What This Year’s TCDSU Elections Have Taught Us About Web Accessibility

The 2021 TCDSU elections were undeniably momentous, but demonstrated plenty of milestones candidates have yet to reach when it comes to accessibility.

Emer TyrrellSenior Editor
Alex Connolly for The University Times

This year marked a number of milestones in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) election history, both for the union and the wider college community – the first entirely online election, the first all-online campaigns and first Zoom hustings, not to mention, as incumbent ents officer Hugh McInerney proudly effused on count night: “The first ever person in all of the long illustrious TCDSU history to be elected in an all-online election.” As the dust settles however, it’s time to turn our attention towards the milestones we have yet to reach.

According to Virginia Jacko, president and CEO at Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, who served as an advisor to the 2020 American presidential candidates on improving their website design for ADA compliance: “Website accessibility is this generation’s wheelchair ramp.” As Jacko well knows, some serious steps need to be taken before we can avail of it.

A similar idea is fleshed out by Senior Standards and Monitoring Officer with the National Disability Authority Dónal Rice in conversation with The University Times: “Everyone would be aware of the need for buildings to be accessible whether that’s the provision of ramps or accessible toilets or tactile paving outside the building… because it’s something tactile – you can see it, you can feel it, you can touch it.”


However, he explains, “it’s a little bit more difficult in the online world because making something accessible does not necessarily always mean altering the look or the feel of it”.

In saying this, it’s important that we recognise the more noticeable gestures that the union and this year’s prospective candidates made in this direction. The majority of online TCDSU hustings were accompanied by either Irish Single Language (ISL) interpreting or audio description and on occasion, both. Similarly, there was an increased use of image descriptions under social media posts and audio descriptions on campaign videos, alluding to an increased awareness of accessibility issues.

It’s a little bit more difficult in the online world because making something accessible does not necessarily always mean altering the look or the feel of it

Among those driving this change was the incumbent Communications Officer Philly Holmes, who centred his own 2020 campaign around the importance of web accessibility. In conversation with The University Times, Holmes explains that this year the union was “a bit more firm with candidates” around creating accessible content.

Due to the impossibility of in-person campaigning, the candidates were given increased use of TCDSU’s online platforms to proliferate their campaign materials. This allowed Holmes to draw up an accessibility checklist document for all campaign content, prefaced by an agreement that: “If your content doesn’t tick the accessibility boxes, it won’t go on our website.”

In Holmes’s eyes, the union’s understanding and implementation of web accessibility “has gone from strength to strength year in, year out”. Upon taking up the position last year however, he wanted to finally “draw that line in the sand to say: if it can’t go out accessibly, it doesn’t go out at all”.

So, putting election results and polls to one side, how did this year’s TCDSU candidates perform in terms of web accessibility?

Holmes recognises that this year’s online-only requirement made campaigning “already just significantly more accessible”. Mature social studies student and member of Trinity Ability Co_op, Mary Geraghty chimes in agreement with this statement. “I love seeing online campaigns”, she tells The University Times over Zoom. “You’re almost hearing the story or the narrative of the candidate more… I find [seeing things visually] very engaging as someone who is dyslexic.”

Another member of the Ability Co_op, law and politics student Sarah McGowan, found online hustings to be a positive experience. McGowan, who is visually impaired, finds “visual presentations [to] be more of a barrier” and so, frequently turns on negative contrast when viewing visual presentations, while making use of reading software, magnifiers and audio software where necessary.

“For the hustings there weren’t many powerpoints or visual presentations or anything – it was mostly just aural so that was pretty handy for me”, she recounts, expressing her appreciation for the inclusion of ISL interpreting as “representation for the other disabilities”.

If your content doesn’t tick the accessibility boxes, it won’t go on our website

On the other hand, McGowan points out that she is less inclined to use image-based social media platforms such as Instagram, “so if there’s any content on there, I don’t access that”. “While this isn’t a general rule for blind or visually impaired people”, she affirms, “social media campaigns are not really as effective for me personally”.

For Geraghty, the main barrier to candidates’ content lay in the formatting of their manifestos. She described them as “a mixed bag”, where “in some… I can see that there were considerations and then at other times I can see that [accessibility] wasn’t considered at all”. Among the downfalls she identifies were insufficient contrast between font and background colour, font size and signposting.

“It’s important that candidates don’t use [accessibility] as a buzzword … to throw into their campaign and then be contradictory and use manifestos that maybe aren’t accessible to other students that have learning difficulties”, Geraghty maintains. She encouraged future candidates instead “to really lean in to what it’s like to be a student with a disability and find out different ways to make material more accessible”.

Geraghty wasn’t alone in drawing these conclusions. During the campaign period, Trinity’s Disability Service put all 13 candidates’ manifestos through Blackboard Ally, which provides administrators with accessibility scores for their content through a red-orange-green traffic light system. Blackboard Ally gave a green light to only one manifesto, which got an accessibility score of 79 per cent. Meanwhile, the least accessible manifesto received a score of just 3 per cent, with six out of the 13 scoring below 10 per cent.

According to the Disability Service, these percentages “were principally connected to how proficient and attentive [candidates] had been to formatting content e.g. headings, paragraphs, titles, and whether they had included alternative text for image which nobody had”. The manifesto that received the highest score encountered issues with its colour contrast and the absence of an image description in alternative text. Crucially however, the document had been formatted correctly before it was converted to PDF.

In conversation with The University Times, the Disability Service were keen to point out that “this was not a formal exercise in looking at material” but rather “something that caught [their] eye” which they then decided to look into. Therefore, they “don’t want anyone to feel like they are under scrutiny – nobody’s was perfect”.

The fact remains however that candidates may have lost votes in cases where their information simply couldn’t be communicated through assistive technology, such as a screen reader. More to the point, as the Disability Service stated in an email, “Fundamentally, students with print disabilities [did] not have access to the same experience as other students”.

It’s important that candidates don’t use accessibility as a buzzword … to throw into their campaign and then be contradictory and use manifestos that maybe aren’t accessible to other students that have learning difficulties

When the first 2020 Democratic Presidential Debate was being held in Miami in 2019, Virginia Jacko, who is a blind voter, found herself in a very similar situation: “After analyzing each campaign’s website, I was disappointed to learn that none of the candidates had an accessible website and [was] compelled to send each campaign Miami Lighthouse’s accessibility scorecard.” In an email to The University Times, she noted that of those who got in touch, “Biden’s team responded quickly and worked with us significantly”.

This strain of Jacko’s influence culminated in an updated WhiteHouse.Gov website under the new Biden administration: “My delight was on Inauguration Day when reading about the revamped Whitehouse.gov – seeing how it incorporated our previous counsel by including a widget to increase font size or change colour contrast.”

Now a pioneer in the field of web accessibility, having attracted the attention of media giants such as TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal, she expresses hope, in the context of Trinity, “that each student union candidate makes the simple changes to ensure all students can access and learn about their platforms”.

Building upon this ambition, Dónal Rice claims that, not just those in the public eye, but “everyone needs to know something about accessibility”.

“It’s not just a polite thing to do but it’s a good thing to do to make sure that your writing can be accessed, understood and used by the widest range of people possible.”

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