IDRC - Celebrating 25 Years

1993 - 2018

Continuing Our Work During COVID-19

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

Kevin K. Nguyen
Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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Although, web-based distance education programs address geographical and cost barriers, they usually ignore access barriers to students with special needs (i.e. those with sensory, motor or cognitive disabilities). Distance education programs should ensure that conduits, and not barriers, to information are created. When planning a web-based special education program the following concerns should be considered: how to increase Web access to persons with disabilities by addressing access issues on both the client and the service side; how to optimize the use of innovative web technologies to transmit interesting yet accessible learning materials; how to increase community amongst special education students and teachers.

Web Access and Special Needs

A web-based special education infrastructure holds promise for opening up new windows of opportunity for students with special needs. For example, because web page content usually consists of electronic text, a blind student can use a screen reader to audibly present and navigate the information. The font of most web browsers can also be easily increased for persons with low vision. However, aside from some of the inherently accessible properties of the Web, many barriers can be unnecessarily created on both the client and the 'service' side. The phrase client-service, instead of client-server, is emphasized because providing education is a service, and all services should accommodate persons with disabilities.

On the client side, many types of adaptive technology exist, including alternative mouse systems, alternative keyboards, voice recognition systems, refreshable Braille displays, and screen readers. These systems make it easier for persons with disabilities to access their computer and the Internet [Nguyen and Petty 1997]. There are several World Wide Web browsers available that vary in their accessibility features. Browsers can have keyboard equivalents for hypertext links, frame navigation and built-in alternative display modes. When creating a distance education infrastructure, it is best to create a site that is browser-independent and to avoid the use of proprietary browser features or custom HTML tags. Forcing everyone to adhere to a single type of browser is not optimal for the diversity within the special needs population.

Just as wheelchairs can only function if a flat surface is available, client-side access systems can only work if small provisions on the service side are present and barriers are not erected. Simple, transparent web access provisions include alt-text, text equivalents to image-links, and standardized navigation schemes [Letourneau 1996]. Inaccessible web design can block access to information for someone using adaptive technology [Treviranus and Serflek 1996]. For example information embedded in bitmapped text or images without appropriate alt-text will be missed by people using Braille displays, screen readers and text browsers. Hyperlinks embedded within the bullets of a list (instead of in the list items) may be too small for someone using an alternative pointing device to target, and too indescript for a person using a screen reader to differentiate. Overuse of frames and tables can unnecessarily increase the complexity of the page for persons with and without learning disabilities.

Enriching Access through Innovative Web Technology

Innovative web technologies can now be used to deliver inexpensive, on-demand and interactive teaching materials. Streaming video and audio can be used to increase the richness of information transferred over the Web. Captioned video can be created for those who are deaf. Descriptive audio can be used to provide an unobtrusive narration of video for persons who are blind, and text transcripts of video or audio clips can help anyone using a Braille display. The multi-modal availability of resources can supplant some students needs for adaptive technology. For example, a blind student can simply listen to a live audio stream of a news report instead of having a screen reader speak a transcript of the broadcast.

Real time web based videoconferencing, audio conferencing, collaborative work areas, chat rooms or IRC, messaging boards and email can all be used for creating interactive learning environments. New web technologies are constantly being introduced into the market. However, each technology should be justified in terms of cost, target audience and accessibility before implementing them within a distance education program. Sometimes "less is best". For example, a teacher discussion forum about an article on ADHD can occur either through web-based videoconferencing or email. The former requires tight scheduling as well as a video capture card, a camera, and adequate Internet bandwidth for each participant. Issues involving moderation, time zone discrepancies and access can arise with video conferencing. E-mail discussions however have no special hardware requirements, have few or no access problems and can occur asynchronously. Participants can compose their thoughts and replies with as much time as required. There is evidence that email may even allow deeper and more open communication because of a veil of anonymity [Gold 1997]. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, but both allow interactivity among peers.

Generally, there is a need for enticing, current curriculum for special needs students and teachers. It is essential that curriculum is motivational so that student will want to learn. Proprietary conversions of resources from education-related centres such as, zoos, science centres, museums and art galleries, can be created specifically for special needs students and placed online. Small collaborative projects between such organizations, teachers and distance education administrators can target resources that are lacking in the field. Once a teaching module is created in digital form, it can easily be updated, modified, reused and distributed amongst the special education community.

Community Building for Student and Teacher Support

A successful technology infrastructure cannot be implemented by simply installing computers, software and network connections into the classroom. It is important that teachers know the capacity and limit of the technology. But do teachers have fears that students will know more about the technology than they will? Some teachers may initially oppose the change and feel that they must struggle to stay on top of the technology in order to teach it to their students. However this should not be the case. The technologies are simply tools for augmenting information access and communication. If a quadriplegic student uses a voice recognition system in order to compose his or her writings, the teacher should see the technology as being no more intimidating than paper and pen. If a student is attending a class via videoconferencing, the teacher should not see a "videoconferencing camera and computer system", but view it as a student attending class. The technology should never overshadow the individual, and should eventually become transparent.

Teachers, as well as students, require access to special education resources [Baker and Danley 1996]. The advantage of web-based special education is that the mechanism which allows students to access curriculum also allows teachers to access support resources and to communicate with other colleagues. Providing classrooms with a web-based program can broaden the type and scope of information both special education students and teachers can access. Global resources, expertise and examples of best practices on special education can be easily shared [Paulet 1989].

One of the goals of any web-based distance education infrastructure is to increase learning communities and to expand the regular confines of traditional classrooms. By linking together several special education classrooms with web-based telecommunications and multi-user environments, students and teachers from different schools will be able to share resources, collaborate towards goals and communicate with others who share common interests and concerns [Gold 1996]. For example an autistic child in a rural community who communicates through BLISS symbolics only with her parents and teachers may now be able to reach out and "talk" to other children using BLISS via a web medium.

Personal tutors are sometimes used for children who must stay at home due to medical reasons. One disadvantage to this strategy is that the tutor cannot provide group interaction between fellow peers, something that is important in the social-educational development of a child [Williams et al. 1995]. Interactive windows into the classroom can be opened for isolated students through web-based media and videoconferencing.

Special Needs Opportunity Window (SNOW)

The SNOW Project is a one-year pilot project to create a province-wide distance education web-infrastructure for special education teachers and students aimed at enhancing literacy and numeracy in the primary grades. This work-in-progress hopes to provide an ideal model of web-based distance education that meets the unique requirements of both special education teachers and students. An information resource, community network and videoconferencing system will all be built upon a web infrastructure. Access technology will be placed in several special education classrooms throughout Ontario. Special education courses and workshops for pre-service and in-service teachers will also be available through SNOW. SNOW incorporates and addresses many of the issues discussed in this paper. It is hoped that by bringing these issues to the public, other web-based distance education programs can make accommodations for those with special needs and in doing so adhere to universal design principles. To find out more about SNOW visit or contact the author.


This project was made possible through funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training's Technology Incentive Partnership Program (TIPP96-082). Acknowledgment goes out to all on the SNOW team including Greg Gay, Laurie Harrison, Jim Lam, John Lubert, and Tim Higgins. Special thanks to Jutta Treviranus.


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[Baker and Danley 1996] Baker, C. and Danley, B. (1996). Comparing Computer-Assisted Instruction and Traditional Instruction for Preparing Regular Teachers to Serve Students with Disabilities. Computers in the Schools, 12(4), 31-38.

[Gold 1996] Gold, J. (1996). Enhancing Professional Development in Special Education Through the Web. Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, Oct 1996. (

[Gold 1997] Gold, J. (1997). Does CMC Present Individuals with Disabilities Opportunities or Barriers? Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, Jan 1997. (

[Letourneau 1996] Letourneau, C. (1996) Accessible Web Page Design. Starling Access Services. (

[Nguyen and Petty 1997] Nguyen, K. and Petty, L. (1996). Web Browsing through Adaptive Technology: An Information Resource for Consumers. The Sixth International World Wide Web Conference, 1997, International World Wide Web Conference Committee, Santa Clara, CA. CD-ROM Proceedings.

[Paulet 1989] Paulet, R. (1989). Assessing a Rural Special Education Programme. Educational Research, 31(2), 125-33.

[Treviranus and Serflek 1996] Treviranus, J., Serflek, C. (1996). Alternative Access to the World Wide Web. Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto. 

[Williams, Fels, Treviranus, Smith, Spargo and Eagleson 1995] Williams, L., Fels, D., Treviranus, J., Smith, G., Spargo, D. and Eagleson, R. (1996). Control of a remote communication system by children. CybErg 1996, Curtin University, Perth Australia.