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UT Austin challenges national universities to increase Internet accessibility

On Wednesday, Sept. 13, The University of Texas at Austin will kick-off the University Challenge, a month long effort to increase the accessibility of the UT Web site to all users, especially people with disabilities.

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AUSTIN, Texas —On Wednesday, Sept. 13, The University of Texas at Austin will kick-off the University Challenge, a month long effort to increase the accessibility of the UT Web site to all users, especially people with disabilities.

Through a collaborative project with Austin-based non-profit organizations Knowbility Inc. and local technology companies, UT hopes to become a model of Internet accessibility. The school will challenge other universities to match its efforts and improve dramatically the accessibility of all higher-education Web sites.

“Universities were early leaders in the creation of the Internet, so it is only fitting that we now take an active role in making the Web as accessible as possible for all people,” said Robert G. May, dean of the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. May notes that one in five people will experience some form of disability during their lifetime and, for many of them, the Web is a primary means of communication.

“As a public institution, it is crucial that we not only serve information to the entire population, but that we set an example for other organizations to follow,” said May.

People with disabilities often rely on enhanced technology to surf the Web. For example, blind people can use the Web as long as sites allow assistive technology to read their content. By following the latest standards, Web designers can know that their sites comply with ADA regulations while reaching the widest possible audience.

May joins the University’s academic leaders, including the other campus deans, President Larry R. Faulkner and Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson, in spearheading the campus-wide project. At the luncheon event, to be held Wednesday at noon in the Hall of Honors of the McCombs School of Business, the campus leaders will outline plans to train the University’s 100-plus Web designers in the latest accessibility standards. In one month, the designers will seek to transform one of the world’s largest educational Web sites into a barrier-free, Web-browsing environment.

At the kick-off rally, speakers from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) will describe emerging industry accessibility standards and showcase developments in assistive web browsing technology. Government officials will describe their support of the initiative, along with members of the local technology community.

Internet accessibility recently has become a popular political topic, drawing support from the federal government and President Clinton. “The University is proud to be in a position to become a national leader in this arena,” said May.

The University Challenge complements Knowbility’s third annual Accessibility Internet Rally for Austin, known as AIR-Austin, which takes place Oct. 12-14. During AIR-Austin, Web designers from around the city compete to build accessible Web sites for area non-profits, free of charge.

Knowbility, a national non-profit organization founded in 1999 by Austin high-tech leaders, created the AIR-Austin event to highlight the power of technology, particularly the Internet, to provide educational and employment opportunities to people with disabilities. Two other non-profits, Goodwill Industries and MAIN, help Knowbility coordinate the event.

“We are thrilled with the success of AIR-Austin,” says Steve Guengerich, principal of the Powershift Group and chairman of the board of Knowbility. “As a model for breaking down barriers to the Internet, AIR-Austin is helping people with disabilities across the country gain access to information and high tech employment opportunities,” says Guengerich.

For more information about Wednesday’s event, please call Kim Head at (512) 232-7510. For more information about Knowbility Inc. and AIR-Austin, please call Sharron Rush, executive director, at (512) 637-7172.