IDRC - Celebrating 25 Years

1993 - 2018

Continuing Our Work During COVID-19

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

Access to Web-based Learning

Laurie Harrison
University of Toronto
Adaptive Technology Resource Centre

This presentation summary contains information about the following six topics:


  • The transformative power of computers makes information and education available for the first time to many people with disabilities
  • Improved accessibility means improved usability for everyone

Varied Contexts

  • Not be able to see, hear, move
  • Difficulty reading
  • Not using a keyboard or mouse.
  • Text-only screen, a small screen, or a slow Internet connection.
  • Second language
  • Eyes, ears, or hands are busy
  • Older or different browser

Identifying Barriers

  • A picture is worth a thousand words...
  • Those archaic devices - the mouse and keyboard
  • I hear where you\'re coming from (sort of)...
  • When the technological tail wags the pedagogical dog

Adaptive Technology...

  • Screen readers
  • Screen magnification
  • Alternative keyboards
  • Alternative mouse and onscreen keyboard
  • Voice recognition

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One Example: Screen Readers

  • Software allows a voice synthesizer to read text from computer screen
  • Relies on keyboard access
  • Can tab through links, use menus for other functions

Possible Access Barriers

  • Improperly used frames
  • Uninformative navigation system
  • Graphics containing critical information
  • Tables cells that contain "wrapped text"

Some General Principles:

  • Facilitate alternative rendering of auditory and visual content.
  • The web is an information medium, not a visual medium
  • Do not assume all users have the same preferences for access
  • Consistency and simplicity

Alternative Text

  • Provide alternate text descriptions (ALT-Text) for all graphics and provide text link equivalents for buttons and image maps

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Optimize Readability

  • Avoid use of background patterns
  • Background colour should contrast well with the lettering
  • Avoid moving, animated elements

Optimize Navigation

  • Include outlines at the beginning of long documents
  • Label and structure lists carefully
  • Avoid using "click here" as link text


  • Use frames sparingly and include TITLE and NOFRAMES attributes
  • TITLE provides a navigation aid
  • NOFRAMES provides an alternative
Example - Incorrect use of FRAMES


  • Avoid use of table cells for layout of wrapping text unless a linearized version is available
  • Review effective table layout strategies
  • Use CSS where possible


  • For multimedia or other dynamic components, provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported (AKA Plan B)

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Web based learning on the rise...

  • dramatically increasing number of Web-based courses
  • spurred a growing industry of "courseware" tools to assist educators
  • courseware also used to complement traditional lecture-based programs


  • WebCT, TopClass, CourseInfo, Virtual-U, Lotus Learning Space, Web Course in a Box
  • framework for curriculum, utilities and class management tasks
  • assembles HTML pages created by instructor - into an organized framework
Problem #1:
  • instructor may post web pages authored outside of the courseware package, unaware of potential barriers to access


  • step-by-step guides create components - course home page, bulletin boards, quizzes
Problem #2:
  • automation of utilities is efficient for course designers, but reduces control of final formatting of the HTML pages generated by the courseware product itself


  • courseware platforms could easily facilitate access to education for students with disabilities
  • ironically, very few have included basic accessibility considerations outlined in the WAI guidelines

Product Evaluation

  • in 1999, ATRC published an evaluation of six leading courseware products
  • reviewed student user interface
  • accessibility and functionality need to be considered

Strengths... some products

  • include text links
  • include ALT text
  • provide ability to turn frames off
  • have potential "work arounds" to improve accessibility

Weaknesses... some products

  • missing ALT text on icons
  • tables to format layout of text
  • complex drop-down menus
  • framed navigation system
  • complex bulletin board system
  • java-based tools


  • results indicated at that time that none of the products tested were satisfactory
  • need to advocate!


  • Courseware developers are now scrambling to improve accessibility
  • Rehab Act compliance, ADA pressure
  • New versions released since review showing improvements:
  • Lotus Learning Space
  • WebCT
  • CourseInfo

"Inclusion in an Electronic Classroom"

  • ATRC is now undertaking an expanded courseware accessibility review
  • Most recent versions
  • Including user testing
  • Results - Fall of 2000

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Best Practice #1

  • If possible use templates to encourage correct use of HTML structures
  • then validate HTML files and check for accessibility before adding to the course content

Best Practice #2

  • buttons and image maps can be made accessible by adding text link equivalents
  • may be added as page footer
  • may be added by "workaround"

Best Practice #3

  • avoid reliance on frames
  • look for optional use of frames when choosing courseware package
  • or provide a fallback / alternative

Best Practice #4

  • provide a site map linked near top of home page
  • may be automatically generated, or constructed by author

Best Practice #5

  • build alternative communication tools:
  • if tools such as bulletin boards or chat utilities are not accessible construct tools external to the course software until such time as the courseware developer is able to provide them.

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  • Word processed documents may be "converted" to HTML.
  • While the software marketing promotions make it all sound easy, be aware of possible creation of barriers to access.

    Conversion Demonstration

    • Open word document
    • File : Save as HTML
    • Close and re-open in Browser
    Potential Barriers to Access:
    • No ALT
    • Hyperlinks are not linked
    • Incorrect TITLE

    Dreamweaver 3.0 "Clean-up..."

    • Dreamweaver 3.0 HTML editor includes a function to:
    • "Clean up HTML"
    • "Clean up Word HTML"

    Alternatives to Word Conversion

    • Instructors submit MSWord documents, which are copy/pasted into HTML documents by a web author
    • Instructors are trained to fill in HTML templates that are provided to them as guidelines

    What about PDF files?

    • Graphics and complex layouts can be problematic
    • Navigability depends on how it was created
    • conversions?
    • Acrobat Access plug-in?

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  • Automated validation is available using the following tools:
    1. HTML 4 Validator from W3C
      - checks HTML documents for compliance with W3C HTML recommendations and other HTML standards.
    2. BOBBY Online Validation (CAST)
      - Bobby is a web-based public service offered by CAST that analyzes web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities as well as their compatibility with various browsers. The analysis of accessibility is based on the W3C\'s WAI Page Author Guidelines.
    3. A-Prompt Toolkit.
      - developed to assist Web authors in improving HTML documents by checking Web pages for barriers to accessibility and making repairs
      - Beta version can be downloaded free of charge and used to validate and repair your Web pages according to WAI guidelines.

    Integrating Automation

  • The toolkit will be produced as a integrated module that can be used by developers of conventional authoring (courseware) tools.
  • A-Prompt also includes tools to fix a wide array of other HTML accessibility problems:
  • Blinking text
  • Improper header structures
  • A summary indicates the conformance level of the markup to the WAI Web Content Guidelines.

    The Accessibility Challenge

    "Accessibility is the challenge that will finally push the Web to become the ubiquitous tool for interactive knowledge sharing it was meant to be. Creating an environment which is welcoming to billions of users with widely varying motivations, capabilities and needs is not a fringe goal but the critical goal. Inclusive design will not hamper the speed of web development, instead it will stretch the envelope and guide the rapid growth of a truly useful World Wide Web."
    Quote at WWW7, Jutta Treviranus

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