Distance Learning 101: A Case Study on Accessibility in Collaboration


My name is Sheryl Burgstahler, and I work at the University of Washington in Seattle. I wanted to develop an Internet-based course offered through the Department of Education and the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine. I wanted to coteach the course with a colleague who is blind and who was a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I wanted to know how we could efficiently collaborate and share the workload. We had delivered similar content many times in on-site courses and presentations.

How do I make multimedia accessible?

Multimedia presentations can enrich education and enhance learning for many students, but it can also pose barriers for others. Audio and video are inaccessible to people who are unable to hear, and video is inaccessible to people who are unable to see critical information that is presented visually. Other students are impacted by low bandwidth Internet connections. Multimedia players can pose barriers as well if the player controls require use of a mouse or if they are not labeled sufficiently to be usable by screen reader users.

How can I design a school computer lab to be accessible to all students?

As increasing numbers of people with disabilities pursue educational opportunities that require computer use, accessibility of computing facilities becomes even more critical. Making a computer lab accessible requires that attention be devoted to the physical accessibility of the lab facility, as well as to the accessibility of the available technology. Assistive technology (AT) should be available for students who need it. However, AT alone does not make a computer lab accessible.

Where can I find information on the digital divide?

The term digital divide refers to the gap that exists between those who have and those who do not have access to technology. The term gained popularity in the late 1990s, fueled in part by a series of reports from the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The first of these reports, Falling Through The Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America, was released in July 1995.

What is MSAA?

In order for assistive technologies (AT) to convey meaningful information to users about an application's user interface, the AT first must be able to access that information from the application. Microsoft's solution to this problem is Microsoft® Active Accessibility® (MSAA), which has been available as an add-on since Windows® 95 and built into subsequent Windows® releases. MSAA is a technology that provides a standard, consistent mechanism for exchanging information between applications and assistive technologies.

Are there resources to help me in planning my web accessibility training?

There are many individuals and groups who share responsibility for making web content accessible. Standards organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C®) and the federal Access Board have developed web accessibility guidelines and standards. But in order to be effective, these standards must be supported by web browsers, media players, and other user agents, as well as by web authoring software tools and assistive technologies. Accessibility-focused organizations and advocacy groups are working diligently to educate these groups.

Does making our school web content accessible mean I cannot use multimedia on my site?

No. It means instead that you must design multimedia in such a way that individuals with disabilities, particularly those with sensory impairments, can access it or that you must provide an alternate format for the content in the multimedia. For example, a video clip can be captioned for those who are deaf and audio-described or transcribed for those who are blind and using speech or Braille technology for access.

Are text-only websites an accessible alternative?

Some website developers imagine that providing a separate text-only website is an easy way to support screen reader users so that they can have an accessible experience without requiring animations, media controls that are typically operated with a mouse, image-based infographics, or frequently updated content that may cause confusion. While this approach may seem logical on the surface, text-only websites are rarely maintained, have limited functionality, and simply cannot provide the same user experience for everyone that can be provided by making the “regular” website accessible.