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.

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.

Visually impaired persons describe Section 508 as landmark legislation that has greatly improved 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 accessibility.

Following the federal government’s lead, Maryland recently passed a law similar to Section 508. As of Jan. 1, 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 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 also can be added, Hendricks said.

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, Chong said.

Links:

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

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