New Perspectives On Accessible Technology
by Tim Lougheed
University Affairs, June/July 2000, pp. 22,26-272
"Reprinted with permission of University Affairs, a magazine on
higher education published by the Association of Universities and Colleges
of Canada. Reprinted with permission."
Available July 7, 2000 on the World Wide Web in PDF format: http://www.aucc.ca/en/university_affairs/feature/2000/june-july/technol.pdf and in html format at: http://www.adaptech.org/pubs/uafe.htm
A Canadian research study offers practical advice for university and college administrators and faculty on how to make sure the Web technology you're using in the classroom won't exclude students with a wide range of disabilities
Designing courses to succeed on the World Wide Web remains a major educational challenge. The technology is less than a decade old, and most instructors are still debating the best way of presenting material in this dynamic, interactive medium. Now a nationwide study adds another dimension to this challenge - ensuring that Web sites used for teaching are accessible to students with disabilities.
Consider the problems posed by course material that has a significant graphical content, which can include pictures, animation or even video clips - none of which have any value to a blind student. Similarly, a file with audio content can't be used by a hearing impaired student unless a captioning system has been employed. Students with a learning dis-ability such as dyslexia are often at a disadvantage when confronting material on the Web, which they can find difficult to organize in a way that makes sense to them.
Such difficulties have been a key motivation for researchers affiliated with Dawson College in Montreal, which has been examining the use of computer technologies to help disabled students at Canada's colleges and universities. The project, called Adaptech, is made up of a core group of about 10 researchers from Montreal universities and colleges, including students, faculty members and representatives of disabled people in the local community.
"The danger is that you're going to have some programs that are technology-driven, and students with disabilities entering those programs aren't going to have access to the same learning opportunities," says Adaptech researcher Jennison Asuncion, a graduate student in educational technology at Concordia University who is also blind.
He emphasizes that accessibility is not merely one more feature to be added to a Web site's design; instead, it should be a guiding principle of that design. In much the same way that wheelchair ramps are best planned before a class-room is built, so too it's crucial to draft an online course that won't exclude some participants from the obvious advantages of Web courses.
Mr. Asuncion and his colleagues spent almost two years collecting practical information on how adaptive learning technology has been applied and how it should be used.
They began in 1997 by collecting information through a series of focus groups, proceeded to telephone inter-views, and then mailed hundreds of questionnaires. Eventually this information assembled the ideas and experiences of nearly 800 individuals from every province and territory. The respondents included postsecondary students with visual, hearing and learning disabilities, as well as college and university personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities and the faculty members who would be teaching them.
The study results were released last fall, in a published report containing 36 specific recommendations drawn from the research findings.
The recommendations are organized in four groups, specifically directed at college and university personnel responsible for providing services to students with disabilities: university and college faculty members, manufacturers and distributors of computer technology, and government bodies or other administrative organizations intended to help disabled students work with this new technology.
Buy adaptive software
A third of the study's recommendations are aimed at service providers on campuses. They are asked to purchase "adaptive" software and hardware used by disabled students, such as voice-activated computers that can read the contents of a Web page to a blind user. There may be few students who need this equipment, which is bound to be more expensive than run-of-the-mill versions. But according to Catherine Fichten, a McGill University psychiatry professor and Adaptech Project director, administrators should reject any suggestion that the small number of users makes the expense unwarranted.
"This is an argument that should be quashed anywhere. It's a way of excluding people," says Dr. Fichten, noting that investing in this equipment sends a valuable signal to other disabled users who may be more inclined to attend your institution. "One person is really the beginning of a stream of people."
Once a campus does buy this kind of equipment, the Adaptech report reminds them that students will want to use it at the same odd hours that other students like to use their computers. Because it's more valuable, however, administrators might be inclined to locate it in a more secure facility, one that might be open only during daytime hours. Nonetheless, some means of off-hours access is essential. So is training, if professors and students are going to appreciate how this equipment works.
Dr. Fichten says that institutions worried about the high cost of adaptive technology should learn more about how the cost could be offset by various government programs that offer technology-based assistance to disabled people.
"The vast majority of students [with disabilities] in colleges and universities are not aware of what programs exist to help them acquire computer technologies," says the study.
Another interesting finding of Adaptech's research was that there is a significant "cross-over" in the application of many items, so that people with distinctly different disabilities can benefit from the same item. For instance, soft-ware that reads the text on a screen out loud - aimed at blind students - can also help students with some learning disabilities. This means that investing in equipment can have broader applications than might be obvious at first glance.
Above all, the study says, universities should consult students with disabilities before buying equipment, to make the most of their investment. Practically every Canadian university and college has an accessibility office for students, but that office may have little to do with departments that handle the purchase and installation of computers and computer software, notes Mr. Asuncion.
And while any institution is bound to have its hands full trying to implement rapidly changing technology and get it into the hands of students as quickly as possible, adapting that technology for disabled users after the fact will only make the task more difficult.
"There has to be shared responsibility," he says, suggesting that representatives of both groups should sit on one another's committees. "You've got to have that person on the committee if you're going to have a real impact and if you're going to have a real commitment to making things accessible."
Another intriguing study finding was that many computer innovations introduced with no thought to helping the disabled nevertheless turn out to offer this capability. Dr. Fichten mentions dictation software and spell-checkers as tools that are widely marketed, not specifically to disabled users, but which also serve as adaptive aids for people with limited hand control or vision and who have trouble typing on a keyboard.
"Accommodations made for students with a disability are good accommodations for all students," she says, noting that anyone would welcome changes that make online material clearer and easier to understand.
Students with hearing disabilities have benefited from the advent of "closed captioning" in video, but the Adaptech study found that this technique doesn't perform as well on the Web. An effective alternative can be e-mail and chat programs, as well as group software with a common "whiteboard". But keep in mind that putting this information on a computer screen will compete for students' attention, making it harder for them to read an instructor's lips or follow other classroom activities.
In this sense, accessibility comes at a certain price to both students and instructors, says Maria Barile, a social worker and Adaptech Project co-director who is herself hearing impaired. Some of the study's most pointed recommendations are aimed at making the issue of access a primary consideration for any instructor. "Don't assume accessibility means the same thing to everybody," she advises.
It isn't always a matter of purchasing dedicated software or hardware, but often merely of discovering the full potential of technology that is already in place. Even mainstream manufacturers such as Microsoft have taken steps to incorporate accessibility into their standard products: a notable example was a feature in Windows 98 that made it easy to increase the size of text, icons and images on the screen to help readers with limited vision.
Unfortunately, some of these innovations are buried in the most technical guidelines of the software. Making them available is a job for technical experts, who must themselves be aware of the need to serve disabled members of the population. Promoting this awareness among everyone from technicians to professors, argues Dr. Fichten, ought to be a high priority on any campus.
"Even though guidelines exist, they're written for techies," she says. "The people who are in these courses, and the faculty administrators, they're not techies themselves."
Nor are most of the faculty members who are designing the next generation of Web-based courses.
The report recommends that instructors place course information on the Web well before the beginning of a course so that blind users, for example, will be able to go trough the time-consuming process of downloading that material in an audio form. Similarly, Web pages and associated course materials should be presented with blind users in mind; that means minimizing graphics in the content or at least offering a version that makes sense without tables, charts or other images.
To achieve this, instructors might be inclined to take advantage of the capability of many widely available soft-ware packages to produce different versions of teaching material. However, the Adaptech study offers repeated warnings about some of that software. For example, many students with poor vision use screen magnification features to enlarge print and enhance its colour so they can read it. However, most CD-ROMs and some popular programs such as Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Power-Point make this procedure difficult or altogether impossible. Similarly, hypertext links created with the commonly used programming language Java aren't available to people using a voice-activated system.
Given the effort some instructors invest in learning how to present teaching material with these popular types of software, it's important that they realize its limitations for some disabled students. The Adaptech Project constantly reminds instructors, administrators and manufacturers that this understanding begins by including those students in the ongoing process of installing information technology on campus.
"Creative partnerships and alliances are urgently needed," concludes the project report, which takes an optimistic perspective about that process. "Computers are best seen as enabling technologies - 'electronic curb-cuts' - that allow students with disabilities to prepare for and to participate in the knowledge-based economy of tomorrow."
More resources for instructors
The complete text of the Adaptech Project's research can be found at http://omega.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/ adaptech/recalle.htm
The University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (www.utoronto.ca/atrc) offers instructors a service that reviews Web sites for "inclusive design", revising aspects that might make a site less accessible to people with disabilities.
The High Tech Center Training Unit of the California Community Colleges (www.htctu.fhda.edu/) presents one of the most comprehensive set of online education accessibility guidelines to be found anywhere. These generic guidelines cover specific methods for such procedures as captioning video clips so they can be interpreted by viewers with a hearing impairment or removing animated elements from a Web page that can interfere with screen-reading software for the blind.
Santa Monica College has drafted a 14-point checklist that makes good sense for anyone mounting a Web page (www.smc.edu/centers/disabled student/awareness_training.htm), regardless of who they think might eventually read it.