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October 26, 2000 Web access for the disabled requires extra thought



Photo of Leo Bissonnette reading from his "refreshable" Braille display

Leo Bissonnette reads his e-mail with a “refreshable” (constantly updated) Braille display.

by Anna Bratulic

Whether it be posting course notes on the Internet or putting a video of an entire class lecture online, more and more Concordia professors are using the Web to enhance their teaching techniques. By all accounts, Web-based teaching methods will only increase with the development of more sophisticated and easy-to-use software.

This increasing reliance on Web technology for use in the classroom is raising concerns about accessibility issues for disabled students. “There’s a lot of information that Web designers aren’t thinking about when they design Web pages,” said Leo Bissonnette, Coordinator at Services for Disabled Students.

For example, Bissonnette, who is visually impaired, needs a screen reader to use the Net. He has two types of screen readers in his office.

One is a set of speakers through which a good-quality voice (though still robotic-sounding and rather fast) reads the text on a Web page from top to bottom. Whenever there is a link, it precedes the title of the link with the word “link.” That way, the visually impaired person knows what it is. The other screen reader is a small, flat box on which the on-screen text is converted into Braille.

But in addition to text, Web pages are often splashy and full of graphics. Whenever there’s a graphic, the screen reader merely notes that there is a visual of some kind without going into detail about what it is or what it looks like. Given the extensive graphic content of the Web, there is a lot of information that is not conveyed to someone who may be blind.

Also, the more visually cluttered the page is, the more difficult it is for the screen reader to read.
“If you’ve got an important logo (like the Concordia Stingers’ bumblebee, for example), if you can convey something about it, it makes it more complete,” said Bissonnette, adding that including a little text description of the graphic would allow the screen reader to pick it up and then tell the user.

“If a Web designer would look at international standards, there would be more chances of doing something from the ground up that gives people universal access,” Bissonnette said.
The Bobby Standards is a computer program that allows people to test the accessibility of their Web sites. Doing so would point out to the designer what difficulties might be encountered by the visually, hearing or mobility impaired person as they are browsing their site.

Concordia’s Web site is, to Bissonnette’s surprise, actually quite compliant. When, in an experiment, he tried to apply to the university online, he was able to arrive at the page where the application form had to be filled out, which he was impressed with, because many sites do not make it clear for blind people how to get from one page to the next.

However, he was unable to fill out the application form, because the screen reader could not interpret the fields that had to be filled out (Name, Last Name, Address, etc.) and to communicate that to Bissonnette in a clear way.

In future, Bissonnette wants to work closely with Heather Mackenzie, Assistant Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She is coordinating the Pedagogy Technology Project, which began last year with the help of a $1.25-million grant from the McConnell Foundation.
It’s a three-year pilot project that will study and implement computer-based communication technologies into curriculums. She sees it as promoting a paradigm shift in the way teaching is done. “We’re dissolving the classroom walls in a very definitive way,” she said.

This term there are 10 courses being offered online; that is, all the lectures are video-taped and placed on department Web pages — including Dean Martin Singer’s history course on China and Vice-Rector Marcel Danis’s course, Canadian Public Law.

Andrew McAusland, Director of Academic Technology, produced the online courses (which now total about 700 hours of video since the initiative began two years ago) and acknowledges that there are accessibility issues that need to be addressed. “The video model doesn’t work well with blind students, obviously. But others are well-suited to this because a video can be rewound hundreds of times,” he said.