Accessible Web Pages: Advice for Educators

The Internet has become an integral part of the educational process. Online research, Web-enhanced courses, and textbook-companion Web sites are just a few of the areas in which teachers and students have seen the benefits of using this technology.

While educators have embraced the responsibility of providing equal access to educational resources to all students, Internet technology presents new challenges in this area. Students who have vision or hearing problems, who have difficulties with motor control, or who face other challenges, such as learning disabilities or language barriers, may find the Web difficult or impossible to explore. Educators who use the Internet in their instruction or who create their own Web pages need to be aware of the laws governing universal access to technology. Once familiar with these guidelines, teachers need the skills that will enable them to ascertain whether or not the Web pages they use are accessible. They also need to be able to make certain the Web pages they create meet the same criteria.

Rules and Guidelines
Section 255 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires that telecommunication services and products are accessible. Section 508, the 1998 amendment of the Rehabilitation Act, (www.section508.gov/) requires that federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to all people, including those with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, designed to protect the rights of citizens with disabilities, included a provision for access to telecommunications. An independent federal agency, the Access Board (www.access-board.gov/), was created to oversee and ensure accessibility and a set of guidelines was developed to assist with compliance. Although these laws specifically address the responsibilities of federal agencies, educators need to consider the responsibility that they have to educate all students and make every effort to provide technology that is accessible.

Gaining Insight
An important first step for educators is to gain some insight into the ways that people with different challenges experience the Internet. WebAIM (www.Webaim.org), an organization devoted to "expanding the Web's potential for people with disabilities," has a number of excellent resources. An online video explaining some of the pertinent issues can be seen at www.Webaim.org/info/asdvideo/. What's more, simulation tools are available that allow a user to experience the Web just as users with vision problems, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, or cataracts (www.Webaim.org/simulations/lowvision). Another has a screen-reader tool designed for individuals with little or no vision (www.Webaim.org/simulations/screenreader). A link is provided to yet another tool (www.vischeck.com/vischeck/vischeckURL.php) that simulates the effects of color blindness. The frustration users experience using the Web under these conditions are an excellent motivating force for designing Web pages with accessibility in mind.

Determining Compliance
A number of online tools are available that help the user determine the level of accessibility for existing Web pages. One such tool, called Bobby, allows users to test single Web pages online for compliance with either the Section 508 guidelines or the guidelines established by the Web Accessibility Initiative (www.w3.org/wai/). This tool can be helpful for educators who are using Internet sites in their curriculum and want to determine the level of compliance. To test a Web page using Bobby, go to http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp, enter the URL of the Web page, choose the type of guidelines, and click the submit button. A report will be produced that rates the level of compliance and details the problems and possible issues with the page. A downloadable version of Bobby can be purchased that permits the testing of entire Web sites.

Most solutions necessitate some familiarity with and access to the HTML code. Many teachers who create classroom Web pages do so with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) tools that do not display the code. Fortunately, there are some good tutorials available online that can assist Web developers. One such site is provided by WebAIM and is found at www.Webaim.org/howto/. Tutorials are available on a wide range of topics and software products, including Microsoft FrontPage and the Macromedia products Dreamweaver and Flash. Other tutorials cover captioning, keyboard accessibility, PDF files, PowerPoint, and JavaScript. Another useful tool is the Bobby compliance report, which provides samples of correct HTML syntax for any areas that are determined to be problematic.

Placing conformance logos on your Web page is also a good way to raise awareness of accessibility issues and encourage other educators to comply with the guidelines. Pages that pass the Bobby compliance test are entitled to display the appropriate Bobby logo. If the report states "Bobby Approved," a link is provided to an icon guidelines page that contains downloadable icons and HTML code that can be used to display those icons. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) permits the use of its logos on Web pages provided the creators of those pages verify compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG1-Conformance). The content providers are responsible for determining their pages comply with the guidelines.

As educators, we need to be dedicated to providing the best experiences we can for all of our students. When it comes to technology, a strong commitment to accessibility must be our goal. The tools and assistance we need are readily available. The rest is up to us.

Resources

Bonham, P. (2001). Section 508 Web accessibility checklist for HTML. Retrieved August 10, 2002 from WebAIM Web site: www.Webaim.org/standards/508/checklist.

Robertson, J.S. (2002, July/August). Making online information accessible to students with disabilities. The Technology Source, Article 948. Retrieved September 16, 2002 from http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=948.

"Universal Design and Disability Access to the Web." (2002, Summer). Access New England, 6(3), 1, 12-14.

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