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Penn Libraries News

An Ambassador for Accessibility

How Leslie Vallhonrat is helping to make the Penn Libraries web presence more useable for everyone.


Web Developer Leslie Vallhonrat has been working on the Penn Libraries web team for over 20 years. But her career didn’t start in web development—far from it. “I received an architecture degree from Penn, and I had the privilege of working in Louis Kahn’s office,” she explained in a recent interview. “You could say that I used to work in three dimensions, but now I work in two.” She worked part-time as a tutor while raising her children and learned to code after they had grown up. While working as a writer for a historic site, she got a peek behind the curtain at what went into building a website. “I looked at their code and saw what they were doing, and I thought, ‘This is down my alley. I could do this.’”  

In her time as a web developer, Vallhonrat has become a champion of web accessibility efforts at the Penn Libraries, encouraging library staff to integrate web accessibility principles into digital platforms and projects and, most recently, spearheading a new Accessibility Ambassadors Group. In acknowledgement of her groundbreaking work in this area, she has recently been named one of the University of Pennsylvania’s Pillars of Excellence.

We recently sat down to talk with her about how she became a web developer, what she wishes everyone understood about web accessibility, and what AI currently can—and cannot—do for the field.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in web accessibility?

Long ago, I knew a blind man who was a programmer. He was so innovative, and so successful, it made me realize that computers could provide people who were blind with a whole career. But it also made me realize that websites had to accommodate people with low vision, people who are blind, people who are colorblind.  

Something that I've realized working with people who use screen readers [software that describes aloud what appears on a person’s computer screen] is how inefficient we can make [the process of browsing the web] for them.

And what are some examples of ways that we make those pages inefficient?

Well, as an example, I once was sitting with a man who was blind, and he said “When you look at a web page, you can see that there's a column on the side. You can see different sizes of print, and you know [the larger print] are the headers. Right away, you get an idea of what's on that page. I need the same thing.” The main way that we can do that for blind people is to code in a header structure. Then the screen reader can read that header structure to them, and so quickly they know what's on the page. It maps the page for them.  

Another thing is the kind of alt text you put in. When writing alternative text [text added to a website’s code that describes images and can be read aloud by screen readers], people can say all kinds of things that have nothing to do with what's seen in the image. A whole art history lesson. It's not that it's uninteresting material, but you shouldn't tell a person who can't see any more than you're telling a person who can see.

You know, it's interesting. The [Penn Libraries] communications team talked the other day about AI, and how it might help us write alt text. We tried it out a little bit, and it can be useful, but it does exactly what you're saying. It spits out so much information, and it can't distinguish between alt text and a caption, which have different purposes.

Right. I heard a wonderful example the other day: somebody showed an AI a picture of Bill Clinton being surrounded by a crowd, and the AI said that it's obviously a very sunny day because there were a lot of people in sunglasses. But the people in sunglasses were security. They were Secret Service.

That's so funny. Wow. What a different context.

Isn't that a wonderful example?

What are some other commonly misunderstood aspects of web accessibility?

One is operational. People think--and this is what was happening at the beginning here--that web accessibility should be a fix that's applied afterwards. So that's definitely a misconception. Accessibility should be something that happens as you're coding things.

Over your time at Penn, can you tell me about some accessibility projects you've been part of?

Well, I'm very honored to be on the steering team of the Accessibility and Learning Technology group. It’s a university group of people who are committed to and interested in accessibility. We just had a meeting today in fact.  

[At the Libraries], all along there has been an effort to make our websites accessible. And I was partnered in that by the other people in the web team for years. But the thing that I'm proud of, of course, is that we have managed to launch this Accessibility Ambassadors Group.

Can you tell me about the group and how it came together?

I should say that our team sponsor and my co-chair for the group is [Associate University Librarian for Academic Engagement and Director of Arts and Culture Libraries] Rebecca Stuhr, and I’ve relied very much on her insights about how to get something like this really working well. The idea is that everybody should realize how important it is to make web pages accessible. So the proposal was to have a core of librarians who would learn about accessibility, teach each other, and go back to their colleagues, and bring their colleagues on board. They’re proselytizers.  

Each member comes from a different unit in the library, and their colleagues are all different. They are the ones who have considered questions like, how do I get my colleagues involved? How do I manage lists of pages? They also are very interested in additional training, and they are taking turns giving presentations to each other about other aspects of accessibility. It's a marvelous group.

Learn more about the Pillars of Excellence Awards and the Penn Libraries Accessibility Ambassadors.