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Read the letter regarding COVID-19 by IDRC Director, Jutta Treviranus.

Laurie Harrison

ATRC, University of Toronto

The issue of accessible Web design for people with disabilities and other special needs has recently become a topic of great concern. In this investigation of Web-based Distance Education, points of discussion related to the creation of accessible resources will include:

Participants in online activities include an increasing group of users with sensory, physical or learning disabilities, for whom adaptive technologies provide a gateway to information and education. Current estimates based on U.S. Statistics suggest that approximately 20% of the population have some type of disability.1 Legislation in both Canada and the USA supports development of accessible standards for Web-based resource development. Furthermore, today's technological environment is fostering public demand for accommodation of a growing number of user interface models, ranging from screen readers to palm pilots to telephone browsers. All of this points to the need for Web authors to increase their understanding of the principles and practices which support universal design.

Universal Design Principles

Why should developers take the time to ensure that Web-based educational resources are based on universal design principles? There are several factors that should motivate us to learn about accessible design, and implement it in our online programming. The first is a fundamental ideal that access to education is one of our basic human rights. Accommodation of learners with special needs is part of the process of ensuring that high quality educational experiences are available to every individual.

We are currently in the midst of a rapid evolution in availability of adaptive technology that removes barriers to accessing information and education for people with disabilities. A potential learner may have differences in how they interact with a computer, including both hardware and software, input and output. A sensory impairment may result in a need to use screen reader software to hear the information instead of viewing it on a screen. Limitations in mobility could mean that the student uses an a dapted keyboard to navigate the Web. However, these individuals are fully capable of participating and contributing to a learning community. Education delivered via the Internet provides an opportunity to level the playing field for learners with special needs through use of new technologies , in combination with thoughtful design of the user interface. The technology is available, but the onus now rests with designers to present Web-b ased resources in formats that are accessible to a full range of learners =2E As an extension of the principle of universal education, we must become aware of principles of universal Web design.

At present, the leader in establishing accessibility guidelines for page authoring is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a sub-committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The mission of this group includes promotion of a high degree of usability for people with disabilities. To this end, the WAI is coordinating many organizations that have developed Web accessibility guidelines in the past, in order to develop a comprehensive and unified set of accessibility guidelines. The most recent set of authoring guidelines categorizes, by priority, elements and formats to a void and recommends possible redundancies or alternatives, in an attempt to establish universal standards for accessible Web design.2 The WAI guidelines and resource documents are available at


In Canada, the Human Rights Code protects citizens against any "discriminatory practice in the provision of goods, services, facilities or accommodation customarily available to the general public." 3 While there is currently no federal legislation that specifically directs the development of accessible Web resources, the Government of Canada is developing a policy that will mandate the accessibility of all of its Web sites and electronic information products and services. This legislation, based on the W3C-WAI guidelines, is expected to be implemented in 1999 , with Web sites being brought into compliance over a two-year period.4

Further policies are currently being developed by the Canadian Radio-t elevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)5 and the Ontarions with Disabilties Act (ODA) in support development of accessibility standards, encompassing Web-based delivery of information and resources.

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)6 legislation and the Rehabilitation Act 508 7 requirements for Federal Departments and Agencies require that Web resources must be made accessible to people with disabilities.8 The ADA directs organizations falling within its scope to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue burden.

A more specific description related to education has been identified b y Cynthia Waddell, ADA Coordinator, City of San Jose, CA USA, in her rese arch for the American Bar Association:

In a complaint by a student that a university had failed to provide ac cess to the Internet, the Office of Civil Rights, United States Department of Education (OCR) discussed what was meant to provide effective commun ication. In a nutshell,

[T]he issue is not whether the student with the disability is merely provided access, but the issue is rather the extent to which the communication is actually as effective as that provided to others. Title II [of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990] also strongly affirms the important role that computer technology is expected to play as an auxiliary aid by which communication is made effective for persons with disabilities.

II. United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Set tlement Letters: Docket Number 09-95-2206 (1996 Letter )& 09-97-2002 (1997 Letter) Pages 1-2, 199 6 Letter; 28 C.F.R. 35.160(a)9

Further, the Rehabilitation Act 508 indicates that Federal Departments and Agencies are required to ensure electronic and information technology allows access by Federal employees with disabilities, as well as members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency.10

Reaching the Widest Possible Audience

In the field of education, we are all experiencing the exponentially increasing demand for provision of course related resources and documents via the Internet. Use of the Web for delivery of distance learning is finding an audience in the current "just-in-time" education environment, where customized programs and convenient professional development opportunities are valued by today's lifelong learners. In addition, students in traditional facilities-based courses are asking for the convenience of access to course resources, information, and communication with their instructors via the Internet. Library reference services are being adapted to take advantage of the possibility of Internet access to information systems and database mining tools.

We may have an image in mind of a "typical" learner, who sits at a desk using a conventional keyboard, mouse and monitor. But it is important to consider demographic trends, health trends and technological trends, to ensure that we are reaching the widest possible audience. An aging population, in combination with the demand for lifelong learning, has lead to an increase in the number of users who have some degree of vision impairment.11 Additionally, workplace environments have unfortunately resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of learners who suffer from repetitive strain injury.12

The potential benefits of Web-based learning resources for students who use adaptive technologies are many, as the electronic delivery of information and resources permits translation into a variety of modalities and formats.

Benefits include:

  • flexibility in the pace of learning,
  • material can be presented in redundant, reinforcing or alternative formats e.g., speech, print, graphics, etc.,
  • material can be adapted to various learning styles,
  • student can clarify, rehearse and review supporting materials without interrupting the flow of the learning session for classmates,
  • issues of distance, transportation and physical accessibility are reduced,
  • equal participation for students who use augmentative or alternative communication methods, as the method and rate of communication is transparent to fellow classmates,
  • greater opportunities for peer interaction and collaboration, and for student-instructor interaction and assistance13

Another trend is the rapid development of alternative devices such as mobile computing devices, "hands-free" and "eyes-free" browsers and "virtual books" to access information and resources in contexts other than the conventional desktop workstation. Not all methods of accessing the Web incorporate a graphical pointing device such as a mouse. Web pages based on principles of accessible design should be navigable via keyboard or voice commands. While the functionality of these devices is determined by the product developers, strategies may be implemented to enhance access and avoid unnecessary barriers being created.

Forward thinking developers will recognize the need to plan for changes linked to demographic and technological trends. To this end, it is essential that educators and administrators are astute in their design of Web-based instructional resources, and in their selection of courseware tools. Building on a solid foundation which includes adherence to W3C HTML standards and accommodation of a full range of interface models will increase the life span of the resources we develop, ensuring access by the widest possible audience at present, and in the future.

Accessible Design: Where Does it Begin?

A useful definition of accessibility is provided by Chuck LeTourneau, of Starling Web Services, an organization that specializes in accessible Web design. He states:

"What does 'Web accessibility' mean? To me, it means that anyone using any kind of Web browsing technology must be able to visit any site and get a full and complete understanding of the information as well as have the full and complete ability to interact with the site - if that is necessary." 14

In order to understand the issues related to accessible Web design, developers need to first have a basic understanding of specific access systems that accommodate, replace or augment sensory and motor functions of users with special needs. These include voice recognition systems, alternative pointing devices, screen readers / magnifiers, and other devices. The following is a list of some adaptive technologies15 and examples of basic challenges16 Sto Internet navigation faced by users of these devices.</ P>

  1. Screen Readers
    This software is used by learners who are blind to access Web pages, electronic text and computer applications. This software allows all text to be read out from the menu, toolbar and directory buttons, and Web pages. Tab or Shift-Tab allows navigation through the Hyperlinks on a given page.

    Challenges: Frames and tables can make a page difficult, if not impossible to navigate. Some screen readers cannot distinguish columns or groupings of graphics with labels and may read horizontally across the page, mixing text with images, labels and hyperlinks. Images that may provide important information cannot be accessed unless text-based equivalents are provided.

  2. Screen Magnifiers:
    Screen magnification systems enlarge portions of the screen to allow learners with limited vision to access computer based materials.

    Challenges: Without clear and easy-to-understand text and descriptions of the layout of the site, the user may have difficulty getting a sense of the overall structure of the site, or become lost in complex pages.

  3. Alternative Keyboards:
    These keyboards offer larger or smaller target areas for users with loss of gross or fine motor control. They may be switched to mouse emulation mode so that the arrow keys or numeric keypad of the same keyboard are used for mouse movements.

    Challenges: Mouse emulation can be somewhat slow or frustrating, although keyboard equivalents to tab through hypertext links which have been built into recent Web browsers are very helpful. Because the pointing device is less precise, users may need larger targets or increased spacing between targets.

  4. On-screen Keyboards:
    This software allows the user to enter text and select buttons emulating menu functions from a display on the monitor. Users have a pointing device or a switch to select buttons.

    Challenges: Recent products allow users to point and dwell over a target to make a selection, but navigation through a complex series of menus and links can be difficult. Text entry is also possible using this technology, but is very time consuming, unless accompanied by word prediction technology.

  5. Voice Recognition:
    The user speaks into a microphone to navigate software applications, surf the Web, and input text. Commands correlating to macro sequences may be created to customize usage for specific software or frequent tasks. Mouse control may incorporate a grid system.

    Challenges: Again, without a clear navigation system and large target areas on clickable images, the voice recognition user has difficulty in moving through the pages efficiently.

A basic understanding of these commonly used adaptive technologies, is the first step in learning to design Web pages that will make information accessible to users of these adaptive technologies.

Best Practices for Accessible Design

Making the Web more accessible is largely dependent upon using HTML the way it was intended: to encode meaning and structure, rather than control layout and visual formatting. Some years ago, the introduction of graphical browsers, lead to a variety of new official and unofficial HTML formats which were quickly taken up by Web designers. Adaptation of the structure of HTML for aesthetic purposes compromises the accessibility of the site using non-visual, or non-conventional browsers. An example of this phenomenon is the case of the TABLE tag that was originally conceived to display tabular data, but has become an all-purpose tool for laying out magazine-type pages. The increasing use of graphics, non-standard HTML structure, and the introduction of dynamic elements such as Java applets and active-X controls has further compounded the challenges in designing universally accessible Web pages.17

General Principles:

Knowledge of the following general principles, based on WAI approach to accessible design will help the designer to achieve greater level of accessibility in the learning resources being developed.18

1. Use structural elements as they were intended.

As was mentioned previously, one of the greatest barriers to accessibility is inappropriate use of structural markup to achieve visual formatting effects. Using markup improperly may create a barrier preventing users with specialized software from understanding the organization of a page, and navigating through it effectively. Web designers may be tempted to use structural markup to achieve a desired formatting effect, especially for viewing with older browsers. Common practices include use of tables for layout or a header to change the font size. It is important to consider whether the formatting effect is so critical as to warrant rendering the page inaccessible to some users. Not everyone uses a conventional monitor and mouse to access the Web. A better approach is to use markup such as TABLE, UL, BLOCKQUOTE, etc. as it was intended, and use CSS to format visual effects for those learners using conventional desktop system. CSS is a forward thinking technology that assists the Web designer in separating structure from format, content from presentation. This accommodates users of adaptive technology, as well as users of new, mobile and portable Internet access devices.

2. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.

When providing critical information in strictly visual, or auditory formats, be certain to include alternatives for those learners who may not be able to access these resources. A simple example is the use of the "ALT" attribute, of the <IMG> tag, providing an alternative text for users who are not displaying graphics. This will accommodate learners accessing Web resources with a screen reader, with graphics turned off because of low bandwidth issues, or those who are using devices which display text only. Scripts, sound files, objects, java applets, and other interactive components should also be rendered in alternative formats.

3. Add accessibility features to ensure pages can be navigated by keyboard only.

Again, remember that not all users can use, or will be using a mouse to navigate your Web pages. Good Web design means that the page can be accessed using only a keyboard or voice commands. Common pitfalls include use of image maps without ALT tags for each "hotspot." You can also use HTML 4.0 features such as ACCESSKEY and TABINDEX to make your pages easier to navigate using only a keyboard.

4. Ensure graceful transformation.

With some effort, Web designers can create pages that transform gracefully. Pages that transform gracefully will be accessible to a variety of users despite any physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities, work constraints, and technological barriers. Strategies already mentioned include separation of structure from format, providing textual as well as visual information, and creation of documents that do not rely on one type of browser or hardware. Pages should be usable by people using a keyboard , with small or low resolution screens, black and white screens, no screens, with only voice or text output, etc.

Basic Strategies to Ensure Accessible Design

With so many "bells and whistles" available via authoring tools, one is easily tempted to implement design elements that in the end may actually impede, rather than enhance, the learning process for computer users with special needs. The following tips, based on the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines, will assist you in ensuring that your Web site is reaching the widest possible audience.19

1. Images & animations. Use the alt attribute to describe the function of all visuals.

Rationale: Since text content can be presented to the user as synthesized speech, braille, and visually-displayed text, this improves accessibility for people who cannot access visual information or written text, including many individuals with blindness, cognitive disabilities, learning dis abilities, and deafness.

2. Image maps. Use client-side MAP and text for hotspots.

Rationale: Client-side image maps are preferable because link information is located in the HTML document and can be accessed using alternative browsers. Server-side image maps may require use of a mouse or other pointing device. Text equivalents are helpful for the reasons outlined above.

3. Multimedia. Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, descript ions of video, and accessible versions in case inaccessible formats are u sed.

Rationale: Although some people cannot use movies, sounds, audio enhancements, etc. directly, they may still use pages that include equivalent textual information to the visual or auditory content.

4. Hypertext links. Use text that makes sense when read out of conte xt.

Rationale: Link text should be meaningful enough to make sense when read out of context -- either on its own or as part of a sequence of links. For instance, do not use "click here." Link text should also be terse.

5. Page organization. Use headings, lists, and consistent structure. Use CSS for layout and style where possible.

Rationale: Use structural markup to aid navigation rather than for a pres entation effect (e.g., using a table for layout or a header to change the font size). Correct use helps learners with specialized software to understand the organization of the page and to navigate through it.

6. Graphs & charts. Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.

Rationale: When a short text equivalent does not suffice to adequately convey the function or role of an image, it is helpful to provide additional information in a file designated by the "longdesc" attribute or by provide a description link as well next to the graphic. (See WAI guidelines for more information.)

7. Scripts, applets, & plug-ins. Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.

Rationale: To reach the widest possible audience, ensure that pages are usable when scripts, applets, or other programmatic objects are turned off or not supported. If this is not possible, provide equivalent information on an alternative accessible page.

8. Frames. Label with the title or name attribute.

Rationale: Although content developers are encouraged to use new technologies that solve problems raised by existing technologies, they should know how to make their pages still work with older browsers and people who choose to turn off features. For non-visual users, relationships between the content in frames (e.g., one frame has a table of contents, another the contents themselves) must be conveyed through other means.)

9. Tables. Make line by line reading sensible. Summarize. Avoid using tables for column layout.

Rationale: Tables used to lay out pages and some data tables where cell text wraps pose problems for older screen readers that do not interpret the source HTML or browsers that do not allow navigation of individual table cells. These screen readers will read across the page, reading sentences on the same row from different columns as one sentence.

10. Check your work. Validate the HTML. Use evaluation tools and text-only browsers to verify accessibility.

Rationale: Validate accessibility with automatic tools and human review. Automated methods are generally rapid and convenient but cannot identify all accessibility issues. Human review can help ensure clarity of language and ease of navigation.

This list of quick tips is a starting point for ensuring that your pages are accessible. More detailed information and techniques for implementation are available in full at the WAI Web site at It is advisable to begin using validation methods at the earliest stages of development, and discover the problems before you are well into site construction. Accessibility issues identified early are easier to correct and avoid.

Choosing Courseware Tools

An exponentially increasing number of educational courses, from all sectors, are being offered over the Web. This has spurred a growing industry of software tools to assist in creation of Web-based curriculum and in performing class management tasks. Web server software such as WebCT, Top Class, CourseInfo, Virtual-U and other programs will take HTML documents, along with other media and resources, and quickly organize them into a framework specifically designed for delivery of Web-based courses.

Courseware products cater to educators who are unfamiliar with programming, allowing easy integration of password protection, interactive activities, tracking of student progress, etc. Generally, the interface is fairly simple for the designer, as many use templates and wizards extensively to assist in course content creation. Step-by-step guides support creation of a range of components, from the course home page, to bulletin boards, to quizzes and marking systems. Multimedia components, such as images or audio files, are generally created externally in a specialized software program, and imported. Many feature a designer interface which is driven by a program residing on the server, accessed through a browser. While this is convenient in terms of software access and cross platform issues, the automation can give the educator less control of the final formatting of the HTML pages.20

Thus, while Web-based distance education programs built on courseware platforms address geographical and cost barriers, they frequently present access barriers to students with special needs. Ironically, very few include basic accessibility features described above, effectively excluding those individuals who stand to benefit most from new technologies.

In order to encourage developers of these courseware products to become more aware of accessibility issues, the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre recently undertook a study of products currently available on the market and evaluated them in terms of overall functionality in relation to accessibility. The results of this study are available at

Results of this evaluation show Lotus Learning Space as the most accessible of the packages assessed, with Web Course in a Box and TopClass doing well, although with less functionality. It should be noted, however, that all of these courseware developers have a long road to travel in terms of providing tools to create accessible learning environments. There are no products on the market which adequately address accessibility issues, and the designer/instructor is often left with the task of finding "workarounds" or developing alternative access methods in order to accommodate users of adaptive technology. One of the most significant long term strategies that should be taken as educators is to lobby courseware platform developers to modify their programs to improve accessibility. This grassroots approach, beginning with authoring tools, will mean that accessible design becomes the status quo, rather than an additional effort undertaken by designers who have awareness of the potential problems. 22


Achieving universal access to education, reaching the widest possible audience, looking to the future of computer interface and emerging technologies the motivators behind development of accessible Web-based learning resources are many. Improving accessibility begins with increased awareness of the potential barriers. As educators, we must be astute in selection of courseware tools and encourage use of products and methods that allow development of accessible resources based on principles of universal access. Just as wheelchair ramps to buildings have become the norm in architectural design, accessible Web design must become a basic consideration in the design of Web-based learning resources.

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7Rehabilitation Act 508. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW: Rehab Act

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11Stuart, V. (1998) Boomers on the Brink Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

12Bailin, Dr. J. (1997) List Serve Moderator: MISC.HEALTH.INJURIES.RSI for Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

13Treviranus, J. (1998). Future Trends, Emerging Technologies and Students with Special Needs. SETTT Conference 1998 proceedings, Toronto, Ontario. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

14LeTourneau, C. Accessible Web Design. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

15ATRC Staff. Alternative Keyboard And Other Enhancements Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

16 Treviranus, J. (1995). Alternative Access to the World Wide Web. Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Conference, Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles.

17Richards, J. (1998) The 3 "tions"(shuns) of Accessibility-Aware HTML Authoring Tools . Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

18Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

19Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, 5-May-1999. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

20 Harrison, L. (1998) Designing Accessible Curriculum Cour se Content. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

21 Gay, G., Harrison, L., Richards, J. & Treviranus, J. (1999) Courseware Accessibility Study. Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW:

22Harrison, L., Richards, J. & Treviranus, J. (1999) Authoring Tool Support: "The Best Place to Improve the Web". Retrieved July 1999 from the WWW