Access to Electronic Resources
Development of sophisticated online multimedia resources has extended the reach of computers. Increasingly, however, these resources are not fully accessible to people with some types of disabilities. For example, screen reader software with a speech synthesizer used by a student who is blind cannot interpret graphics or video clips.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that U.S. programs and services be accessible to individuals with disabilities. A 1996 Department of Justice ruling (www.usdoj.gov/crt/foia/cltr204.txt) makes it clear that ADA accessibility requirements apply to online resources.
Some students with visual impairments cannot see graphics, and some students who are deaf cannot hear audio. Some have difficulty when screens are unorganized, inconsistent, and cluttered and when descriptions and instructions are unclear. These difficulties may occur for students who have learning disabilities, speak English as a second language, or are poor readers. Other students use older equipment or slow connections or modems that limit their access to multimedia features.
As more information is delivered electronically, schools play an increasingly important role in ensuring access to online resources for all students. When evaluating the accessibility of a school's electronic resources, consider tutorials, application software, databases, and full-text resources.
Electronic resources such as school and district web pages, online catalogs, and local digital library projects, should be developed with universal access as a goal. Accessibility guidelines should be incorporated into web development standards.
Consider accessibility when purchasing new electronic resources for the school. Ask the vendor if the product has been tested for accessibility and, specifically, if the product is compatible with screen reading software. Develop a policy that electronic products in your school be reviewed for accessibility before purchase. Make it a priority to buy and develop accessible resources. Then, as a backup, be prepared to assist students to access electronic resources that they cannot access independently.
Universal Design Principles
In developing accessible electronic resources, principles of universal design (UD) should be employed. This approach will help ensure that all students will be able to independently utilize your electronic resources, regardless of their disabilities or the limitations of their equipment and software.
Typically, organizations design their electronic services for the average user. UD means that they are designed for people with a broad range of abilities and disabilities. The National Center on Universal Design has defined UD as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design" (www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/about_ud/about_ud.htm).
Universal design principles can be applied to both facilities and tools. They are especially appropriate to consider when designing electronic resources, including online catalogs, software, and web resources. Adapted from a listing by the Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, here are some general guidelines to consider in designing an electronic resource.
- Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Example: A professor's website is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software.
- Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Example: A museum, visited as a field trip for a course, allows each student to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of display cases.
- Simple and intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Example: Control buttons on science equipment are labeled with text and symbols that are simple and intuitive to understand.
- Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. Example: A video presentation projected in a course includes captions.
- Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Example: Educational software provides guidance and background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.
- Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Example: Doors to a lecture hall open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics.
- Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. Example: A flexible science lab work area has adequate workspace for students who are left- or right-handed and for those who need to work from a standing or seated position.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops and maintains the protocols used on the web to insure interoperability to promote universal access. W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has proposed guidelines for all web authors. As Tim Berners-Lee, director of W3C, puts it, "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect" (www.w3.org/WAI).
In 2001, as a response to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) developed accessibility standards for information technology developed, procured, or used by federal agencies. The list of guidelines for accessibility provides a good model even for organizations that are not required to comply.
In most school districts, many people develop web content. Building web content that is consistent, accessible, and usable can be a challenge. To ensure school-wide development of accessible web pages, consider adopting standards or guidelines that are useful and well explained. This may be as complex as constructing a set of guidelines from scratch or as simple as adopting the Section 508 web accessibility standards. Disseminate information about the standards to all web developers in the district, and provide resources, training, and technical support on an ongoing basis.
Accessible Web Design
In this section, we'll apply universal design principles to a common activity in schools today: designing web pages. The Internet provides a huge network of educational, governmental, and commercial resources to all people. Most schools maintain their own websites. Yet because of the multimedia nature of the medium, some users cannot access some materials available on the web.
View the video, World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design, in which students with disabilities and practitioners share access problems and solutions. Examples of design features for making web pages accessible are described. These recommendations are covered in the handout World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design. Read this publication for more accessible design examples. If you have not created a web page before, you may be confused by some of the technical jargon used in the video and handout. If so, don't be discouraged. Focus on the basic principles, and pass the information on to staff, students, and administrators responsible for web page development at your school.
In the next few paragraphs we'll provide a few simple examples of accessible web design. An important principle to remember is to maintain a simple, consistent page layout throughout your site. Much of the power and appeal of the web comes from the fact that it presents information in a variety of formats while also organizing that information through hypertext links. Designing a well-organized site with a consistent design makes it easier for visitors to find the information they need. In particular, it benefits people with learning disabilities and attention deficits who have difficulty following disorganized presentations.
Think about the physical effort needed to use your site. Remember that small buttons marking links can be difficult targets for visitors with mobility impairments that result in restricted hand movements. Larger buttons make it easier for all visitors to select the links on your page. Along with a consistent page layout, it is important to keep backgrounds simple and make sure there is enough contrast.
Many background images and colors obscure text and make reading difficult. Make sure that there is enough contrast between your text and the background of the page. Choose background, text, and link colors carefully, and always test your site with a variety of browsers and monitors. Following this guideline will aid visitors with low vision, color blindness, and those with learning disabilities who can find busy backgrounds and moving features from page to page confusing.
Visitors who use screen-reading software with speech output can adjust their software to read only the links on a page. For this reason, links should provide enough information when read out of context. For example, never use "Click here" as a link or next to a graphic used as a link. Make links descriptive enough that they are understood out of context.
HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is the standardized code used to create websites. The code works with tags that tell a web browser where to find and how to display your information. HTML was designed to be a universal format outside the bounds of proprietary software and computer languages. The W3C specifies what is standard HTML, with the intent of maintaining a language compatible with many platforms and browsers.
The universal format of the Internet meets the equitable and flexible principles of universal design. However, many people like to use new and nonstandard features on their web pages. Such actions obstruct the original purpose of a worldwide standard and the open communication that it allows and encourages.
Using standard HTML tags will ensure that your content can be accessed by all browsers used by visitors to your site. Avoid tags such as