Day after day, a goal to improve digital inclusion

As technology continues to flourish, there’s always the need for someone to ensure it is, indeed, accessible for all. That is precisely Kara Gaulrapp’s role at Penn.

Person sitting with hands folded behind a bank of computer monitors

Kara Gaulrapp, friendly and personable, sits down in a conference room to chat. Taking a sip of her Sprite, she finds it exceptionally enjoyable to talk about her work—and why it’s so important. 

“I have been on the internet since I was 5 years old, so I can navigate my way through some atrocious user experience scenarios, but for those without that background, those scenarios can be huge barriers for people,” she says. “I am passionate about the underdog and about communities that are consistently ignored or left behind.”

Gaulrapp, discussing her desire to improve computer accessibility, has been at Penn Information Systems & Computing since early January as its first Senior Web Accessibility Analyst. She is working to help spearhead a new Digital Inclusion at Penn initiative that will make the University’s technology even more reachable for folks regardless of disability or impairment.

“We realize that we rely on technology for literally everything,” Gaulrapp says, “so my team and I are asking how we can make what we are all using here at Penn better for everyone.”

Before joining the University, Gaulrapp worked at a few education technology startups, and morphed her front-end developer roles into that of an accessibility lead, determining how to best build websites for diverse audiences, so everyone can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with a site equally. At Penn, which has already made substantial efforts to improve its web accessibility throughout the years, Gaulrapp hopes to centralize and standardize the highest level of digital inclusion.

“We want to make sure that our websites, no matter who uses them, or what device they are using, are able to be accessed,” she says. “It also trickles down into course documents and how accessible they are for students, to how accessible the tools are that we use on any given day, like Microsoft 365. Our goal is to catalogue, audit, and establish a baseline for where we stand and identify where gaps might be across the University.”

Gaulrapp sat down with Penn Today to discuss her role and why she’s so passionate about it, what the Digital Inclusion at Penn initiative is all about, what everyone should know about accessibility, how she hopes to help the Penn community be more inclusive than ever before, and much, much more. 

First things first, to clear this up, is digital inclusion the same as web accessibility?

Yes and no. When you think of accessibility, and specifically web accessibility, people are usually thinking about people who have some type of permanent disability. Maybe they are blind, for instance, or perhaps they are missing an arm. But digital inclusion encompasses accessibility. When we talk of digital inclusion, we are taking things into consideration like situational or contextual circumstances. With accessibility, we might be considering somebody who is missing an arm, but we’re likely not considering someone who is only accessing everything from their cell phone. Or let’s say they are holding a baby. It also takes into account the types of language that we use, like specifying binary genders, or how long someone has been using technology. Digital inclusion reiterates that we can’t assume how people interact with things, so it focuses on usability and tries to remove as many barriers as possible.

The University is rolling out a new Digital Inclusion at Penn initiative, which you are helping direct. Why is it so natural for Penn to make digital inclusion such a big part of its mission?

Well, in the Penn Compact 2020, inclusion is listed as one of the core values. The web accessibility project team is comprised of myself; Jim Johnson, ISC’s custom solutions/integrations director; Rick Ward, ISC’s web hosting service manager; Jane Holahan, the executive director of Weingarten Learning Resources Center; Steve Minicola, the director of web communications in University Communications; and John Mulhern III, ISC’s principal technology adviser. What we are doing is just an extension of that value of consideration and thoughtfulness into the technology we are using to communicate with each other and to teach each other.

I think one of the biggest benefits of Digital Inclusion at Penn is that, time and time again, research shows that the more diverse population that you have, the more productive you are, and the better the ideas that are born because you have people that are coming from so many different backgrounds and walks of life, and see the world through different lenses. When we are working with people who are cognitively diverse, maybe they have a different way of operating through life than we do that makes us more aware of the things that we do. I think it makes us more empathetic. If I have a coworker who is deaf and needs captions or transcripts on their videos, I am way more likely to do that on my own even if what I am doing they’re not going to see. It just makes you a little bit more aware that there really is no ‘average.’ I think, too, it’s also a big benefit especially for faculty—and this is kind of the developer in me speaking—if we are saying that your course materials have to be accessible, what that really means underneath it is that it’s structured content that is semantically correct, like the headings are in the right places. That makes it a lot easier to take that same content and use it in multiple ways. It’s a way for us to become a lot more innovative with the way that we can use all of this content we already have, because everything is structured. By being accessible, you are can open up all this content and data and information in ways that you wouldn’t even think that it could be.

What are some things you are doing to spread the word of digital inclusion across the University?

Amrou Ibrahim, the associate director for assistive technology in Student Disability Services, and I are now holding office hours every Wednesday in the Weigle Information Commons, room 126. You don’t need a reservation. Faculty, staff, and students are welcome to come in when they have something to talk through, or even if they are just curious and want to learn more about things that relate to web accessibility or digital inclusion. The team and I are also currently working on a new accessibility website for the University that is meant to be a knowledge hub for any faculty, staff, or student to go to whether they need information, they need guides or resources, they need a process, or they’re not sure what the policy around something is. Or on the flip side, if somebody has accessibility feedback or runs into an issue, we are giving them clear points of contact to go to. This will give a clearer path to getting folks answers to questions they have or solutions to problems they are facing. It will be something that’s ongoing—as we roll out new information or new standards, this is where somebody could go to find that out. We also want to be able to support everybody with a series of trainings or informational sessions. We are trying to identify the gaps, whether it’s knowledge, resources, or time. We’re trying to figure out what people need the most help with and provide the training and support for that.

Did you bring a lot of these ideas to Penn when you got here?

One thing that I did notice about the Penn community almost instantly, was that there is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around this already and we already have top level buy-in, and that’s usually the biggest hurdle. When I’ve talked to clients in my formal role, it was always like, ‘well, how do you get people to care?’ Here, a lot of those hurdles are already cleared. There’s already a lot of support for this type of initiative, and a lot of people already have a lot of great ideas, so it’s a combination of things that both I’ve seen that have worked well and also a combination of what’s been working, or what hasn’t been working, here already. It is a collaborative effort because this is a University-wide initiative, so we want to make sure that we are getting ideas from the people who are actually on the ground doing these things. We also want to be ambitious, because we want to strive to be a leader in this.

What do you wish people knew about web accessibility?

One of the ways I usually explain what I am doing, and this is a pretty common example in the web accessibility field, is that when people first decided to put curb cuts on sidewalks, it was to help folks who are in wheelchairs. But now we constantly see them being used by people who are using strollers, children on bicycles. It is the idea that you might be solving for one but you are extending to many. Also, to be candid, the only reason we have the phrase ‘we need to make this accessible’ is because we’ve just historically made things inaccessible. And these standards just didn’t fall out of the sky one day. They have been around for over 20 years and they are created by an international organization called the W3C, which is made up of subject matter experts and the public. They set web standards and document standards. That said, though, to the average person, those guidelines are a lot of technical jargon, so that in and of itself is not very accessible to folks who aren’t developers or don’t have a technical background to parse and understand. 

What makes you so passionate about web accessibility?

Technology has rapidly become the fabric of our lives, and technology advances every single day so we need to make sure we’re not leaving anybody behind. That could be somebody who relies on assistive technology, that could be somebody who doesn’t have access to high-speed internet, that could be someone who is using the internet for the first time. It encompasses everybody, but we need to make sure that as we continue moving into the future, and being innovative and using the latest and greatest thing, that we aren’t leaving these other populations behind—because it happens just far too often. We are going to see these gaps get bigger and bigger if we keep going down the route that historically we’ve always gone down, making accessibility kind of the last item on the list, right before the website launches, or ‘Oh, we’ll get to it in phase 2.’ People are sometimes more concerned with budgets than about the usability of something for everyone.

What do you want the Penn community to know?

What I’ve heard a lot from people is that they sometimes don’t know where to go. So I want to make it clear that we hear them, we value their feedback, we want their collaboration. It is definitely going to be a marathon; it isn’t going to be a sprint. We are hoping to deliver what folks need in whatever way that they need it.