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Are disabled students set to lose out?

The Internet is the fastest growing communications medium ever. 50% of UK businesses currently use the Internet, the UK government has a target of putting 100% of it's services online by 2005, a remarkable 8 out of 10 11-16s are regularly Internet users. These are just some of the statistics that illustrate the move towards a new 'digital economy' in the UK. This growth has been reflected in the rapid expansion of Internet use within education.

If one role of education is to prepare young people to compete in the workplace and take their place as full and active UK citizens - and I am assuming that most people would agree that this is the case - then It follows that equal access to the Internet in our schools, colleges and universities is of paramount importance.

I am not alone in making this assumption - it seems in fact there is nothing to argue about. While promoting the governments UKOnline Web site launched at the end of last year Tony Blair wrote about the need to ensure 'internet training and access for all' and the commitment to to 'make sure that everyone has the chance to benefit from the new opportunities and the wealth of informaiton online'.

The National Grid for Learning, implemented by the Government in late 1998, aims to ensure that all school age students have access to the Internet and leave school IT-literate. The British Educational Communications and Training Agency (Becta) play a key role in co-ordinating the NGfL. In 1999 Becta noted that 62% of primary schools and 93 % of secondary schools had Internet access and that 67 % of teachers were confident in using ICT within the curriculum. There has been a similar expansion in use of the Internet within FE and HE and ICT skills are now recognised as part of the key core curriculum for all students.

Physical access to computers, robust Internet connections, quality training for both students and teachers/lecturers are all basic requirements that will help us all to take advantage of the new opportunities that the Internet offers. Assuming that these basic building blocks are put in place - is there anything else we need to do to ensure equal access to the internet within higher education in the UK?

In this short article I will argue that there is one important factor that we have failed to address. I will argue that even if every student in the UK had physical access to the Internet (and there was no digital divide due to economic factors) we would still have a mountain to climb to ensure equal opportunity for all. Why? Because large chunks of theWebWorld Wide Web - the 'killer application' of the Internet - remain inaccessible to many within our schools/college/university population including students with physical and/or sensory impairments. It has been estimated that as many as 3 out of 4 Web sites are inaccessible to disabled people. Disabled students are set to lose out in a big way if we do not start to recognise and tackle this problem now.

I intend to throw some light on problems and disadvantages encountered when disabled students use the Internet. Attempt to explain a little about what is meant by inaccessible Web sites, look at how the Internet is currently being used within education and pin down some of the reasons that make the Web inaccessible for people with particular impairments. I will discuss why this is an important issue, and finally make some suggestions about how we can start down the road to addressing the problems.

What are inaccessible Web sites?

Inaccessible Web sites are a general problem that affects all users. I am forever coming across Web sites that take an age to download, use technologies that I don't have installed on my machine, or have obviously been designed for someone with a huge computer screen. On many occasions I am forced to scroll backwards and forwards just to read the text on the page. Other Web sites are just badly designed and I can't find the information I am after or I can't read the text because it is too small.

Everyone to a greater or lesser degree has to put up with these problems - but the problems of lack of access are more acute for many disabled people. People, who are blind or visually impaired, those who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, people with cognitive disabilities or those with motor impairments have additional access problems that go beyond being a mere nuisance. For many disabled people it is not just difficult but impossible to access the information contained within a Web site because of the way the sites are designed.

Although it is wrong to assume that inaccessible Web sites only affect people who are blind or have a visual impairment it is fairly simple to understand why the Web can be inaccessible to this particular group. Many blind or visually impaired surfers access the Web using software that reads the Web page out to them using a computer generated voice - and that is fine for Web pages that are made up mainly of text. The problems start when there are graphics on pages - but no labels attached to those graphics explaining their purpose.

For example, many Web sites use buttons and graphic navigation bars to help visitors find their way around the site. As far as screen reading software is concerned these buttons and navigation bars are invisible - no software, however smart, can read a picture. Without equivalent text labels for graphic buttons there is no way a blind person to move from one page to another. A site designed without considering the needs of all visitors is not just annoying but for many people also useless.

Ann Hamilton, who runs the Visual Impairment Unit in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, illustrates some of the problems a blind person can have when trying to browse for information on the Web using a speech enabled device:

'Good,' you think, 'I'll follow the link to tell me more about these books or frozen veg ... Oh, where's this link then? All I hear is graphic 955 or blank. Never mind, I'll find out if there is anything accessible further down the page.' No such luck. There are more frames followed by more unintelligible graphics. Persevering for between 10 to 30 minutes, the air fills with expletives! It's time to give up - and take my business elsewhere. (http://www.worldwoman.net/MediaWoman/mwebsites37200113147.html)

For people, who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, the problems occur when a Web site uses video or audio to convey information that is important to the site - but does not include captions or a transcript of the audio.

For those with cognitive or learning impairments sites that do not have simple language or have complicated and inconsistent navigation systems can be inaccessible.

For people who have a motor impairment and need to interact with the computer using something other than a mouse Web sites that do not accommodate the need for alternative input devices such as a keyboard are inaccessible.

How is the Web being used in our schools, colleges and universities today?

Having accessed the Web almost daily since 1995 I have noted the steady developments of Web use by forward looking individuals within universities: from individual and departmental home pages, to University Web sites, to lecture notes posted on the Web and now to entire courses being taught online. It is indicative of the current state of play that I have just completed - as a student - a 20 week course, conducted entirely online. Ironically the course was designed to teach me how to put together online courses.

Even a cursory glance review of how the Web is being used would throw up the following uses:

As we can see from the list above the Internet is already assuming an important role in education. Certainly in further education, which is where my experience comes from, we are clearly at the start of the evolutionary process (or is it revolutionary) in the area of online teaching and learning. There is an almost tangible anxiety from those at every level within education to be seen to be pushing ahead with online programmes. A new market is developing for online 'managed learning environments' and developers are responding to this demand.

I am convinced that there is a lot to be gained by embracing the Web - particularly for disabled people. For disabled students with appropriate access technology the Web can provide access to a vast range of information relevant to their studies. But we need to take the time to stop and think about whether the online materials developed and the delivery methods used will be accessible to all students.

It is difficult to determine just how many disabled people are affected by inaccessible Web sites, not all are having access problems. We do know that disabled people are already at a disadvantage and Web sites that are inaccessible are unlikely to improve this situation. In the UK there are an estimated 610,000 disabled children aged 15 and under and 632,000 16-24 year olds with a disability. Currently disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications. In the report RNIB Technology in Learning and Employment the Royal National Institute for the Blind Lesley Waddell notes:

As technology developments storm ahead, web page design becomes increasingly more complicated and may result in inaccessibility for the user with a visual impairment. This has become apparent as I have visited schools across the country. Many schools have access to the Internet for sighted students but on the whole, learners with a visual impairment, still spend copious amounts of time wading through large print and braille in an attempt to access the same information.

The situation in America

We can look to America - where adoption of Internet and Web based technologies has traditionally been ahead of the UK - and take note of how the situation is developing there. Despite being in many ways a more forward thinking people in the area of disability access than the UK - lack of access to the Web for disabled students is apparent and is being recognised as an issue. Cyndi Rowland in her white paper, 'Accessibility of the Internet in Post Secondary Education: Meeting the Challenge' written at the request of Dr Deanie French, Chair of the Universal Accessibility Symposium 2000 writes:

The Web is a fundamental tool in post-secondary education. Students who cannot access the Web are limited in their ability to gather basic course information, conduct research, participate in assignments, and participate in the social community of others.

It appears to be the case that many disabled student cannot access the Web - and are therefore already missing out. Cyndi Rowland refers to several studies that illustrate the sorry state of accessibility as it relates to post secondary education web sites, concluding:

In summary, general post secondary investigations indicate that BOBBY would approve about one in four Web sites. To the extent that BOBBY is a good predictor of access, these findings are horrendous

BOBBY is an online tool that can be used to test the accessibility of a Web page. Web pages are tested against the Web Accessibility Guidelines developed by the World Wide Consortium (http://www.w3c.org).

Although I have not carried out any formal studies in UK I have worked in the area of Web accessibility for the last five years and would confidently predict that the situation in the UK would certainly no better than it is in America. Writing in an Evaluation Report of the RNIB Pilot Internet Project April 2000 - a project that aimed to link pupils with visual impairments via the Internet Lesley Waddell wrote,

One general difficulty experienced by students was the frustration of not being able to access poorly designed websites.

As Cyndie Rowland rightly says, 'the future will include the internet' - and those students not able to practice their Web skills, while in the education system will be caught in a 'tail-chasing phenomenon'; in most need of practice but unable to get that practice due to limited access. Disabled students in America are not receiving an educational experience that is equivalent to their non-disabled peers. Ultimately this puts them at a disadvantage once they move from education into the competitive work environment.

Again there is no reason to think it will be any different here. Disabled students are currently being put at a disadvantage. With so much development in the area of online learning happening today, this is the time to start to do something about it. The future cost of trying to fix the mistakes we are making today is likely to be very high.

The Legislation

Not only is creating accessible Web sites the right thing to do, but it can now be strongly argued that there is a legal obligation to ensure that all information published on the Web in schools, colleges and universities needs to be accessible. The Special Education Needs and Disability Rights in Education Bill made law in May 2001 plugs the hole left by the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) - previously education was excluded from the 1995 act.

The new bill is intended to ensure that disabled students have the right to mainstream education and that councils, schools, colleges, and universities ensure that disabled students are not put at a 'substantial disadvantage'. At a time where more and more course material is being published online - it does not stretch the imagination too much to see that students who are unable to access this information are clearly being put in an unfavourable position when compared with their peers.

It is no longer acceptable in the UK to discriminate against disabled students in the provision of training or education. If online course materials cannot be used as effectively by disabled students as their non-disabled peers this may be viewed as a form of discrimination - and could therefore be open to challenge.

In other countries including USA and Australia legislation has been used by disabled people who have been unable to access Web sites. The most notable case involved Bruce Maguire (who is blind and uses braille technology to access the Web) who took the Olympic Organising Committee to court because he could not access the Olympic Web site - and he won his case. Such cases have received high profile media attention and have served to change attitudes, raise awareness and help the move towards 'fixing' Web sites to ensure accessibility.

In America a new law has come into effect (June 14th 2001) requiring Federal agencies' to ensure that all electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public. The so-called Section 508 (it is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act) is having a real impact in the attitude businesses and public bodies have to the question of access on the Web. In a recent article headed up 'Web site accessibility goes mainstream' Carolyn Duffy Marsan writes 'federal agencies, IT vendors and government contractors are scrambling to comply with the stringent new rules'

In the UK The Disability Rights Commission has been charged with producing a code of practice by 2002 to accompany the new legislation. I have no doubt that very soon afterwards the boundaries of the new UK Act will be tested. When that time comes and precedents have been set the costs of 'fixing' existing Web provision will be extremely high; the cost of fixing the Olympic Web site by IBM was estimated at $2million.

Although I think that the figure quoted by IBM was perhaps a bit on the high side, there can be no doubt that it is far cheaper to build accessible Web sites in the first place than to try to fix the problems later.

What needs to be done?

I may be wrong but it seems to me that Internet adoption in education has not been a well planned and tightly managed process. It has developed in a 'piece meal' fashion as interested individuals have discovered the Web and tried to harness it's potential.

No standard tools are being used to build Web sites, no minimum HTML standards are being applied, no minimum training provision decreed. Some Web sites and Internet resources will be accessible, most as noted earlier will not.

I have no desire to stifle the innovation that has no doubt resulted from this ad hoc development - and I am not suggesting that schools, colleges and Universities should now centralise their internet development in the hands of 'IT experts' (not a good idea). No what I suggest as a first step is simple: the provision of training for all those who are using the Web in an education environment. The aims of that training should be:

The above suggestion will not solve the problem of unequal access to the Web for many disabled students - because there is the question of extra resources and the provision of customised support needed for individual students with specific impairments. However, it will ensure that when resources and the necessary supports are in place then there will be a commitment to ensuring that disabled students will not be substantially disadvantaged when trying to access the Internet. This is an essential first step on the ladder.

The development of a commitment to change is the first step, the second is to actually carry out the work that is required to ensure accessible Web sites and accessible online resources. Each academic institution should develop a plan to make sure existing online provision (and future provision) is made accessible.

A plan could include the following:

I would also suggest that projects should be funded to develop expertise in the development and provision of accessible information on the Web - to act as resource centres for the academic community. Web authors should know where to turn for answers when problems occur as they attempt to take on the job of moving towards a more accessible Web.

The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities predicted in Spring 2000 that:

"Institutions will need to examine technology provision in a number of areas including all electronic curriculum materials; all learning and teaching tools provided electronically; computing and intranet provision for students; the library; information technology support services; and institutions' Web sites". (http://www.e-accessibility.com/apr20002.html)

The journey ahead is not an easy one, more resources, more training and commitment will be needed. For many working in the education sector the New Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill will be seen as another cost, another burden to bear when resources are scarce. However, as a society we cannot continue to waste a percentage of our young talent. A positive approach is required to ensure that the skills to thrive in the digital age are being acquired by everyone in the UK's schools, colleges and universities in the UK today.

Jim Byrne, Director, The Making Connections Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University.
Tel: 0141 331 3893


Male Web Wizards make Fortress Websites:
The World Wide Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative http://www.w3.org/WAI/
The Disability Rights Commission http://www.drc-gb.org/drc/default.asp
Daily Express feature http://getting.ukonline.gov.uk/news/express_supplement.pdf
Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) http://www.rnib.org.uk/
The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities article http://www.e-accessibility.com/apr20002.html
Making Connections Unit: http://www.mcu.org.uk/

Copyright © 2002, 2003, by Jim Byrne, http://www.mcu.com all rights reserved.

Contributed by Jim Byrne
Updated Thursday 20 Jan 2005

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