Computer Science Students Assist Non-Profit Organizations

That the content of many websites is inaccessible to visually impaired computer users is not surprising. But surfers with vision problems can view sites using special software that reads web pages aloud - if sites are properly designed and coded. Students in a section of the computer science department's innovative new course "Explorations in Computer Science" led by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Brian Rosmaita learned how to increase accessibility and usability, focusing on the sites of a half dozen non-profit Utica-based organizations.

Over the spring semester six groups of three students each analyzed site accessibility and created a set of documents rating each page, giving details about what problems were found and making suggestions for how problems could be addressed. Additionally, students performed web page redesigns to illustrate how sites could be made accessible and more usable while preserving the look and feel of the original pages.

When students complete their work correctly, viewers don't literally "see" any difference between the original and revised pages. It is the changes in the HTML source for each page that allow screen readers to navigate. 

On May 8 these students presented their Web accessibility and usability audits explaining what they had done and why. The six organizations included Utica Safe Schools Healthy Students (USSHS), Camp Nazareth (a project of Catholic Charities), The Underground Café (a project of USSHS), Loretto Center, Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and the Resource Center for Independent Living.
The service learning component of "Explorations in Computer Science" was facilitated by Judy Owens-Manley, associate director for community research at the Levitt Center; she was assisted by Haley Reimbold '06, Hamilton graduate and VISTA volunteer.

Until artificial intelligence programs are designed that can actually understand arbitrary natural language texts, conducting accessibility and usability audits will remain a time-consuming task requiring specialized knowledge.  Thus it might not be economically within the reach of a nonprofit group to perform such a review.  Further, many nonprofit groups provide services that can benefit visually impaired persons, if their websites are accessible. Because of these 18 Hamilton students in "Explorations in Computer Science, " six organizations are now able to increase their outreach potential to those in need.
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