Opening the Web for Disabled Users
Up until now, the explosive development of integrated multimedia on the Web for K-12 teaching, learning and administrative applications tragically made the Internet even less accessible to disabled students and staff. Barriers for people with hearing, visual and physical disabilities include screen features that cannot be perceived by colorblind users, rapidly changing displays that are difficult for dyslexic individuals to understand, and mouse sevices that may not be usable with certain physical disabilities.
While the original text-based Internet could be made accessible to blind and hearing- impaired users through the use of assistive technologies such as audible and Braille-output screen readers, the emerging Web denies full participation to an estimated 750 million people worldwide with various types of disabilities. However, things are changing dramatically, thanks to federal regulations that have spin-off benefits for K-12 schools.
A driving force to Web accessibility came in June when the Section 508 amendment was added to the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, prohibiting federal agencies from using electronic information inaccessible to people with disabilities. This meant that government Web sites had to be made accessible, including many that are used heavily in K-12 education such as the Library of Congress (lcweb.loc.gov) and the NASA Education Program (education.nasa.gov).
Accessibility requirements apply as well to Web-linked products and services purchased by the government, such as Macromedia Flash and Dreamweaver (www.macromedia.com). These same products are also used by K-12 site developers. The U.S. Department of Education then directed that Web sites of higher education grantees conform to Section 508 standards, and other funding agencies are following suit.
Other areas of the law also pertain to accessibility, such as the broader Section 504 that gives disabled individuals equal access to "a college, university, or other post secondary institution, or public system of higher education," and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/ adahom1.htm). Higher education institutions are therefore designing, diagnosing and retrofitting Web sites to meet the standards, and the results will benefit education at every level. New higher education options will open for your disabled students, and K-12 schools may add similar functionality to their own sites.
Making Sites Accessible
The Access Board, an independent federal agency, developed the basic Web accessibility standards using guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium and its Web Accessibility Initiative. Compliance requires making Web pages communicate the same information in alternate ways, such as providing text equivalents for non-text elements including images, sounds, animations and graphs. Information conveyed through the use of color must also be available without color, and requests for more time should be possible for timed responses. Similarly, blind users may be aided by sound tracks added to film clips, and written transcripts on separate Web pages may help hard-ofhearing users. The standards also require the insertion of special formatting commands so the Web pages will work with a variety of assistive input and output devices. The National Center for Accessible Media offers an online list of such devices, including Connect Outloud synthesized speech from Freedom Scientific (www.freedomscientific.com) and Window Eyes from GW Micro (www.gwmicro.com).
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.