Software Accessibility, Usability Testing and Individuals with Disabilities

Article excerpt


Electronic and information technology products hold significant promise for all individuals to be better informed, able to communicate with greater numbers of people, and more successful in school and employment. This potential may be even greater for individuals with disabilities, many of whom report that information technology, including the Internet, has had a significant impact on their lives (DO-IT, 2004; Hasselbring & Glaser, 2000; Success Stories, 2002; Taylor, 2000). Advancements in computer technology have opened doors to educational and employment opportunities that were once closed to individuals with disabilities. Most individuals with disabilities who are employed use computers at work and as a group rely on a wide variety of assistive technologies (National Organization on Disability, 2004). However, individuals with disabilities are less than half as likely as their non-disabled counterparts to own a computer, and they are about one-quarter as likely to use the Internet (Kaye, 2000; US Department of Commerce, 2000).

Computer technologies have the potential to provide significant benefits to people with disabilities. Computer users with visual impairments can gain immediate access to content, no longer needing to wait weeks or months for printed information to be translated into Braille or audio recording. They can instantly access newspaper articles, reference materials, program information, product prices and purchasing options, and communication with associates without depending on the assistance of others. Those confined to their homes can shop for necessities, communicate with others, pursue academic degrees, and telecommute to their employment. Speech recognition technologies and other alternative input devices allow those with mobility impairments to bypass the standard keyboard and mouse or pen, to communicate informally or professionally with ease (Brewer, 2001). Yet economic and other factors contribute to putting people with disabilities disproportionately on the wrong side of the digital divide in this country. Additionally, those people with disabilities who do have access to computers and assistive technology still face challenges gaining full access to computing resources because of their inaccessible design (Burgstahler, 2003; Gunderson & Mendelson, 1997; Rowan, Gregor, Sloan, & Booth, 2000; US Department of Commerce, 2000).

Besides the economic issues that help perpetuate a digital divide, design barriers further impede equal access. Although assistive technologies (e.g., text-to-speech software, speech input, alternative keyboards) provide the means for most people with disabilities to access computers, Web pages, applications software, and tutorial programs are often designed in such a way that they erect barriers to individuals with disabilities both for those using assistive technologies and those not using them. For example, individuals who are blind cannot access Web pages and applications software with graphic images, unless the content within these images is also provided in a text-based form for text-to-speech software to read aloud. In addition, some products that include accessibility features do so in such a way that they are cumbersome for individuals with disabilities to locate and use. Additionally, Web sites are not always efficient and easy to use for individuals with disabilities. One study found that Web site usability was three times better for individuals without disabilities when compared to individuals with visual or mobility impairments (Coyne & Nielson, 2001). Many studies have found that most Web sites include inaccessible features (Schmetzke, 2001; Thompson, Burgstahler & Comden, 2003).

Two legal statutes have raised public awareness of accessibility issues in the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public programs and services. …


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