The push by colleges and universities to enhance courses and campus communication with Internet Web sites has unfolded largely in the past few years with little attention being paid to making the technology accessible to students with disabilities.
Last summer, federally enforceable regulations took effect mandating that all "EIT" (electronic and information technology) developed by federal agencies and federally affiliated institutions and organizations be accessible to persons with disabilities. Virtually all of the nation's colleges and universities fall under the domain of the new standards contained in the Section 508 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, according to a consensus of higher education experts.
Enacted as part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, the Section 508 amendments prescribe new standards for six areas of technology:
* Software applications and operating systems
* Web-based information or applications
* Telecommunication products
* Video or multimedia products
* Information appliances, such as fax machines and kiosks
* Desktop and portable computers
While colleges and universities have traditionally focused on making hardware, such as computers with voice recognition technology and other special devices, available to disabled students, institutions have had less experience with designing and deploying Web sites that can be interpreted for the disabled by special information devices.
The looming challenge for colleges and universities is to upgrade campus Web sites and course management software systems to make them readable by devices that disabled students can use. For example, a Web site accessible to a blind student has to be designed so that a device known as a screen reader can read and describe aloud the text and visual images present on a Web page.
David P. Bobzien Jr., the campus webmaster at the University of Nevada in Reno, says the legacy of highly decentralized Web publishing in higher education represents a major obstacle for schools attempting to make their Web sites accessible to the disabled. Starting in the mid-1990s, schools typically developed campus Web sites by allowing individual faculty members and departments to construct their individual Web pages with little central oversight, virtually no standardization and varying Web software platforms, according to Bobzien.
"This is a legacy representative of the grass-roots, democratic approach of how the (entire) Internet was developed, but in universities this pattern (collides) with the need to have a centralized and standard approach for making Web sites accessible for the disabled," Bobzien says. …