Left Out Online

Electronic media should be a boon for people with disabilities, but few colleges embrace the many new technologies that could help.

So far, Berry Cuffee has performed as well as anyone in his first distance-education course at George Mason University. He is a graduate student in education, planning to concentrate on a study of “assistive technology,” the software and hardware designed to help people with disabilities use computers. For him, however, accessing online course materials and keeping up with virtual class discussions are no small feats.

Mr. Cuffee, 42, was once an actor in Hollywood, and had even been a double for Wesley Snipes. He was paralyzed in a car accident 10 years ago, right after he landed his first big role.

Now, he cannot turn the pages of a book, type on a keyboard, or insert a disk into a computer. Instead, his computer interprets his voice commands to browse the Web, open e-mail, scroll through electronic books, and write papers. The system generally works well, but it sometimes needs repeated commands, and it remains to be seen how well it will work with, say, a live chat for a class discussion.

Online media should be a boon for people with disabilities, but Mr. Cuffee and other advocates for disabled students say that as colleges push more of their business online, too few institutions are sufficiently prepared to accommodate those who are blind, deaf, or motor impaired. In fact, advocates for disabled students who have studied college websites say the accessibility of colleges’ online resources is decreasing as college and course sites feature more video clips, animated menus, and pages that are most easily reached with a mouse.

A group of such advocates, computer-industry representatives, and college administrators met in Washington to discuss raising awareness of technology that helps disabled students. Among their goals was drafting a policy to encourage colleges to make computers more accessible.

Some colleges already have accessibility policies. But at others, such policies are only now being formed, have stalled, or are nonexistent.

“It’s ironic that we’re talking 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education,” says Mr. Cuffee, who navigates the George Mason campus with a motorized wheelchair. At his parents’ house here, he has a row of computers that respond to his voice commands. “Here we are in what is known as the information age, and disabled people are in a world of information apartheid.”

Slow ProgressIn 2000 officials at 25 top-tier universities wrote a letter to President Clinton expressing their support for the development of better assistive technologies and promising to do more on their campuses. But those colleges have made spotty progress.

At Tulane University, which signed the letter to Mr. Clinton, David J. Tylicki, the manager of disability services, says he doesn’t know of any online-accessibility policy in the works at the university. Asked how he might accommodate a blind student in a class with a required online discussion, he is stumped. “That I’d probably have to give some thought to,” he says.

Many institutions are only now giving thought to providing accessible technology for the disabled and are “scrambling around for solutions and ways to deal with it,” says Jeff Finlay, a technology project manager at the University of Maryland’s University College who wants to improve computer access for disabled students. “The whole issue of providing accessible courses out of the box is not something universities have thought about. But they are starting to.”

College officials who attended the Washington meeting were brought there by a mix of conscience and concern for the law. Some administrators have long believed that the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantee equal access to education, apply to online courses, though others say the law is unclear on that point.

In the past few years, however, stricter and more-specific measures have been enacted to improve online communications for those with disabilities. In 1998 Congress beefed up a portion of the Rehabilitation Act known as Section 508. The new provision requires federal agencies to buy and use accessibility technology for disabled people, and it provides guidelines for accessibility. Many states have started adopting their own versions of the law.

Tracy B. Mitrano, director of Cornell University’s computer-policy-and-law program, foresees a day when the standard applies not only to federal agencies, but to any institution that takes federal money. She says she attended the meeting in Washington because she wants Cornell to be ahead of the law and because “it’s the right thing to do.”

More Disabled Students

The number of people with disabilities in America is steadily increasing, and more people with disabilities are attending college than in the past.

Troy R. Justesen, an acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitation services at the U.S. Education Department, says the number of students who identify themselves as disabled (which includes those who are learning disabled) has grown from 3 percent in 1973 to almost 10 percent in 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available. He says the Education Department is investing in research on accessibility technology to serve those students.

Education Department statistics indicate that disabled people who enroll in college graduate at lower rates than any other group of people, Mr. Justesen says. With distance education, online course materials, and new technologies under development, “they are going to have access to higher-ed curriculum in ways that they have never had before,” he says. “The challenge has been for the colleges to adopt the standards that they need to adopt” to make online education more accessible, he adds.

Mr. Cuffee’s college experience is an example both of the benefits of technology and of the barriers that someone with disabilities can encounter. George Mason is a leader in disabilities technology, running an extensive program to make all facets of the university accessible to those with disabilities. The university’s home page is set up for “screen readers,” programs that read Web pages aloud for blind users. A wheelchair icon on the home page leads to a description of the university’s online-accessibility policies, which can be read by a screen reader.

When Mr. Cuffee arrived at George Mason in 2000, he enrolled in the law school, hoping to use his law degree to help fight for the rights of disabled people. Because he can’t turn pages, the staff members of the disabilities-services office at George Mason digitized his law books for him. But professors often assigned readings too late to be scanned in time for class. Mr. Cuffee soon fell behind, and he dropped out after two courses. He says he will take another shot at the law school in the fall.

Now that he is taking his course on assistive technology through the education school, he thinks he’ll be able to keep up.

At home, Mr. Cuffee gives a demonstration of the technology crowding his room. With simple voice commands, he can move a cursor across the screen and click on a link, or open a word-processing program. He starts dictating an example of writing.

“Today Scott has come over,” Mr. Cuffee says, but the computer writes “Today’s cicadas come over.” He tells the computer to highlight “cicadas” and change it to “Scott has.” Then he finishes the sentence, error free: “to interview me about how assistive technology will help me in higher education.” The whole exercise takes only a bit longer than it would for someone who could type.

A Lab Full of Gadgets

The distance-education course Mr. Cuffee will take includes some online discissions. Kristine S. Neuber, who sets up assistive technology for the university students, says she is eager to see whether Mr. Cuffee’s voice-activated technology can keep up with those discussions.

George Mason runs a lab full of technological gadgets and software that can help people with disabilities get around on the Web and type papers Beven people who are completely paralyzed and unable to speak.

In the lab, Ms. Neuber sits down at a computer and demonstrates a screen reader. For screen readers to work properly, Web developers must add codes to their Websites that describe nontext elements, such as pictures. If a Web page contains a banner graphic announcing what the page is about, for instance, a blind person won’t know it is there unless the Web page has a code that says something like “graphic: college logo.” The screen reader looks for such codes and deciphers the page for a blind user.

Ms. Neuber advises other institutions on setting up online-accessibility policies. Creating an office to review Web pages before they go online would be impossible at a large, decentralized institution, she says. Instead, she tells institutions to first try to raise awareness and to train faculty and staff members in making Websites accessible, then create a policy.

“If you tell people, ‘Here’s the policy you need to follow,’ you get a lot of negative feedback,” says Ms. Neuber. “It’s perceived as just another problem created by people with disabilities.”

Clear Guidelines

Online-access policies are important, advocates say, because they offer faculty and staff members clear procedures for disabled students. Mr. Finlay, of the University of Maryland’s University College, says professors frequently don’t know how to handle queries from students with disabilities who are having trouble with their online course work.

“Often what will happen is that the professor will try really hard to help the student, but the professor might not understand the problem,” he says. “The faculty member might say, ‘Why don’t you just skip the assignment?’ This is insulting to the student and also illegal.”

Getting a policy in place can be an arduous process, however.

At Temple University, Amy S. Goldman, associate director of the Institute on Disabilities, says her staff worked on a policy for two years, then took it to administrators for approval. The administrators shot it down, preferring to deal with disabled students’ problems case by case.

Without a policy, institutions can be inconsistent about whether online services are accessible, say officials at Web Accessibility in Mind, a group based at Utah State University. The group has analyzed hundreds of college Web pages over the past three years. Although the number of accessible sites is growing, the latest study shows that less than 30 percent of the home pages surveyed were deemed accessible. WebAIM’s researchers say they generally found that the deeper one goes into a college Website, the less accessible the pages get.

Sachin Pavrithran, a graduate student who is blind and works in WebAIM’s office, recently used his screen reader to go through the Web pages of universities that had signed the letter to President Clinton. He found that most had fairly accessible sites.

But one page on Washington University’s site, for example, had 160 links — a cumbersome number for blind people using screen readers because the computer has to recite the links one by one. The home page for the law school at Tulane, meanwhile, was almost completely unreadable.

Testing Accessibility

Visiting other institutions online, Mr. Pavrithran finds serious problems right on their home pages. Pennsylvania State University’s Website offers a text-only alternative page for users of screen readers. “We don’t recommend this,” he says. “In our experience, the text-only page is not usually kept up to date.” (Penn State’s Web page, however, appears to be up to date.)

Augsburg College, a small liberal-arts institution in Minneapolis, has a snazzy, animated home page. But none of it is programmed for a screen reader, which instead “just says ‘button, button, button,'” Mr. Pavrithran says.

The University of Phoenix’s home page opens with three animated links that lead to different types of courses the university offers. The screen reader recites technical gibberish when it encounters them. “I pretty much skipped over those three links because I don’t know what they are,” Mr. Pavrithran says.

Axel Schmetzke, a librarian at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, used automated software to analyze the Websites of top library schools and of his own university system, and found similar problems. In the past five years, Web pages at various Wisconsin campuses, such as River Falls, have become significantly less accessible, according to his report.

Michael Woolsey, the Webmaster at River Falls, says he tries to make sure that the university’s sites are accessible, but he cannot control what departments and professors put up on their own. He says he recently advised the communicative-disorders department to redesign its Website, which features a greeting in the form of an audio file — completely inaccessible to deaf people.

In Mr. Schmetzke’s study of library pages, about 50 percent of those he surveyed were deemed accessible. Twenty of the 49 American libraries he surveyed got dismal scores, with less than 20 percent of their pages accessible. Sites for the various schools of library science fared even worse.

“What concerns me is that the organizations that train the next batch of librarians aren’t concerned about accessibility, or they would have made their own pages accessible,” he says.

‘Radical Activism’

Because those more sophisticated visual features are becoming more common, even in online courses, institutions should start thinking about how to deal with them now, says Marty Blair, policy director for the National Center on Disability and Access to Education, which organized the conference in Washington.

Disabled people generally take one of two routes to gain accommodations at a university: building awareness that leads to a policy, or engaging in “radical activism,” which can take the form of a lawsuit.

Mr. Blair cites a lawsuit filed against two University of California campuses in 1999 by a group of deaf students who charged that the campuses had failed to provide adequate accommodations for classes. The universities settled with the students in 2002, paying $1-million in legal fees and promising to improve accessibility.

Mr. Blair says he’d rather persuade colleges on moral grounds than bring up the specter of lawsuits. Providing accessible online services upfront is more efficient, he says, and makes the university a more attractive place for students with disabilities. He says Utah State University, where he works, enrolls disproportionately more blind students than other institutions in the state because it offers more services for them.

His group doesn’t expect to have a policy that it can show to institutions for at least a couple of years. “Since we’re dealing with universities that are decentralized and independent, finding a model policy that can be readily adopted is not going to be easy,” he says. “But we need to take steps in that direction. We want to give them a foundation to work from.”

In the meantime, Mr. Cuffee is waiting for the day when Web pages are easy for everyone to operate, when books and notes can be offered in electronic format, and when all professors wear microphones so their lectures can be transcribed by people or by voice-recognition software. Mr. Cuffee’s fear is that even in the assistive-technology program at George Mason, he might someday run into the same problems he had at the law school — that he’ll encounter materials that he can’t work with, and professors who won’t understand the challenges he faces.

“Professors think, ‘I have been teaching this way for so long, so why do I need to change?'” he says. “There are times when I feel like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.”

Problems and Solutions for Disabled Users

Web Accessibility in Mind, a group based at Utah State University, produces educational materials and presentations about online accessibility in education. Some of the group’s suggestions on accessible website design are detailed below.

For blind computer users:

Challenge: Blind users can’t see images, photos, and graphics.

Solution: Provide written descriptions of the images that can be interpreted by “screen reader” software, which uses a voice synthesizer to read aloud and characterize a visual computer display.

Challenge: Blind users often must listen to a screen readers’ long descriptions of Web pages.

Solution: Create links, which a screen reader can translate, to allow users to skip navigational menus, long lists of items, and other elements that might be difficult or tedious to listen to.

Challenge: Blind users generally do not use a mouse.

Solution: Avoid features like pull-down menus that require the use of a mouse. Make the site navigable with a keyboard.

Challenge: Complex data tables and graphs can’t be interpreted clearly by a screen reader.

Solution: Provide written summaries that blind users can hear with a screen reader.

For deaf computer users:

Challenge: Deaf users cannot hear the audio in multimedia.

Solution: Provide transcripts of audio clips and synchronous captioning for video clips.

For motor impaired computer users:

Challenge: Motor-impaired users may not be able to operate a mouse.

Solution: Make sure that all functions are available from the keyboard. Users should be able to move from link to link by pressing the tab button, and those links should be navigable in a logical order.

Users may need voice-activated software, which generally cannot replicate mouse movement as effectively as it can replicate keyboard usage.
All functions should be available from the keyboard.

SOURCE: Web Accessibility in MindCopyright @ 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education.