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May 29, 2008


The World Wide Web has rapidly become the dominant Internet tool, combining hypertext and multimedia to provide a network of educational resources. Post-secondary entities, like the rest of our society, use the Internet more and more for daily tasks. It is clear that the web is a central element in post-secondary education. While Internet technologies can transform our educational experiences, there is a very real divide between students who do and do not have full access to the Internet in education today.

The Rehabilitation Act mandates that all recipients of federal funding ensure that electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities. Practically speaking, this extended the concept of “programmatic access” to the web and electronic and information technology.

Due to the multimedia nature of the web and the poor design of many web sites, some users cannot access the full range of resources provided by the Internet. Some students may not be able to see graphics; others might not be able hear audio; still others may be unable to operate a mouse.

Instead, students with disabilities must use a variety of technologies to assist them in web navigation. A person with a visual impairment may use a screen reader, a software system that reads aloud text presented on a screen; a student with a hearing impairment uses text captioning or transcription to watch video or audio clips on web pages; a person with limited mobility may use voice recognition software to control mouse and keyboard functions.

Thus, in cases where a web site is poorly organized, has unclear directions or has multiple charts, graphs or images, access is compromised. Therefore, it is essential to consider the needs of individuals with disabilities when developing electronic media for instructional use.

Developing web media for instructional use that is consistent, accessible and usable can be a challenge for instructors. The World Wide Web Consortium ( and the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities (, provide advice about designing instructional media that all students can access:

• Maintain a simple, consistent page layout.

• Keep backgrounds simple and provide contrast.

• Use standard HTML; avoid tags, features and plug-ins that are available to only one brand or version of a browser.

• Caption audio and transcribe video clips.

• Include text alternatives for graphical elements.

• Make links descriptive so that they are understood out of context.

• Provide clear and consistent navigation mechanisms, such as navigation bars.

Fixing inaccessible web sites can be very time consuming. Fortunately, many accessibility features can be implemented easily if they are planned from the beginning of web site development or redesign. Some aspects of accessibility can be evaluated throughout the development of instructional media by doing the following:

• Adjust settings on web authoring tools to utilize built-in accessibility features.

• Turn off the graphics-loading feature of the web browser and navigate the web site to confirm access to the site content without the benefit of images.

• Turn the sound off on the web browser to validate access to the critical site content.

• Enlarge font size through the web browser to confirm that font sizes can be changed.

• Unplug the mouse and test to see whether all critical content on the web site can be accessed with the keyboard alone.

For more information on technology access for people with disabilities, consult AccessCollege: Postsecondary Education and Students with Disabilities at There you will find additional resources to help faculty and staff address electronic media accessibility.

Help also is available on campus. The Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) provides a wide variety of services and technologies to help faculty meet their instructional needs.

To learn how to utilize web-based technologies, such as Blackboard, while ensuring accessibility to those with disabilities, visit the Faculty Instructional Development Lab in B-23 Alumni Hall or call 412/648-2832 to speak with a CIDDE analyst.

Leigh Culley is coordinator of services in the Office of Disability Resources and Services. Lynnett Van Slyke is director of Disability Resources and Services.

This article was adapted with the permission of DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology), a program that serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics and technology.

Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington and the U.S. Department of Education.

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