A new database of educational software will help school leaders determine how accessible their software is for students with disabilities—but its developers say they haven’t found any software so far that meets the federal government’s standards for accessibility.

“We have 280 software titles in our preview center, and we haven’t found one that is successful yet,” said Patricia Hendricks, technology coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium (MAR*TEC). Hendricks helped create MAR*TEC’s Accessibility Survey for Educational Software.

Betsy Zaborowski, director of special programs at the National Federation of the Blind and who is blind, demonstrates a note taking technology to participants of the The survey allows educators to see if their software meets the standards defined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. This federal law, known simply as “Section 508,” requires federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to federal employees with disabilities. The law also requires that federal agencies provide all members of the public with comparable access to government information.

Blind and visually impaired persons describe Section 508 as landmark legislation that has greatly improved and equalized their access to public information. But the results of MAR*TEC’s survey suggest that educational software publishers have a long way to go before their products offer the same easy accessibility.

Following the federal government’s lead, Maryland recently passed a law similar to Section 508 that will take effect Jan. 1. In January, state agencies and school districts must consider purchasing technology that is usable by people with disabilities and must draft their requests for proposals accordingly.

In light of Maryland’s new requirement, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the Maryland Technology Assistance Program held a conference in Baltimore Sept. 10, called “Education and Information Technology Access,” on how to make technology and the internet more accessible to blind students, parents, and other education stakeholders.

At the conference, Hendricks debuted MAR*TEC’s Accessibility Survey, which is designed to help Maryland educators comply with the law. “Educational software is beneficial to most students, but is there a wide range of accessible software? No, there really isn’t,” she said.

Supporters of the law hope it will encourage technology companies to make their products comply with Section 508 standards for accessibility by including these requirements in state agencies’ and school districts’ requests for proposals.

For its database of software titles, MAR*TEC does the initial review, but educators from the field are encouraged to submit their own opinions, too. Any software program not yet listed in the database can be added, Hendricks said. The site also will provide a tutorial for teachers about the various disabilities addressed.

To help web sites become more accessible to people with disabilities, the NFB announced that it is starting a “Web Accessibility Certification” program that web developers can use to determine if their sites meet Section 508 standards.

Computer technologies, such as software and the internet, are no problem for most blind or visually impaired people, providing these technologies are designed with accessibility in mind, said Curtis Chong, NFB’s director of technology.

Chong, who is blind, showed conference attendees how he uses his computer and the internet. He also shared some tips that web site developers can use to ensure their web sites are accessible to the blind.

For non-visual computer users, the mouse and monitor are pointless. Instead, the keyboard and text-reading software—such as JAWS (by Henter Joyce, a division of Freedom Scientific) or Window-Eyes (by GW Micro Inc.)—are essential.

Instead of viewing internet content, the blind read the internet with their text-reading software link by link, graphic by graphic.

“What the blind want is text. Text is what our technology looks for,” Chong said. Educators can increase the accessibility of their schools’ web sites by providing text labels that are meaningful to visitors for all links, graphics, frames, and other components that appear on the site.

For example, if a link simply says “Click here,” it doesn’t provide as much information to a blind person as “Read the President’s speech here.” Also, giving informative labels to images or graphics is more helpful then giving them generic names, like “0007.bmp,” that only make sense to the web site developer.

“Frames ought to be labeled for function rather than position,” Chong added. Frames labeled “header,” “menu,” and “content” mean more than frames labeled “right,” “left,” and “bottom.”

It’s also important to limit the number of links on a web page, or at least to organize them in a suitable fashion, Chong said. When visually disabled persons access a web page, their text reader begins at the top and starts reading the links, graphics, and other details out loud, one by one. When they find something they are interested in, they simply push “enter” to select that link.

This process becomes extremely tedious on web sites with hundreds of links. For example, CircuitCity.com has 180 links, compared with only 23 links on the NFB’s web site. Imagine how long it would take to have 180 links read to you so you could find out what you want to access, Chong said.

Mouse-over events don’t work for blind people, he added, because the blind access the computer through a keyboard using keyboard commands. In these cases, web site developers should offer both methods of navigation.

If a portable document format (PDF) file is saved as a single graphic image, its contents will not be accessible by the blind—but there are ways to make PDF files accessible, and Adobe offers a white paper about this topic on its web site.

Chong recommends that school web site developers offer their visitors both hypertext markup (HTML) and PDF versions of documents whenever possible. As an example, he showed how the Maryland Transit Authority offers its bus schedules only in PDF format online. The maps were in graphic format only, so he could not tell which streets were included in the routes or what time the buses came.

“Use [PDF files] in certain limited cases, and be careful how you do use [them],” Chong said.

He added, “We regard Flash as inaccessible. The currently marketed versions of JAWS and Window-Eyes will work with the latest version of Flash 6, but most people don’t have the latest version.”

Web pages that have timed events, such as automatic refresh or pop-up windows, cause blind people frustration, Chong said. When these events occur, the text reader recognizes the change and stops whatever task it was doing before and jumps to the new item. On a web page with 180 links, it can be hard to get back to what you were doing, he said.

“Please allow me to disable this,” he added.

Kevin Hunter, senior planner and designer for Widget Works Inc., a Baltimore-based web design company that developed the Maryland Technology Assistance Program’s web site, recommended that school web site developers take the following steps to test whether their web pages are accessible:

  • View the page with a text-only browser.
  • Turn off graphics and sound.
  • Use only a keyboard to navigate the site.
  • View the page with a text reader. (JAWS offers a free, month-long demonstration version of its software.)
“You need a text element for every non-text element,” Hunter said. Otherwise, “you are blowing off a portion of your audience every time you make one of these decisions.”

Links:

Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards
http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/508standards.htm

MAR*TEC’s Accessibility Survey for Educational Software
http://129.32.108.4/swcatalog/de_swcatsearch.asp

Maryland Technology Assistance Program
http://www.mdtap.org

National Federation of the Blind
http://www.nfb.org

Adobe and Accessibility
http://access.adobe.com