Accessible It: Lessons Learned from Three Universities

By Burgstahler, Sheryl; Anderson, Alice et al. | Information Technology and Disabilities, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Accessible It: Lessons Learned from Three Universities

Burgstahler, Sheryl, Anderson, Alice, Slatin, John, Lewis, Kay, Information Technology and Disabilities


Technology has the potential to maximize personal productivity, access to information, and collaboration among students, faculty, and staff at postsecondary institutions. It is unlikely that schools intentionally exclude specific groups from the opportunities technology provides. Nevertheless, when campuses use IT that is not designed to be accessible to people with disabilities, some of these individuals encounter barriers to education and employment. In contrast, when colleges and universities design and employ websites, application software, and other IT that are accessible to all students and employees, they lead the way toward leveling the playing field and supporting full engagement in academic and career activities.

It has been estimated that more than 6% of all college and university students in the United States report having a disability (Henderson, 2001). Their level of enrollment is increasing as more inclusive pre-college programs, AT, and legislative mandates offer greater opportunities for people with disabilities to prepare for and succeed in college studies (Henderson, 2001; National Council on Disability, 2000). In light of this trend, as well as increased use of IT by all members of the campus community, IT access for students with disabilities is particularly important. In short, to ensure these students have equal educational opportunities, colleges and universities need to (1) make assistive technology available to students, faculty, and staff with disabilities and (2) develop, procure, and use accessible IT. The authors of this article summarize key issues of these two factors, discuss related efforts made by three universities, and share lessons learned that could be applied at other universities.


The availability of a wide range of assistive technology (AT) makes it possible for an individual with almost any type of disability to operate a computer and telecommunication equipment (Closing the Gap, 2007). Alternative keyboards, text-to-speech software, screen magnification, word-prediction software, grammar and spelling checkers, and other AT all play roles in giving people with disabilities access to IT that enhances their academic and career opportunities. However, AT solves only a portion of the IT access problem. Other issues concern the design of mainstream IT. For example, individuals who are blind often use text-to-speech systems that read aloud what appears on computer screens. However, these speech output systems only provide access to content presented in text format. Therefore, webmasters need to provide alternative ways to access content presented in non-text form (e.g., images, frames), so they do not erect information barriers to people who are blind.

Accessible design of IT is the electronic equivalent to curb cuts. Although curb cuts were created to assist people using wheelchairs, they also aid people pushing baby strollers and delivery carts--many users benefit from accessible design. For IT, accessible design means that the full spectrum of user abilities is considered at the design stage, and, as a result, products are accessible to all individuals, including those using a range of mainstream computing devices and AT. For example, captions on video clips benefit a student for whom English is a second language, a faculty member who is deaf, a person who wants to search for specific content in the clip, and a student working late at night while other members of the household are sleeping. Similarly, a student who cannot access graphics because of a slow Internet connection benefits from text alternatives to graphic images that are also used by individuals who are blind. In addition, providing content in multiple formats addresses the needs of students with various learning disabilities and styles. …

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