When Katy Whitelaw joined the Division of Information Technology at NIU in 2001, she had no idea that one of her first tasks would lead her to a passion and career path that have earned her a reputation today as a trailblazer in accessibility.
Shortly after she began working at NIU, a professor in the College of Education requested help creating an online survey of students with disabilities.
“But no one knew how,” Whitelaw said. “I learned how, and I’ve been intrigued by the potential for technology to open doors for people with disabilities ever since.”
Her interest in finding ways for technology to assist those with disabilities has earned her a reputation in the field: At the start of this year, when updated Illinois and federal laws regarding technology accessibility went into effect, NIU President Lisa Freeman asked Whitelaw to be NIU’s first full-time Information Technology Accessibility Officer, and Whitelaw gladly accepted. Among her duties in this role are assisting with web accessibility and usability training.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to work with people all over the campus to increase the accessibility of an NIU education,” she said. “
In this role, Whitelaw said her first priority is to educate the campus about electronic and information accessibility.
“The most exciting part of my job is seeing the light go on when people think past compliance with the law to understanding that accessibility is a civil right, to realizing that meeting this challenge benefits all of us,” she said. “Once you start thinking that way, there’s no going back. Together, we can make NIU a center of excellence for accessibility.”
Whitelaw has wasted no time getting started. She’s currently working with staff in procurement to add accessibility to the technology purchase process.
“All of us need to educate vendors we use for electronic and information technologies about our accessibility requirements,” she said. “NIU isn’t alone in this – all Illinois public universities have to comply with the state and federal laws”
Her next step will be to figure out how existing technologies across campus can be made accessible.
Whitelaw said one of her ultimate goals is for NIU to increase recruitment and retention of students with disabilities through their technology accessibility efforts.
“Let’s earn a reputation for being a center of excellence for accessibility and supporting students with disabilities,” she said.