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

Posted by susabelle at 8:03 AM on November 24, 2009

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