that I’ve been doing accessibility, a lot of people are like, “Well, what does it mean? What is this VPAT really trying to tell us? How do I decipher it?” So, that was one of the reasons why I said, “You know what? It’s still confusing, let’s have a discussion.”
Schools, Office for Civil Rights Complaints, and Blackboard
Transcript: “Schools, Office for Civil Rights complaints, and Blackboard”
ELIZABETH: Office of Civil Rights, OCR—Lainey Feingold talked about it this morning in her presentation. Twenty-four hundred complaints over the last basically two years and the last number I personally heard was in December about 1800. It’s really blown up. We have products that are in school systems. These school systems are getting these complaint letters. We are one of the first people that they’re calling saying, “Okay we’ve got this, we can see that some of this is what we need to know. Some of this is your product that’s coming through. What do we do? How do we manage this? Help us walk through this process.” So that’s the other reason why I’m doing…You know I’ve got this letter, what do I do now basically? Because it’s a question I get asked a lot.
VIVIAN: And they’re contacting you because as the third-party vendor, that they have-
VIVIAN: …purchased your license, your product. They’re using it and all of a sudden they’re like, “What are these accessibility questions? How does it impact the product?”
ELIZABETH: Right. So, what’s the difference between the accessibility issues that are coming out of your product versus what are coming from what we’re putting on the website? You know, do you guys help?
There’s typically a question, “Do you do audits?” You need an auditor within the OCR letters that people are receiving and as part of the corrective action plans and things like that, that they get. Do you guys do audits? We do not do audits. I want to be very clear on that. We will help you figure out who to do for your audit but we understand that process.
What is OCR looking for when you’re doing this? Well, we’ve talked with a number of people. This is kind of what they’re looking for and what you need to think about in terms of what to do next and some other things that you should need to think about going forward. Helping them understand things like, how do you do accessible content? That sort of thing. But it’s mostly in terms of this particular presentation of, “What do we do when we get this letter?”
A Few Elements to Consider When Receiving an OCR Letter
Transcript: A Few Elements to Consider When Receiving an OCR Letter
VIVIAN: You mentioned hiring an auditor.
VIVIAN: This interview may or may not be able to published accessibly in time for your presentation, so for those folks who may not make it to your presentation, who may not hear your presentation, what are the maybe first two or three things that you advise people to do?
ELIZABETH:First thing usually is okay, well what does your letter have? That’s the first thing that our customer success advocate and myself always ask. Well, what’s in that letter? Can you share the contents of that letter to some extent? Your legal counsel—You are working with legal counsel, correct? Then like okay, how was this letter done? Was it something that somebody’s actually said, “I cannot use your product,” or was it something where it was an automated testing tool run against your site and a complaint was filed? So I think it really depends on those three things where we go next.
VIVIAN:Okay. Fantastic. Fantastic. That’s going to be very helpful for them to be able to call you and know that you have experience and know where OCR is coming from and that you have some idea on where to go with that. That’s going to be really, really reassuring for them.
ELIZABETH: It definitely helps.
Creating Inclusive School Environments
Transcript: Creating Inclusive School Environments
VIVIAN: So the next question I had for you was, what are two or three ways schools and vendors, like yourself, can work together to ensure inclusive environments for their learners?
ELIZABETH: So in terms of inclusive environments, this is something that Blackboard is definitely moving towards and, really, this is where our focus is going. We’re still wanting to be thought leaders in accessibility, but we want to broaden that to inclusion.
Inclusion is not just students with disabilities. It is English as a second language. It’s students who may have different types of learning abilities, in terms of one person is more auditory, one person is kinesthetic, where that means they learn things by being physical. So what does that mean? What we’re doing is we’re educating. We’re working with our schools. We’re going out there. We’re doing things, like CSUN. We’re getting into other conferences, especially different education conferences and talking about that. We’re doing this at our own BB World Conference this year. We’re going to have segments on inclusion and what does that mean, what does that feel like.
One of the things I’m going to be doing at the Access U will be talking about inclusive classrooms with an accessibility bent, but still overarching inclusion. That’s one of the things that we’re doing is that we work with schools. We talk to schools. We have schools that work with us and talk about their experiences doing inclusion and accessibility programs and what does that mean.
What schools can do? We definitely have partner institutions at Blackboard, University of Cincinnati, University of Montana, Lawrence, Kansas, in terms of those, and they give us the feedback of, “You guys, you need to do this better or you need to do that better.” I work with a group, the Moodle Accessibility Group. Moodlerooms is one of our products. We use Moodle. It’s based off of that. What is going on in that university in terms of accessibility? What do I need to know from the educators that might impact our product? There’s a broader accessibility group, as well. What’s going on in that world? I’ll be meeting with them next week to talk about a roadmap and say, “Okay. This is what we’re doing. What are you guys experiencing?” and set expectations in terms of, “This is what we can do. This is what we can’t do right now.”
That’s kind of the thing. It’s just feedback between each … This is what we know. This is where we can help you. What do you know? Give us that feedback. Work with us.
A Note about Blackboard Ally
Transcript: A Note about Blackboard Ally
ELIZABETH: Publisher Ally has our new tool. It’s a tool that allows instructors to put up their content and figure out how accessible it is. And then for students to get said content in a format that best suits their needs. So that’s a tool that we’ve had little over a year now.
VIVIAN: That’s Publisher Ally, is the tool?
ELIZABETH: No. It’s just called Ally at the moment.
VIVIAN: Oh, just Ally. Okay.
ELIZABETH: Just Ally. Blackboard Ally. And it’s out there and you can use it as part of your education process. But it’s one of the things there, again, that we’re helping people understand what it means to be accessible and how do you do this? And then, how do you do content and all of that? So that’s kind of where we are and what we’re doing.
VIVIAN: That’s fantastic. And that has a consistent theme with some of the other things that I’m hearing here at CSUN this week, which is accessibility for a lot of people’s a very iterative process, based on what do you hear from people who are using the accessibility components. And how do you iteratively improve to make it more accessible and better meet needs in their experience?
ELIZABETH: Yep. And they actually have a user group, so if people wanna join that User Group Ally, go ahead, sign up. They’re always looking for new people to join it.
Elizabeth’s Journey into Accessibility
Transcript: Elizabeth’s Journey into Accessibility
VIVIAN: Well, it has been wonderful talking with you. I do want to hear one more thing. How did you get involved in accessibility? What got you into this field?
ELIZABETH: 14 years ago, I was hired by the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University. They’ve got a longer, more formal name now, that I don’t remember. I just know it as EDI (Editor’s Note: It’s the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability). I was hired as a kind of resource project lead or something like that to help some of these things that they were doing. Their focus was mostly on getting people with disabilities working, and why it’s so critical to our economy and to our society. So that’s where I kind of got my start in accessibility. Mostly Section 508 and American laws at that point. The woman that I worked for, Susanne Bruyere, wonderful. If she hears this, I totally appreciate everything she did and all the knowledge I gained. Did international work as well, so I was very much exposed to the disability policies.
I came to the D.C. area, worked in the federal space as a contractor for a while, then worked for what is now Level Access for time, and then came to Blackboard. So it’s been kind of a twisty, turny sort of realm, but I started in a higher education and academic setting, so it really fit, now that I’m at Blackboard.
Best Part of CSUN?
Transcript: Best Part of CSUN?
VIVIAN: Well, thank you. Thank you for sharing that with me. And I wanted to ask you too, now that you’re here at CSUN, and this is not your first visit-
VIVIAN: Is that correct? What is the best part about CSUN for you?
ELIZABETH: The fact that I get to see a lot of people I don’t get to see all the time. And I’m learning new things. Definitely the one session that I went to this morning about VPATs, 2.0. it was like I understand how to put content into it but this template is completely new and it’s confusing me, explain. I get it now, it makes so much more sense. So it’s learning new things, it’s meeting people I haven’t seen, it’s meeting new people and understanding different points of views and hearing all the different things that are going on in the industry.
VIVIAN: Thank you so much for spending your time with me, I really do appreciate it, Elizabeth.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Elizabeth Simister and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Blackboard. If you have legal questions regarding the accessibility of Blackboard products and services, please consult with your legal counsel or contact Blackboard
- BB world Conference , July 16-19, 2018, Orlando
- Access U , May 14-16, 2018, Austin. Elizabeth will be delivering the following sessions at Access U:
- The Perils of Using Assistive Technology for Testing — Tuesday, May 15, 2018
- 10 Common Gotchas in Accessible Development — Wednesday, May 16, 2018
- Inclusive Classrooms — Wednesday, May 16, 2018
- Moodle Accessibility Group
- Blackboard Ally
- Blackboard Ally User Group
- Blackboard Blog: Why a less-than-perfect VPAT is good (No, really!), by Elizabeth Simister
- Introducing VPAT® 2.0, the More Stringent Accessibility Reporting Tool Required for Government IT Procurement
- OCR Website Accessibility Complaints Hit Schools and Universities
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Image Credit: Microphone by David Marioni from the Noun Project