The passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 has had a major impact on the physical infrastructure of college campuses in the US. Less well-known is the growing ADA impact on educational applications of technology, particularly in the use of the Web. Parallel to the beginnings of ADA-inspired awareness of this issue has come the approval by the Federal Office of Management and Budget on December 21, 2000, of Section 508 (of the Rehabilitation Act) accessibility standards. Government agencies will have six months from this date to make their Web sites accessible to users with disabilities. After that date, federal agencies -- and presumably non-compliant institutions receiving federal funds -- will be subject to law suits. Many regions in the US have instituted accessibility guidelines as well.
This is not just a US issue; there are a number of countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, and Japan, which have recently issued policies relating to Web accessibility. But legality aside, it makes good sense to make instructional technology as accessible as possible. There are emerging standards for achieving this goal. Interestingly, new Web delivery options can benefit from following the same guidelines.
Why should language teachers be concerned with accessibility? Can't the small number of users with special needs be accommodated individually? In response, one could ask, why worry about the limited number of Internet users who don't know English? Just as we should be concerned with monolingualism on the Web and the social-economic "digital divide," so too should we be concerned about problematic access to learning materials on the part of even a small numbers of students. In fact, the number is probably larger than one might assume. In the US there are different estimates on the number of students with disabilities -- one recent analysis gives a count of 8%. Using the classroom retrofitting analogy, it's not a question of building new, separate classrooms, but of changing classroom configurations to accommodate all users. It turns out that the mainstreaming approach ends up benefiting all users.
The Web Accessibility Initiative
What makes Web pages inaccessible? That all depends on the nature of the disability. Visually impaired users might need a much larger font, or a sharp contrast between background and foreground color. Color-blind users need to have color-transmitted information translated into distinguishable shades of gray or delineated in some other way. Blind users may be accessing Web pages using a screen reader, which uses speech synthesis to read the pages and may be confused by improperly coded pages. Physically impaired users might have difficulty in typing key combinations. Other users might need to navigate with a non-traditional input device.
The W3C, the standards-setting body for the World Wide Web, has addressed these issues through its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which issued a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (version 1.0) in May, 1999. They were followed in 2000 by WAI guidelines for user agents and authoring tools. The WAI Content Guidelines include a list of checkpoints for evaluating Web pages for their degree of accessibility to people with physical, visual, hearing and cognitive/neurological disabilities. Each checkpoint is assigned one of three priority levels. Priority One are checkpoints which must be met to prevent lack of access for some groups of users. Compliance to Priority One checkpoints is known as "Single-A" conformance. Priority Two ("Double-A" conformance) are checkpoints which should be met to prevent difficulties in access for some users, and Priority Three ("Triple-A" conformance) are checkpoints which authors may satisfy to ensure good access for all users. The fact that there are three ordered levels of conformance allows Web site developers to focus first on eliminating the most serious barriers to accessibility. …