Providing Equal Opportunity through Accessibility

By David Lariviere

Mark Hakkinen’s passion for accessibility convinces even the most unaware person of the critical importance of his team’s work.

“Technology offers great opportunities to broaden accessibility, and our goal is for no one to be excluded from opportunity,” said Hakkinen. “In order to make that a reality, our day-to-day work is to design assessment technology so that it does not raise barriers that exclude people with disabilities.”

This work made the upgrade of the GRE® General Test that ETS introduced in 2017 all the more satisfying for Hakkinen and his Accessibility Standards & Inclusive Technology team. Working closely with the disability community, Hakkinen’s team seamlessly revamped the existing graduate admissions test by adding state-of-the-art technology to support those with vision impairments. Specifically, test takers are now able to take the computer-delivered GRE General Test using a Job Access With Speech (JAWS®) screen reader, with or without a refreshable braille device. At the time this article was published, no other standardized assessment company offered this level of accessibility to test takers who are blind or have low vision.

Although Hakkinen and his team were responsible for making the current technology accessible for blind and low vision test takers, many other areas of ETS pitched in to facilitate the success of the new format, including the Office of Disability Policy and other groups within ETS’s Research & Development division.

From start to finish, it was a huge success, says Hakkinen. “Our focus throughout was on the test taker, which was crucial for us. We recruited usability study participants from members of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to come to ETS and evaluate our work. As a final milestone, six individuals with visual impairments, who had taken or were planning to take the GRE General Test, came into a simulated testing facility for two days to complete an end-to-end test session,” he explains.

“The feedback from participants was extraordinary. One participant said that ETS had just raised the bar for accessibility of high-stakes assessment for blind candidates.”

ETS Research Developer Cary Supalo, who has been blind since he was 7 years old, was one of the leads on the team. “When you’re blind, it’s like taking a test while looking through a pinhole — you’re seeing, or hearing, only a small part of a test question, and eventually you get a sense of where things are and you know what to do. We needed to build an infrastructure that allows you to quickly understand what is on screen, and easily navigate between parts of a test question.”

Essentially what Hakkinen’s team did was adapt the questions to allow the use of assistive technologies such as screen-reading software and ensure they were both usable and up to industry and federal accessibility standards.

Supalo, who develops innovative solutions to the accessibility challenges of the disabled, said building a successful test was a win-win for everyone. “When a blind test taker can come out of a room and say this was the best test experience they’ve ever had, that means we’ve accomplished something.”

In May, ETS will join in commemorating the eighth Global Accessibility Awareness Day. “The whole mission of equity and fairness in education is about everyone being able to fully participate, and as technology plays a growing role in the learning process, we must use it to minimize barriers. It’s core to our (ETS’s) mission,” says Hakkinen. “Accessibility is not just a checklist, a nice-to-have feature. It’s fundamental to achieving the mission and for ETS, it means embracing accessibility and inclusive design as part of our organizational culture.”

Hakkinen was a driving force behind ETS joining the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C®), which makes the web content accessibility guidelines. The move put ETS at the same table with Apple®, Google®, Microsoft® and Facebook® among others in being at the forefront of setting accessibility standards and practice. The relationship also enables Hakkinen’s team to maintain a healthy dialogue with the accessibility community.

When you’re blind, it’s like taking a test while looking through a pinhole — you’re seeing, or hearing, only a small part of a test question, and eventually you get a sense of where things are and you know what to do. We needed to build an infrastructure that allows you to quickly understand what is on screen, and easily navigate between parts of a test question.

~ Cary Supalo

“Being at the same table with major players in web technology allows us to raise the specific requirements and challenges we have in moving educational assessment to the web,” Hakkinen said. “It is this direct collaboration that allows us to be able to increase the level of accessibility for everyone.”

He stressed the importance of ETS assessment development teams and the designers adhering to and, in some cases, exceeding current standards. “The payoff comes when the IT teams can watch a GRE® test taker using a screen reader take a high-stakes test and breeze through the test questions because the accommodations were done right.” Ensuring that all ETS staff understand accessibility and inclusion, and the role the individual employee plays in achieving the mission is key. Many ETS employees have already completed accessibility training, and all new hires receive basic training as part of the onboarding process.

ETS President and CEO Walt MacDonald and top management remain focused on accessibility as well.  “A disability should in no way be a barrier to educational and career opportunities,” MacDonald said in a video last year to employees. “That goes right to the heart of our mission to measure knowledge and skills, promote learning and performance, and support education and professional development for all people.”