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Assistive Technology and Accessibility
by Jon Nakasone

The widespread use of computers and the Internet is now commonplace in higher education. College students routinely use computers to write term papers, conduct research on the Web, and participate in online activities. Although these technologies help students become more productive, concerns exist as to whether the use of these technologies are creating additional barriers for disabled students.

Imagine a blind student using a screen reader who must access a Web site to research information, but experiences difficulty because the site uses images for navigation with poor text descriptions or none at all. Imagine a deaf student who wants to view a video from the Web, but no transcripts or captioning are available. Perhaps a person in a wheelchair wants to use a computer lab, but no adjustable tables are available. These are examples of common barriers disabled people encounter with information technologies.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and recently the Telecommunications Act of 1996 have long-term implications for disabled computer users in post-secondary education. These rulings mandate that public colleges and universities provide reasonable access to computers and electronic information sources for disabled users.

On November 13, 1998, the Assistive Technology Act (ATA) of 1998 was signed into law by President Clinton. ATA affirms that technology can be used to improve the lives of disabled people. ATA defines assistive technology as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." Examples of assistive technologies for disabled computer users include screen reading software, speech recognition software, adjustable desks, and specialized keyboards.

Four major areas of disability can be helped with assistive technology. These areas are: mobility impairments; blindness and low vision; hearing and speech; and learning disabilities.

Mobility Impairments

Mobility impairments or physical disabilities can result from congenital conditions, accidents, or traumatic muscular strain. Examples include spinal cord injuries, degenerative nerve diseases, stroke, and repetitive stress injuries. All mobility impairments require some form of keyboard, mouse, or trackball access to the controls and features in the application software. Computer equipment that are easily adjustable such as monitors, keyboards, printers, and tabletops are helpful to disabled students.

Some disabled students cannot use a standard keyboard or mouse. In these cases, alternate keyboards and alternate input devices such as trackballs can be used. Alternate keyboards enable users who have the use of one finger, one hand, or who use a mouth or head wand to control the computer.

Blindness and Low Vision

Online instruction puts blind and low vision students at a distinct disadvantage since the majority of the information is in visual format. Although blind and low vision students can learn to use keyboards effectively, accessing output can be a challenge. With the help of Braille output devices, optical character recognition software, and screen readers, blind students can also have access to electronic information.

Students with low vision are able to see partially, but still require specific assistance. Methods of assisting low vision students include using magnification software, providing large print output, and using keyboards with enlarged keys.

Hearing and/or Speech Impairments

Students with hearing or speech disabilities generally do not have problems inputting information with a standard keyboard and mouse. Users with hearing disabilities will confront difficulties when accessing media such as audio or video files, unless alternate formats such as transcripts or captioning are provided. Students who cannot speak can use speech synthesizers to speak for them.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Technologies that assist visual, hearing, and mobility impairments can help students with cognitive, language, and other learning disabilities by allowing them to experience different learning modes. For example, screen reading software can offer audio feedback while a student is reading the computer screen. This form of multiple feedback can help learning disabled students retain information more effectively.

Accessibility to the Internet

The popularity of the Internet recently prompted the government to look for ways to ensure that disabled people can also benefit from the technology. On April 7, 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the launch of the Web Accessibility Initiative to promote efforts to improve accessibility to Web-based information for people with disabilities. The initiative, endorsed by President Clinton, is responsible for developing technologies, creating guidelines, educating the industry, and conducting research and development on accessibility.

Tim Berners-Lee, the director of the World Wide Web Consortium and the inventor of the World Wide Web, stated:

"Worldwide, there are more than 750 million people with disabilities. As we move towards a highly connected world, it is critical that the Web be usable by anyone, regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities. The W3C is committed to removing accessibility barriers for all people with disabilities - including the deaf, blind, physically challenged, and cognitive or visually impaired. We plan to work aggressively with government, industry, and community leaders to establish and attain Web accessibility goals. "

Web Accessibility Guidelines

Web sites that use extensive graphics, animation, frames, scripting languages, or other features may create accessibility problems for disabled users. The following are some of the guidelines used to make Web sites more accessible:

Provide descriptive text links: Accurate descriptions will help users who rely on screen readers to navigate through your Web site more effectively.

Leave out animation: Animation causes screen readers to lock-up the computer.

Include text descriptions for graphic links: Users with screen readers can hear a description of image links that have text descriptions.

Avoid using color alone to convey information: Using color dependent Web pages will not benefit people who cannot differentiate between certain colors and those with devices that have non-color displays.

Provide alternatives for audio and video files: Users who cannot hear or view the files cannot benefit from them. Offer captioning or transcripts.

Include an alternative to online forms: Forms can be difficult for people using screen readers and may not be supported by all browsers. Allow the user to print out the form or send e-mail.

Avoid using Java and Active X in all Web pages: Screen readers cannot function properly with Java and Active X. Common problems include computer lock-up, or stopping of voice output. Researchers are looking into ways to overcome this problem.

Test your Web site: Different types of browsers work with HTML in their own way. The type of operating system can also make a difference. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has produced a Web accessibility testing software called "Bobby". Use Bobby to test your Web pages in different browsers and operating systems. You can find Bobby at: www.cast.org/bobby.

Other recommendations: Create a consistent layout for all pages; keep downloadable files in a single location; include labels for horizontal rules, and spell out acronyms and abbreviations.

Accessibility Benefits Everyone

Web sites that are accessible for people with disabilities universally benefit everyone else. Steps taken for accessibility can result in Web sites that are easier to navigate and use for all, with less dependency on the type of hardware or browser used. For example, people with slow modems who turn their graphics off in the browser, or people who use text-based browsers also benefit from accurate text descriptions and text link alternatives to graphics.

Assistive Technology at UH Manoa

The following are assistive technology resources presently available at UH Manoa:

Office of Disability Access (KOKUA)
Student Services Center 013
Phone: 956-7511, 956-7612

Note: All equipment and software are PC/Windows based. All computer tables are wheelchair accessible.

Speech Recognition Software: Dragon Naturally Speaking (www.dragonsys.com)
Screen Reading Software: JAWS (www.hj.com)
Screen Enlargement Software: ZoomText (www.aisquared.com)
Reading Device: ReadingEdge
Closed Circuit Television (CCTV): Optelec System

Hamilton Library
PC workstation for blind and visually impaired users in the first floor, reference area.

Station includes:
Screen Reading Software: JAWS
Screen Enlargement Software: ZoomText
Earphone

PC Lab, Keller Hall Room 213, 214
PC workstation for students in wheelchairs, blind/low vision users, those with limited use of hands.

Station includes:
Electrically height-adjustable table
Speech Recognition Software: Dragon Naturally Speaking
Screen Reading Software: JAWS
Screen Enlargement Software: ZoomText

Assistive Technology and Accessibility Resources

Oregon State University, Technology Access Program:
osu.orst.edu/dept/tap

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI):
www.w3.org/WAI

Equal Access to Software and Information:
www.isc.rit.edu/~easi

Disability Information and Resources:
www.eskimo.com/~jlubin/disabled/index.html

AbilityHub - Resources for adaptive equipment and alternative computing methods:
www.abilityhub.com

For more information on accessibility and assistive technology at UH Manoa, refer to:
www.hawaii.edu/access.

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