People with disabilities continue to face challenges in accessing the full range of opportunities available to people without disabilities. Specifically, barriers to standard computer software limit opportunities in education and employment for some people with disabilities. For example, a part of a multimedia tutorial that uses voice narration without captioning or transcription is inaccessible to students who are deaf. Similarly, an educational tutorial program that requires the use of a mouse is inaccessible to a student who cannot use this device. And a software program that requires an unnecessarily high reading level may be inaccessible to some individuals who have learning disabilities.
Some individuals use specialized software and hardware, called assistive technology, to access software products. For example, a person who is blind might use a screen reader program with a speech synthesizer to access the content and functionality of a software product. This system enhancement provides access to text presented on the screen and to keyboard commands, but it does not allow the person who is blind to view graphics or to access features that require the use of a mouse. To provide access to all potential users, it is important that software producers avoid creating access barriers for people with disabilities and develop products that are compatible with standard assistive technology.
Designing products that can be used by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities is called "universal design." In contrast, most software producers focus on the characteristics of the "average" user. For example, in a survey of twenty-five award-winning companies who produce precollege instructional software, only two of the nineteen who responded indicated they were aware of accessibility issues. Sixty-five percent of the remaining seventeen companies were not aware of accessibility as an issue, 100% were not currently addressing accessibility in their product development, and 88% had no plans to address accessibility in the future (Golden, 2001).
Clearly, much work needs to be done before software that is accessible to people with disabilities is widely available.
The publication Designing Software That Is Accessible to Individuals with Disabilities is a great way to get introduced to key legal issues, accessibility guidelines, and resources for making software accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The document Accessible Digital Media Guidelines, published by the National Center on Accessible Media, explains access challenges and solutions and helps educational software developers create accessible products.
The U.S. government provides a Software Accessibility Checklist to evaluate the extent to which software applications are accessible to most people with disabilities. The checklist is based on the U.S. Department of Education's Requirements for Accessible Electronic and Information Technology Design.