Like many UCLA students in the class of 2022, Michael Ting worked a job in high school before starting college. Ting spent the summer before his freshman year greeting customers and taking orders in the drive through line at McDonald’s.
Unlike every other UCLA student graduating this year, Ting will leave campus as the person most responsible for making information and learning materials on the university’s most popular websites more accessible to those with disabilities.
Since early 2019, Ting has worked for the UCLA Disabilities and Computing Program, or DCP, a group of staff and students dedicated to helping units across campus ensure that their websites are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and digital accessibility laws, including sections 504 and 508. In practical terms, this means making sure people with disabilities — reading disabilities, computational disabilities, sensory disabilities, neurodiverse, physical/manual disabilities and many more — are able to access and use webpages, documents and media hosted on them.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t too informed about disability culture and disability issues,” said Ting, who admits that he didn’t realize the challenges people with certain disabilities face when accessing things like PDFs, which typically are based on design principles for print publications and not always translatable to the screen reading software many people with a disability rely on.
Now, the math major, who turns 22 on June 9 and is set to graduate on June 10, leaves behind a campus legacy in accessibility engineering that no one could have predicted.
“Michael has been a phenomenal member of the disabilities and computing program,” said Carolanne Link, project manager for the UCLA web accessibility initiative, a UCLA-funded program that made Ting’s position possible. “Sometimes I wonder how we’ll get on without him.”
Like many of the best things in people’s lives, Ting has his mother to thank in this case; she found the job posting on Reddit and forwarded it him while he was living on campus. While Ting didn’t have any experience in PDF remediation (the process of coding PDFs to make them more compatible with screen-reading software) he was drawn by the promise of how technical the task would be — a pitch that would send a lot of freshmen running.
“I find a lot of enjoyment and understanding in it, and I really like getting into a technical process and understanding all the steps,” he said.
When Ting began working for DCP, one of the program’s goals was to remediate about 2,000 PDFs across 37 important UCLA websites — websites that were highly-trafficked and student facing, said Travis Lee, coordinator of the disabilities and computing program. To accomplish this Herculean task, Lee decided to hire four student workers whom he would train.
In his four years with DCP, Ting has helped make more than 500 PDFs — some hundreds of pages long — accessible and led about a dozen extensive trainings and consultations on the remediation process for groups of faculty, students and staff. He also provided one-on-one consulting.
“I lead the department, and I could recognize that this freshman was way better than I’ll ever be at PDF remediation,” Lee said, likening the process to completing a large puzzle involving header, image and text elements that need to be reformatted in a very precise way.
Ting uses the software Adobe Acrobat Pro DC to “tag” his PDFs, which, almost like coding, provides a roadmap for screen-reading tools to utilize.
“Michael grew from someone who could just go in and do remediation right, to someone much more complex,” said Lee of Ting’s transition into becoming “the voice” of document accessibility on campus. Lee said he and other staff in program saw Ting gain confidence and became an expert in communicating these highly technical processes to people in a way they understood.
Ting is on the autism spectrum, and joins a diverse and inclusive team at the DCP. It’s important to hire staff who have these lived experiences, Lee said, and can bring authenticity to the work they do. He thinks having someone like Ting performing at the level he does sends a positive message to the disability community.
“The ability for people with disabilities to access PDF material has been a huge challenge historically,” said Lee, adding that roughly 4,000 students are registered with UCLA’s disabilities office, a number that doesn’t even account for students with invisible disabilities or those who have never been diagnosed.
Ting, who will be leaving the program this summer to work for Warner Brothers as a data analyst, knows his days with UCLA friends are numbered and said he is planning to spend the three weeks after graduation enjoying their company. Having lived all four years on the Hill, Ting has accumulated a large network of friends, not including those he’s met as a pianist and choir member of the Game Music Ensemble at UCLA, a student-run group consisting of orchestra, choir and chamber ensembles dedicated to performing original video game music.
While excited for Ting’s next chapter, staff in the program are finding his departure bittersweet, not to mention logistically challenging. Lee, who said he will likely have to hire a few students to do Ting’s job, doesn’t think he’ll ever find someone as uniquely suited for PDF remediation as Ting.
“He grew from someone who came in working at McDonald’s,” Lee said, “to someone who became the most important document accessibility expert on this campus.”