Making the World Wide Web Accessible to All Students

Article excerpt

Two recent events induced me to think about accessibility to the World Wide Web: A student in a Web research and publishing class I was teaching had a vision problem that made viewing material on a computer screen difficult, and I learned that the U.S. government has directed that soon Web pages of government agencies must comply with federal regulations regarding accessibility.

The first problem was solved by increasing the font size in the browser, but what if the student had been totally blind? My instructional Web page containing material used in the class had not been created with visual impairments in mind. How can we make instructional Web pages accessible to all people? Do we not have an obligation, absent government mandates, to make our Web pages accessible?

This exploratory study examined the accessibility of Web sites belonging to 80 colleges of communications and schools of journalism in the United States and Canada by subjecting them to a computer-generated test (the Bobby test) that examines the hypertext markup language (HTML) used to format the pages. This paper suggests ways to revise the markup of pages to make them more accessible to students with vision, hearing, and mobility problems. Additionally, it lists resources for keeping abreast of the latest developments in accessibility standards and tools.

Instruction via the Internet and through Web pages to enhance face-toface classes is becoming more common. Some scholars compare the magnitude of increased dependence on computerbased instruction to the effect created by the introduction of the textbook during the Middle Ages (Gibbons & Fairweather, 1998). However, to blind students, "it's not necessarily good news that more universities are putting course materials online these days. For them, the Web threatens to become the equivalent of a classroom building without an access ramp" (Young, 1998). The National Federation of the Blind (1999) estimates that about 750,000 people in the United States are blind, and each year 50,000 more will become blind.

Institutions are using the Web to market themselves. Increasing numbers of journalism and mass communication faculties are embracing new technology (Sutherland & Stewart, 1999). Many of us are enhancing our courses with Webbased syllabuses and other course materials, and we probably are doing this without considering that some students may have difficulty retrieving this information. The blind, for example, use screen readers and special software to decipher the visual display of a Web page into an aural or Braille version. As more and more audio files are placed on the Web, another group is getting locked out - the hearing-impaired.

A problem arises when Web page creators are not aware of the pitfalls they are throwing in the way of those with impairments. Kirsanov (1997), who provides advice on creating Web pages, said there are "precious few situations" that pose really tough challenges to accessibility. He concluded, "In the great majority of cases, inaccessible Web pages are a result not of the technologies applied, but of their incor rect implementation and lack of proper care" (paragraph three).

It is time to examine how we can make our Web pages more accessible to those with visual problems, hearing problems and motor and cognitive disabilities. Waddell (1998) said, "Unless a Web site is designed in an accessible format, significant populations will be locked out as the World Wide Web rapidly advances from a text-based communication format to a robust, graphical format."

Background

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, (29 U.S.C. 794) prohibits discrimination on the basis of handicap in federally assisted programs and activities. Most activities of state and local governments, because they receive federal funding, are covered by this Act.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law on July 26, 1990, (http://www. …