Amy Netzel, Accessibility Technologist

Amy Netzel

Amy NetzelAmy Netzel is amazingly cheery and positive; definitely the kind of person who evokes a feeling of well being. She is an Accessibility Technologist at Wake Technical Community College (WTCC) in Raleigh-Durham area for the past several years. It’s been a busy time as she works directly with faculty to create accessible documentation that can be used in class and online.

I interviewed her and asked some pointed questions about how she started out in accessibility. The path she traced started in education, went into instructional technology, currently works as co-lead on a large community college eLearning initiative. She will be seeking another Master’s Degree (Instructional Design + Media hybrid) soon even as she continues her work with Wake Tech.

“I started out as a classroom teacher in public school. Most of my accessibility knowledge was limited to the peripheral view that a person gets when they participate in IEP meetings. But, I always had a technical bent. People would ask me to help them with any new technology that we came across and I was happy to do that. When I decided to leave classroom work and work in tech I went to an educational website.”

Alt Text as a beginning

“Six months into that job we were working on alt text. The big push was to make the materials accessible for screen readers. As I dug deeper I realized that we didn’t even have an in-house copy of the screen reader software. By the time I figured out just what the alt text was supposed to do I was hooked, because we were doing this for people. Was it correct? What else did we have to do?”

Gradually, like any good puzzle solver, Amy put the pieces together to identify how to not only support the alt text, but also to caption videos and apply great UX concepts to her work.

Videos that explain “How to…”

When she moved on to Wake Tech she was pressed into service to train the faculty. This was often fun, sometimes frustrating, and resulted in some very exceptional videos which would be useful for anyone looking for simple, straightforward information on how to make materials, videos, PDFs, Word Docs accessible. To view them go to the YouTube playlist for Wake Technical Accessibility videos. Main takeaway is how to explain tricky accessibility concepts so simply that they are teachable to anyone, even those who were originally resistant or had no experience with accessibility whatsoever.

The video captioning program at Wake Tech has grown so large that another team member coordinates the work of multiple work-based learning students. Amy’s tasks in 2016 are focussed on co-leading a college-wide eLearning intro for students.

Amy has moved on (mostly) from directly creating the instructional materials herself to being a co-leader for the college wide program for eLearning for students. Of course the explanatory videos are captioned!

Faculty Training

Another part of her eLearning responsibilities is faculty training.  She uses the accessibility training materials. It gives Amy a chance to support faculty directly. The day we interviewed she had just received a PowerPoint that a faculty member was going to use for a classroom presentation. In this role Amy will sit down with the faculty person and show them what does and does not conform to the Wake Tech accessibility standards.

Amy has seen a shift in resistance over the years. “Wake Tech rolled out accessibility in 2009. At that time the resistance came from faculty members not wanting to do it or thinking it was just ‘too much work’.”
Both resistance trends continue with additional statements like “Why are we spending so many resources on this?” Because the college is very much behind the initiative to use Universal Design and make sure that all course offerings are accessible to all it means that Amy is on solid ground in answering these objections. Hard to argue with the top ranking officials!

Interestingly enough, the original impetus towards accessibility has been “a grassroots efforts. Each big accessibility change has come from a faculty member asking a publisher ‘Is this accessible?’ We do try to teach them that in eLearning support — to question the publishers. From there it bubbles up to a department head. Then I hear about it and try to get clarification on what the issue is.”

“Right now, at the top, the college is doing a risk assessment to see where we stand, where are some of our problem areas. There’s going to be a game plan laid out from there. They are our biggest supporters right now.”

NCCCS five year accessibility initiative

“North Carolina Community College Systems is smack dab in the middle of a five year initiative around accessibility. This started in early 2014.”

“At one time I was traveling around to provide training to other community colleges. It was a lot of fun! We have one of the three VLC (Virtual Learning Centers) at Wake Tech which is a central location for accessibility resources. One of my colleagues heads that up and with it, the traveling around.”

“We want a repository through the VLC of ‘How To’ documentation so all around the state faculty and staff can easily figure out how to make materials accessible. I’ve been asked to contribute to that. Someone else at Central North Carolina Community College has been asked for their input on web accessibility. This is going to be great if we can get this together!” Amy concludes with a lift in her voice.

Amy still does presentations. She mentions that “Four or five times lately I’ve finished the presentation and had someone quietly seek me out and say, ‘I’m so glad you mentioned color contrast and color vision deficiency. I can’t see green and I’m so glad you included it.’ This is a hidden disability. That’s why we talk about Universal Design so much. We create for everyone. It makes it easy. Teaching the faculty how to more easily use Word and PowerPoint makes them happy because it makes their own job easier and more efficient.”

The Future!

Next steps? Blogging. Further Education. Book.
Ambitious – nah!

Blogging: Amy has a lot of ideas for blog articles. One is how to roll accessibility into the planning process of the document, course, assessment instead of looking into it after the fact.

Further education: Part of her plan to help people design courses includes earning an ‘Instructional Design and Media’ hybrid Master’s Degree.

Book: She wants to write a book about accessibility which would cover a lot of practical topics gleaned from her years of experience. I want a first copy of that one!

Speaking: Engagement in October, 2016 at the North Carolina Community College Distance Learning Conference. Speaking about eLearning Intro, not accessibility. On her own time she is speaking at a local Girl Develop It – RDU local Meetup.