Just Because It’s Digital Doesn’t Mean It’s Accessible

In my work with students with disabilities, I run into unique situations every day where technology, a super-highway for most students, becomes a roadblock for others. There is a general assumption by book publishers, instructors and professors, and software developers that if information is made or made available in a digital form, then it will meet the needs of all students. This, of course, is patently false.

Some of the most amazing devices on the market today – the Kindle, smart phones, PDA’s, netbooks – are huge boons to populations everywhere. But to the disabled person, many of these devices are inaccessible. The Kindle has text-to-speech functionality, which is wonderful. But if you’re a blind person, getting to that functionality is impossible. None of the menus are audible. This is true for all the other mainstream eBook readers on the market. Smart phones including the iPhone and the Android are not accessible unless special apps are installed first. Netbooks, the greatest thing since sliced bread for most students, are either running a Linux install, or a dumbed-down version of XP that does not include accessibility features. Linux offers no built-in accessibility at all, although there are apps that can be installed to provide them.

But our biggest fight is with publishers and content-providers, these days. A fair amount of publishers are moving into providing textbooks electronically, either through online portals, or physical media that comes with a hard copy of the text book. These electronic books are nothing more than a locked PDF file, and PDF’s by their very nature are not accessible, as they are an image-based, rather than text-based format. Just because we can deliver the content electronically, digitally, doesn’t mean it is accessible.

Many a geek-tech has said to me, “why should I care?” We should care because every day, people come to us for advice. We are living in an aging population where such accessibility issues are going to become more urgent. And we have an estimated 10% of the population with documented disabilities that require that we provide content in an accessible way. Landmark lawsuits against Target, AOL, and even universities should be a reminder that none of us is really immune from being responsible for meeting accessibility standards. There is great information out there already about making content accessible. I’m including a few important links below.

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

Section 508: The Road to Accessibility

NIMAS Development & Technical Assistance Centers

Information Technology Accessibility Standards

Access Technologists Higher Education Network (ATHEN)

ACCESSText Network

Comments

  1. Taylor says

    Your claim that linux has no built in accessibility is patently false. Read into Compix (included in every ubuntu disto) and it’s BUILT IN magnification and contrast settings –available without any downloads– and then reconsider your stance on linux.

    Ubuntu is the most common linux distro for consumer products and as someone who knows several people in the computer sciences who are legally blind I feel I am justified in passing on their comments that Ubuntu is simply the easiest OS for them to use because of it’s built in accessibility features.

    Perhaps it would be better to do some research before knocking something you clearly don’t understand.

  2. susabelle says

    My students have avoided Netbooks because of accessibility issues. Accessibility is not native to any Linux distro; it can be added, but it isn’t native. Enlargement and contrast are only minor features that will accommodate some users, but without text-to-speech, full accessibility is not reached for blind users.

  3. Taylor says

    If you look here http://reformedmusings.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/ubuntu-compiz-config.png this is is a graphical representation of features that are standard to Compiz which IS INCLUDED with every ubuntu distro these features while primarily targeted to those with vision problems are indeed robust, and are configurable from the command line as is everything else in linux, therefore requiring no further downloads.

    As for text to speech, orca is included out of the gate as well.