Friday, 26 February 2016

Web Accessibility #2 - Assistive Technologies

This is the second post of my web accessibility series of blogs and it is written for a peer review assignment for the "Accessibility: Designing and Teaching Courses for All Learners" MOOC offered by Buffalo State University and Suny Empire State College on Canvas platform.

Assignment required us to  explain why accessibility is important; provide examples of ways in which disability may impact students and their learning; and provide examples of assistive technology and technological barriers.

Why Accessibility?

I have discussed this in my previous blog Web Accessibility #1 that it is the right thing to do.
It is important that we treat everybody equally, differently-abled too are human beings worthy of respect and opportunities just like you and me. If a building does not have a ramp access, this prohibits a wheelchair user accessing that premises. Suppose this was a hospital or a bank it would mean that the wheelchair users will not be able to access these services.
In order to make sure that they are treated equally, governments around the world have enacted laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination due to disability. Should an organization or an individual found to be violating these, (that is - they discriminate against disabled) they will be punished according to the law.

Disability and Access


Disability can be either invisible or visible. Invisible disabilities are mostly due to mental health issues, dyslexia, dyspraxia and others. There are permanent disabilities (lose of a limb) as well as temporary disabilities (due to accident hand in a plaster caste).

Visually impaired or blind learners can have lot of difficulties in accessing visual materials. If for example, the learning materials are not made with accessibility in mind, even the assistive technologies may not be able to support them. For example, if the college VLE does not support tabbing through to the menu, the visually impaired learners will not be able to 'see' the content in the VLE.

Colour blind learners may find it difficult if for example red text is presented in a green background. For example, if the feedback for a quiz is provided as a green star for correct answers and red star for incorrect the feedback will be not meaningful to a colour blind user.

If the font sizes are small or contrast between foreground (text) and background is not sufficiently distinguishable learners who are visually impaired will not be able to use these materials.
So there are different visual impairments that can affect the learner's access to materials.


If closed captions are not provided for podcast or video deaf learners will not be able to access this content. If there are background music playing while the narrator speaks such content will be difficult to be accessed by people hard of hearing. If the videos provided audio descriptions and close captions these will be accessible to blind learners (audio) and deaf learners (captions).


 If for example, there are drag and drop material in the learning content that can only be operated by the use of mouse, blind learners or learners with physical disability will not be able to access these materials.


If the textual content used is of very complex sentence construction, this may not be accessible to learners with dyslexia. 

Therefore there are various disabilities to consider when learning content is produced.

Assistive Technologies

Assistive technologies to me is a term used to refer to technologies that help people with various disabilities to support, improve or maintain their functional capabilities. These can include assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices, software or products.

Some examples of assistive technologies are:

Screen Reader 

Screen reader is a software that reads out the information on the screen. Screen reader narrates the menu options reading them out aloud to the user. Screen readers are useful to the blind as they can hear the menus being read out aloud to them which helps them navigate. There are many screen reader softwares available. Some of them are proprietary while some others are open source and free to use. The video below from YouTube shows a screen reader being used. I tried ChromeVox and to be frank I found it very frustrating. But for the blind users screen readers provide a valuable service. However, for the screen readers to be useful we have to use accessibility supporting features such as heading styles (rather than bold, large font text), correct tab order, alt text for images etc.

Magnification Software and Equipment

Magnification software and equipment provide visually impaired users access to reading materials and computer screen etc.

Dictation Software

These software converts speech to text (for example Siri on iPhones and iPads). This may be a tool that can be helpful to both people with and without disabilities. If you cannot use a keyboard due to a disability or need faster typing dictation software can be a solution.

Reading Programs

These programs read out aloud documents or text. These can be useful to learners with dyslexia or even students with attention deficit disorders. 

Technological Barriers

Some software programs are easier to use than other but they may work well with some programs but not with others. For example, in the course one interviewee said that her Windows 8.1 built in text to speech program works well with Microsoft Word documents but not with other formats. So she has to copy and paste emails into Microsoft Word for her to be able to 'read' them.

Many screen reader software take a snapshot of the screen and reads it to the user. But now a days we see websites with lot of dynamic content. For example Twitter feeds and Facebook feeds. However, the screen reader user will not see these unless the web programmer had correctly used WAI-ARIA live region to set up the dynamic content.

When using screen reader software one has to tab through the items. However, some materials produced with various softwares may not allow tabbing and in some instances the cursor gets stuck. If the site is not designed with accessibility in mind, there can be items that are not tab accessible. Thus not accessible to the screen readers.

Another issue is with images. Screen reader only reads the alt text that is allocated to that image. But if the web developer (or document creator) has not populated this with a meaningful caption, the screen reader will read the image file's name (for example img_1007_23_1.jpg), which is not useful and can be quite frustrating if all images are read out that way.

Thus it is important to take accessibility into account when creating materials and adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (currently in WCAG 2.0 version) outlined by the W3C.

Watch this space for my next blog on Accessibility.

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