Presentation Summaries

Terrill Thompson presents on web accessibility.

Engagement of People with Disabilities in Computing Fields and Development of New Technologies

Presenter: Richard Ladner

Disability can include impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions, and it is much more than just a health problem. Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove the physical and mental barriers in our environment. People with disabilities can accomplish a lot and be very successful; however, there are barriers, and we need to be working towards breaking down those barriers. About 15% of the world’s population has a disability.

Accessibility means a product, device, service, or environment that allows all people to achieve an end that could not be done easily otherwise. It needs to be accessible by wheelchair; screen reader; closed captioning, sign language interpretation or real-time captioning; keyboard only or on-screen keyboard; and/or a sip and puff switch. Accessibility innovations matter, and we’ve been creating new technology for a long time that not only helps people with disabilities, but helps all people. One example of this is the telephone, which was originally created to turn speech electronically for deaf students to see. Other examples include optical character recognition, text-to-speech, personal texting, speech recognition, speech for eyes (Siri), the Picturephone or video phone, which were all originally created for people with disabilities but are now used by most of society.

Accessibility research is still a huge field, usually as a subfield of human-computer interaction. When designing any new product or software, it must be usable by all people on the ability spectrum. Some new technology coming out right now is Braille-based text input, based on the Perkins typewriter but usable on mobile touchscreen technology. Quorum, an accessible programming language, is available through the Hour of Code at And the next biggest things coming out will be automatic image captioning, a large refreshable tactile display, and robotic assistants.

I work with a lot of people with disabilities. One of these people is Raina, who is deaf, has low vision, and has cerebral palsy. She is a great writer and wanted to learn to program. We used the Scratch programming tool, but it was frustrating because she had to use an assistant to help her drag and drop. In this moment, I felt like we were the failure—we didn’t have a tool that she could use independently to program. Another person I’ve worked with is Nicole, who learned to program in her AP computer science classes. However, she couldn’t communicate very easily. So she created a program that could translate braille to text so others could read her writing.

STEM fields need more of the perspectives and expertise of people with disabilities.

Web Accessibility

Presenter: Terrill Thompson

When we’re creating digital content such as web pages or online documents, we may envision our typical user as an able-bodied person using a desktop computer. In reality, users utilize a wide variety of technologies to access the web including assistive technologies, mobile devices, and more; everyone has different levels of ability when it comes to seeing, hearing, or using a mouse or keyboard. Since the World Wide Web was invented, HTML has had alt tags and other accessibility features as one of its standards. WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, second version) aims to bring all web content up to an accessible level so that all users have equivalent access.

WCAG 2.0 follows four main principles; information should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these principles is defined by more specific guidelines, and those are further defined by specific success criteria, which are assigned Level A, AA, or AAA, with Level A success criteria including the most critical issues for accessibility. Level A success criteria are fairly easy to meet. In resolution agreements and legal settlements, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education OCR have identified WCAG 2.0 Level AA as a reasonable target to ensure websites are accessible.

A push for accessible tools and features will help make all web content more accessible. Using accessible themes in WordPress and Drupal is an easy way to spread accessibility across campus and utilize necessary accessibility features such as keyboard accessible drop-down menus and proper headings. ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) can be used to analyze accessibility, and it communicates the interface elements to users and designers. Canvas and similar learning management systems need to be made accessible and used accessibly; faculty need to learn about headings and alt text and the right questions to ask about accessibility.

For more information about web accessibility, check out these resources:

Document Accessibility

Presenter: Dan Comden

A document is written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence. Ignoring video and audio, which are two important but fundamentally different types of files, typical types of documents used on campus are Word, PDF, Plain Text and Rich Text, PowerPoint, and HTML. We need to ensure that all information given to students is accessible.

Evaluating over a hundred courses over a year at the UW, we observed over 5,000 documents used, and over 100,000 pages from those documents were shared through our LMS. Through all of these, the percentage of documents that were accessible was very low. On average, only about 11% of Word documents included headings, one of the most important structural accessibility features in Word. For PDFs, one of the most important features of accessibility is text selectability so that text-to- speech software can make sense of the document. Most quarters, about 70% or more of the PDFs used were text-selectable. Yet, an average of only 26% of PDFs had bookmarks or tags and less than 8% had both bookmarks and tags.

It is important to focus on headings, lists, alternative text for images, and the language choice for all documents. Headings provide easy navigation of the information for anyone approaching the text. Lists need to be labeled and are a good way to provide structured information to the reader. Alternative text for images allows someone who can’t access the image visually to get a description of the content within an image and allows image content to be searched. Selecting the language provides information to a speech synthesizer. When exporting your document to PDF, make sure you check for accessibility with Acrobat’s accessibility checker. Scanned PDFs can be a huge problem, as they are often just an image rather than text and lack the structure provided by tags. Inaccessible PDFs often need additional software to read, which delays delivery to students.

HTML will always be the most accessible way to convey information, followed by structured Word documents. How do we encourage faculty to use accessible documents? How do we train faculty to create them? These are ongoing questions. The following websites provide tools for making your website accessible:

Approaches to Access: Accommodations and Universal Design

Presenter: Sheryl Burgstahler

Ability exists on a continuum, where all individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, or manage their health. In K-12 education in the United States, every child is ensured a free, appropriate education in as integrated of a setting as possible. However, in postsecondary education, students must meet whatever course or program requirements apply and are offered reasonable accommodations as needed.

Accommodations and universal design (UD) are two approaches to access for people with disabilities. Both approaches contribute to the success of students with disabilities in computing classes. Accommodations are a reactive process, providing access for a specific student and arise from a medical model of disability. Students might be provided with extra time on tests, books in alternate formats, or sign language interpreters. Often these come from a legal standing, such as the 508 section of the Rehabilitation Act.

In contrast, UD is a proactive process rooted in a social justice approach to disability and is beneficial to all students. UD is designing products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. A UD approach can benefit people who face challenges related to socioeconomic status, race, culture, gender, age, language, or ability. Applying UD to information technology would include building in accessibility features and also ensuring compatibility with assistive technology. In other words, a universally designed website would have text alternatives for graphics, present context via text and visuals, include captions and transcripts for all video and audio content, ensure that all content and navigation can be reached with the keyboard alone, and spell out acronyms.

UD of instruction is an attitude that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. It can be implemented incrementally, focuses on benefits to all students, promotes good teaching practice, does not lower academic standards, and minimizes the need for accommodations. UD can be applied to all aspects of instruction, including class climate, interactions, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, feedback, and assessment. Examples include the following:

  • Arranging seating so that everyone has a clear line of sight.
  • Avoiding stigmatizing a student by drawing undue attention to a difference.
  • Using large, bold fonts with high contrast on uncluttered overhead displays and speak aloud all content.
  • Providing multiple ways to gain and demonstrate knowledge.
  • Avoiding unnecessary jargon; defining terms.
  • Providing scaffolding tools (e.g., outlines).
  • Providing materials in accessible formats.
  • Providing corrective opportunities.
  • Testing in the same manner in which you teach.
  • Minimizing time constraints as appropriate.
  • Including disability and accommodation statements in syllabus.

Educators who effectively apply UD and accommodations level the playing field for students with disabilities and make instruction welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. They minimize, but do not eliminate, the need for accommodations.

Accessible Online Learning: What Instructors Need to Know and Experiences of Online Instructors

Presenters: Sheryl Burgstahler and Hadi Rangin

We want to make our courses welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all potential students, including those with disabilities. To be accessible means a class or product is usable to the same level by all students. While accommodations are important, we can minimize retrofitting for specific students by implementing universal design in the planning on the class. In the first online class Sheryl ever taught, a class on adaptive technology for people with disabilities in 1995, she tried to make it as accessible as possible to showcase that it was possible for any student to take an online course. Sheryl still does this in the current online class she teaches about accessibility and compliance of online education.

Hadi teaches a class on universal design for online learning for instructors and course designers. He focuses specifically on what staff and faculty need to do to make their online classes accessible and welcoming to students with disabilities. These are professionals not developing their own website tools or technology, but using what is already out there. In all of these classes, students need access to assistive technology and courses need to be universally designed in respect to the learning management system (LMS), instructional materials, and instructional strategies.

While educators may not have the choice in their LMS, they do have the choice to create accessible instructional materials and teaching strategies. Educators should consider if everyone can gain knowledge, interact the same, and demonstrate their knowledge. The first step towards this is creating an accessible syllabus with structure and key information, including a statement on accessibility and disability-related accommodations. A great place for educators to start is DO-IT’s publication, 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course.

There are also ways students can improve their own access as long as the learning management system is accessible. Students can often have forum posts from a LMS available to them in their email, which can often be easier for students with disabilities to find and respond to. By pointing out these options, all students can be aware of accessible options available to them. However, for broader accessibility issues regarding the LMS, instructors should meet with the LMS support team and make sure they have an accessibility liaison and work to find a better solution. All LMS support teams and instructors should learn about the accessibility features and abilities to customize the LMS and other programs they are using. Your LMS may include these customizable features:

  • Layouts and views
  • Simple editor verse rich text editor
  • Color, font, and high-contrast
  • On-screen type alert
  • Notification systems
  • Discussion subscription
  • Screen reader specific implementations

An asynchronous mode online offers flexibility for students and is often more accessible than synchronous models. Projects should be relevant to students and expectations should be clear, and know that there will be variability in student technical expertise. Instructors should know how to find support for their LMS and connect with an accessibility liaison when needed before starting the class.