Accessible Information Technology

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What is accessible information technology?

Effective use of electronic and information technology is essential to learning in our 21st century world. Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) must become an integral part of the learning environment at school, at home and in the community. Federal legislation, including No Child Left Behind, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and IDEA has prompted educational agencies to provide equitable access to information through technology for all students.

Information technology plays an important role helping prepare students to succeed in a rapidly changing world. The use of information technology for education presents new challenges to students who have sensory, mobility, learning, and other disabilities. If these challenges aren’t addressed, the use of electronic and information technology becomes a barrier rather than an equalizer.

What is the difference between information technology and assistive technology?

Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) includes products that store, process, transmit, convert, duplicate, or receive electronic information. Examples are: software applications and operating systems; web-based information and applications such as distance learning; telephones and other telecommunications products; video equipment and multimedia products that may be distributed on videotapes, CDs, DVDs, email, or the World Wide Web; office products such as photocopiers and fax machines; calculators; and computer hardware. Electronic textbooks, instructional software, email, chat, and distance learning programs are also examples of IT.

Assistive technology as it relates to information technology includes special tools or software to help people use computers, software, the Internet, telephones, or other technology used in education. Examples are: special keyboards; software to magnify a computer screen or audibly read the text on a computer screen; text telephones (TTYs) to help people who are deaf communicate using the telephone.

Information technology may be inaccessible to students if it provides only one way to access the information. For example, students with visual impairments cannot read instructions presented only in a visual format; people who are deaf cannot understand content that is only presented aurally; people who have limited use of their hands or arms may not use a computer mouse; and people who use wheelchairs may not be able to operate a fax machine if the controls are impossible to reach.

Many of these barriers can be reduced or eliminated when the principles of "universal design" are used to design and develop the information technology. The decision to plan ahead for accessibility is a sound one, both economically and educationally, because it can reduce the need for special accommodations.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Using universal design for learning (UDL) means developing products that are usable by all students, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design. Universal design and accessible EIT provide choices for students, so that they can access a web page or educational software in the way that best suits their sensory abilities, body size, posture, mobility or learning style, or in a way that best fits with the particular assistive technology tool they are using.

Application of universal design principles can even reduce the need for assistive technology, creating a product that works better for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

An in-depth book, Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning, by David H. Rose & Anne Meyer, is available from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and can be found at http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/ideas/tes/.

A basic principle of UDL is that the key to helping all students achieve is identifying and removing barriers from teaching methods and curriculum materials. Drawing from brain research and using new media, the UDL framework proposes that educators strive for three kinds of flexibility:

  • To represent information in multiple formats and media.
  • To provide multiple pathways for students’ action and expression.
  • To provide multiple ways to engage students’ interest and motivation.

What are some examples of accessible IT in education?

Accessible software applications usually provide students with more than one way to complete actions, such as allowing a student to use the mouse alone, the keyboard alone, or a combination of the two. They rely on more than color to convey information. Installation instructions, user guides, and other documentation are available in alternate formats (e.g., large print, Braille, and electronic text).

In the publication “What makes electronic and information technology inaccessible to people with disabilities?” the Northeast ADA & IT Center provides the following examples:

“Think of a young student using educational software in a classroom. The voice of a narrator instructs a child to use the mouse to click on an animal to learn more about it. Deaf or hard-of-hearing children cannot hear the instructions. Blind children cannot click on the animal because they cannot see what is on the computer screen. Children with limited use of their hands may not be able to use the mouse. Providing captions in addition to spoken instructions allows children with hearing impairments who can read to understand the instructions. Providing keyboard commands for all functions of the software allows children with visual impairments and children with limited use of their hands to participate.

“Think of a student taking an exam on a computer. Instructions and questions appear as text on the computer screen. Including an optional feature that reads the text on the screen out loud allows students with cognitive disabilities and those who have difficulties with reading to participate fully and independently. Headphones can be easily provided so that others are not distracted.”

Working Towards Creating Accessible Environments

The same article addresses the similarity in accessible design principles for physical and IT environments. In the same way all parts of a physical school building have to be accessible (the bathrooms, the library, the cafeteria), all features of the virtual school (created by IT) need to be accessible (the website, the encyclopedia on CD-ROM, on-line discussion and assessment).

For example, when putting together a distance-learning program, developers do not know what disabilities future students may have. Multimedia products should be captioned and audio-described; web resources must be designed with accessibility in mind, allowing participation by people who use a wide variety of assistive technologies; class communication should be conducted using technology that is accessible to everyone; and plans must be in place for providing specific disability-related accommodations if requested. Offering an inaccessible distance-learning course is like offering a course in a building without ramps and elevators: Even if a potential student has a wheelchair to use for mobility, he or she will not be able to get to the class. Although retrofitting is an option for both physical and electronic environments, it is expensive, does not always create an acceptable solution, and takes time.

How might Web Pages be inaccessible to students?

Web Pages are widely used in instruction and provide a good example to show how students with disabilities may have barriers to accessing the information contained therein.

Students who are blind typically use an audible screen reader to access the Internet. However, unless the site has been designed with accessibility in mind, the screen reader's speech output may not make sense. For example, it might read information as it appears straight across the page, which could be confusing to a student who is only hearing the text and cannot see what information is coming next. If information is presented in a picture or graphic, a student who is blind misses the information entirely unless alternative text (readable by the screen reader) explains the picture.

Students with color blindness are also denied accessibility when color contrast alone is used to convey content or ways to navigate the Web Page.

When captions are not used for audio or audio/video (multimedia) segments of a Web Page, students with hearing impairments are penalized.

When a student is not able to use a mouse to navigate a site, for example, alternative input devices (e.g., voice recognition, switches and scanning) may be used. Some of these input devices can only be used with Web Sites that are fully keyboard accessible. A student without fine motor skills may have trouble using a trackball or a head pointer to pinpoint links that are tiny (e.g., button links that are the only way to access another site).

Students with cognitive disabilities need Web Sites that include logical and predictable navigation, consistent placement of content on the page, and pairing of both graphics and text to increase understandability.

Students with photoepilepsy (a particular form of epilepsy) may have seizures when elements on the screen flicker at a rate greater than 2 and less than 55 cycles per second (e.g., banner ads, blinking elements).

Many resources are available for educators who are concerned about the accessibility of information technology.


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