Making media accessible to all is central to WGBH’s purpose. And it has become even more resonant as we endure a pandemic.

With the whole world suddenly focused on getting online access to information, people and events, WGBH’s media accessibility experts are drawing on their more than 30 years of innovation to cast an even wider net.

“We have always known that accessibility is not only about ability and disability — but our current situation also highlights disparities around access to technology and internet connectivity,” says Donna Danielewski, senior director at the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH (NCAM).

“It is not safe to assume that everyone has the tools — like laptops, internet access or smartphones — to connect with distance learning programs or virtual events,” she says.

“Making things accessible and experiences inclusive matters more than it has in the past because digital access is now essential for everybody.”

For more than 25 years, Danielewski’s team has been providing services across WGBH and for external clients to make media accessible for people with disabilities. Their projects include an accessible app to allow people who are blind or visually impaired to experience the 2017 solar eclipse, handheld captioning tools for museum exhibits and innovations for in-flight communications. NCAM also provides accessibility testing of software and hardware, websites and mobile applications, as well as strategic consulting to a wide range of clients.

“NCAM’s consulting services are a way to keep us funded, and also allow our team to continue our unfunded mission-based activities and resource development, much of which is given away for free,” says Danielewski. For example, NCAM built the free, award-winning Caption and Description Editing Tool (CADET) that can be used by anyone — from a classroom teacher to a corporation — to create and upload quality captions for their videos.

“NCAM’s most recent work with colleges and universities,” she says, “exemplifies the mandate to take a broader view on accessibility.”

Her team is helping several clients convert the entire college experience — tours, orientation sessions, classes, materials and more — to an online experience that is accessible to everyone, with and without disabilities.

“The pandemic has put colleges in uncharted territory,” she says. Can they provide an experience that is as robust as attending in person? Can they create complex, interactive learning tools that will be needed for activities such as science labs? In what ways can they engage groups beyond a Zoom call?

NCAM, which has long worked with colleges and universities on improving the accessibility of their websites, course material and other online resources, is now helping them find ways to create community, serve individual needs and connect with families.

And the solution can’t simply be endless Zoom meetings.

“You can’t take a multi-day experience like the admitted-students weekend and plop it online,” she says. “It would wear everyone down. Too much videoconferencing creates a really heavy cognitive burden for everyone, even more so for people with disabilities.”

NCAM is now working with schools to deliver a variety of accessible online community-building activities, develop materials that would have previously been created by the disability student services offices, train staff who are interacting directly via technology with all students and evaluate the accessibility of streaming platforms.

The most forward-thinking institutions are realizing that the more they put online and the more creative they are, the greater the attendance. For example, families whose budgets might not allow in-person travel to tour multiple universities are eager to join a gathering online.

“These schools are seeing that they have new opportunities to engage more people. We will eventually go back to having in-person college experiences, but this situation has shown us the necessity of always having robust alternatives,” says Danielewski. “That will always be our core mission.”