Many Americans, and many others around the world, take the Internet for granted. It is hard for some of us to imagine a world without fingertip access to information. Now people are able to find answers to questions such as: â€˜what is the melting point of gold?â€™; â€˜what is the best way to peel pineapples or lay tile?â€™; or even â€˜what has been the impact of existentialism on modern life?â€™ By typing key words and phrases in search engines and sifting through an amalgamation of responses, we can find possible answers while at home, at school, or at work.
Teachers have come to rely on the Internet to supplement textbooks, videos, films, class discussions, and lectures. For most students to access this electronic library requires that they learn to use a keyboard and a mouse, and apply a few basic rules about Internet searching, including learning to evaluate Web sites.
Yet the very technologies that teachers and schools have come to rely on can present barriers to learning for some students. Students who have physical impairments such as limited hand skills, for example, may not be able to physically manipulate a mouse or use a traditional keyboard. Students with attention deficit disorders may not be able to keep track of the â€œwhatâ€ they are researching. Students who have learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, or sight-impairments may not be able to read what is on a page.
Fortunately, these barriers to using the Internet and other computer technologies are usually not insurmountable. Both hardware and software are available to assist students who need adaptions. Students with limited physical abilities, for example, can learn to use a modified mouse or keyboard, or perhaps to use voice recognition software to â€œspeakâ€ rather than â€œwriteâ€ a report. Students with attention deficit disorders can use web trekking software to help them track their searches and stay on task. And students with learning disabilities or visual impairments can use screen reading software that speaks the text of the Web site.
Hardware and software alone, however, wonâ€™t guarantee that every student can access the Internet. Sometimes, the very technologies that students with disabilities need (or use) are incompatible with the way information is presented on the Web. Sight-impaired students need text descriptions of graphics and pictures. Sometimes the formatting on a page makes it difficult to interpret the Braille output. Consistency in formatting helps these students to understand the myriad ideas that are presented on some Web pages. There is information on Web accessibility at Web checkers such as "Bobby".
Difficulties in accessing what is on the Web can also present problems with distance education. Online courses or tutorials must be compatible with assistive technologies used by students with disabilities.
A Few Principles to Facilitate Accessibility
1. Physical accessibility. Are labs and computer rooms accessible to those using wheelchairs? Are tables, chairs, keyboards, and monitors at the appropriate height for students?
2. Adaptations. Will any student require a special keyboard, mouse, or monitor? If so, are those readily available? Some students may benefit from â€œsticky keys,â€ keys that feature keystroke delay, or word prediction software. Some students may also access material more readily with customization of screens, including larger icons, and variations in contrast, font style and size.
For videos and video clips, will captioning be necessary for any student who may be hearing-impaired? Does the program or Web site use flashing or blinking images, which could trigger seizures in those with seizure disorders? Sometimes thereâ€™s an alternative presentation without the distracting technology.
3. Compatibility with Assistive Technology (AT). Will the Web site or distance education program be compatible with screen readers? Will the software disrupt the studentâ€™s operating system, including such accessibility features as mousekeys (a replacement for using a mouse for those who physically canâ€™t manipulate one) or magnifiers? Are larger monitors available for those using screen readers so that a larger amount of text can be viewed when magnified?
Some distance education incorporates chat rooms. Are these accessible; that is, do they include captioning for those who are hearing-impaired and can screen readers or magnifiers be used?
Other distance education programs rely on PowerPoint presentations, multi-media presentations, or videos. Once again check accessibility, both in terms of compatibility with screen readers and also captioning of videos or multi-media presentations.
4. Digital Text. Is digital text available or will the distance education program rely on printed materials? If so, how can these be made available to students who are sight-impaired or have reading disabilities? Digital text is preferred since it offers a format that lends itself to using assistive technologies such as screen readers or programs such as eReader Pro, which can provide reading assistance.
5. Ease of Use. Is the Web site or distance education program easy to use and navigate or is it complex and likely to be frustrating for some students?
- Find a detailed checklist for education technology accessibility at Education Based Information Technology. Also at this web address is a kit entitled Breaking Down Barriers: K-12 and Beyond. It is a resource on making technology in schools accessible.
The kit, available free of charge to schools, includes a printed information booklet, a CD with video materials and resource links, and a poster depicting examples of accessible information technology. The CD has information for teachers, school technology coordinators, administrators, and students.
The kit provides guidance about making videos accessible, ensuring that students with disabilities can navigate Web sites and electronic textbooks, and offering accessible distance education courses. This can be obtained from the above Web site or by calling 800-949-4232 (voice/TTY)
- Recently enacted legislation, the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA) of 2002, provided some voluntary standards for digitizing text, including some systems for collection and dissemination of materials in standardized formats: Braille, synthesized speech, digitized audio, and large print. The legislation also provides guidance for standard electronic format for access of school textbooks. The IMAA has also provided funds to start a national materials repository of digital materials. See the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard Report
- Technical assistance is also available through ten regional ADA & IT Technical Assistance Centers (800-949-4232) or at ADA Technical Assistance Program. These Centers provide information, training, and technical assistance to schools, employers, and people with disabilities. Each center works closely with local schools, businesses, disability, governmental, rehabilitation, and other professional networks to provide ADA information and assistanceâ€”including information on technology accessibility. Programs vary in each region, but all centers provide the following: Technical Assistance Education and Training Materials Dissemination Information and Referral Public Awareness.
- AccessIT at the University of Washington, Seattle, provides technical assistance and promotes the use of electronic and information technology for students and employees with disabilities in educational institutions at all academic levels. The Web site has many resources, including a searchable database, articles on promising technology practices, and FAQs. 866-968-2223 (Toll Free Voice) 866-866-0162 (Toll Free TTY)
- World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative provides guidance on web site accessibility.
- IBM's Accessibility Center provides a checklist of accessibility feature for designing or evaluating the accessibility of a web page.
- Technical Assistance Project lends equipment and provides loans to purchase AT.