Category Archives: education

Accessibility in the Classroom

Harley Fetterman at Knowbility office.

Progress on Learning Apps Still Needed – Observations from an 11th Grader

I am a blind student about to go into eleventh grade. For the past few years, a number of my teachers have started to use partially inaccessible websites.  While being inaccessible to my screen-reader, these websites make the life of the teacher much easier. As a result, I am the one who has to find a way to complete my work successfully and turn it in on time.

I have had to use a few websites including Edmodo, Duolingo, and Sapling Learning. For both Sapling Learning and Duolingo,  much of each website is accessible. On Duolingo there were inaccessible pictures (no text alternatives to tell me what was in them) in addition to certain features, such as the translate function, being only accessible by mouse (which I can’t use.)

On Sapling Learning, there were many symbols and diagrams that were just pictures, and therefore could not be accessed with a screen-reader. As a result, the best option for completing assignments on these two websites was to have a human reader read the questions aloud and then have me tell them which answer to put in. I really don’t like that because I would much rather interact directly and independently.

I was able to create my user account on Edmodo, but after the initial set-up, Edmodo becomes very hard to use on Windows systems. The website has links, buttons, etc. that when clicked on, bring up a list with inaccessible links or with no apparent effect. The website also has various edit boxes with no apparent functions. However, because Edmodo has an app for the iPhone, I was able to use Edmodo just as effectively as my peers on that platform. The much simplified app still does everything required of it, including turning in assignments, and sending and receiving notes with teachers.

In short, school continues to throw me some curve balls, and though there is always a way to accomplish a task, accessibility helps the process run better and allows me to focus on learning, instead of accessibility issues.

Accessible Software Is Essential To Learning

A personal Story by Sabra Ewing

For many students, accessible software is essential to learning. This is especially true for those of us who rely on assistive technology. Unfortunately, despite the wealth of publicly available information about accessibility, and a host of free resources, student and educator ignorance about accessibility requirements in education continues to create unnecessary barriers for students with disabilities. Here’s a personal account that I hope will illustrate the need for increased professional development in accessible learning.

I didn’t think I would enjoy my required computer science course when I arrived there on the first day of my freshmen year of high school. We were supposed to start using a program called JCreater, which the technology personnel in my school district were unable to make usable by a screen reader. Believing this to be a great stroke of luck, I didn’t mind when my vision teacher told me that the principal would waive the requirement for me and that I would take a gym class instead. Had I just done a bit of research, I might have learned about a free accessible alternative to JCreater that would have allowed me to easily work alongside my peers, but I didn’t know enough about computer science to know what to look for. In any case, according to Newsweek and World Report, I was either attending the number 1 or number 2 public high schools in the nation depending on the year. I assumed that, if the knowledge of the teachers there, coupled with that of my blindness-specific instructors couldn’t devise a way for me to fulfill the requirement, then nothing could. I lived in ignorance for the remainder of my freshman year, thinking that, without a doubt, I had gotten the better end of the Computer Science deal than my classmates.

During my sophomore year, I began to feel slightly apprehensive about the whole affair. I learned that, in addition to the first required class, I was being denied access to three subsequent optional courses. One was an advanced placement course, another was dual credit. In all, this equated to four classes that could have gotten me more ranking points. But I pushed these thoughts out of my mind. Ranking points didn’t matter to me, I told myself. Neither did the fact that our school had a computer science team and a robotics team. It was true that both teams had many of the same members, and that I had taken to eating lunch near them each day, but that was only because they weren’t too loud, not because I had any interest in what they were doing.

By junior year, I broke down and openly admitted that my interest in Computer Science was increasing. But there would be no point in pursuing it. The fact remained…I had not touched a computer during the two weeks I had been in the computer science class. I had never tried programming for myself. How could I really be sure whether or not I could do it as a blind person?

By the time I became a senior in high school, not knowing had become too much to bear. So near the beginning of the year, when we had a three day weekend, I began doing some research into the matter. By this time, I had picked up on the fact that there are lots of programming languages and that my peers had been studying a language called Java, so I decided to see if I could do the same. That night, I spend twelve hours installing software and learning to use command line as well as the basics of the Java programming language. Ever since I compiled my first application depicting a diagonal line, I knew that computer science was for me. I never considered asking to join the computer science or robotics team because I, along with the other students in my small school, was fully aware that I lacked the necessary skill to do so. However, I did ask the Computer Science teacher why I couldn’t have taken the series of courses by using different software to debug and compile my programs. The terse response was that other software packages didn’t effectively color code various information and that in order to be successful in the class, I would surely need one-on-one assistance the school couldn’t provide. After recovering from my shock that this intellectually developed person couldn’t understand that color coding has no bearing on the experience of a totally blind programmer, I began to feel angry and hurt. This difficult situation and others like it could have been avoided through education and increased social awareness for me and the others at my school.

This is an example of how despite the existence of accessible software, I still didn’t have access to all of the same educational opportunities as my peers. Accessible materials are great, and they definitely constitute a big step forward, but those materials are essentially useless in the hands of un-knowledgeable students and educators. In this case, my teacher’s lack of knowledge meant that I missed out on a series of courses and several extracurricular activities I could have really enjoyed. Had I not wanted to find out the truth for myself, I might not today be majoring in computer information systems and thinking of switching my major to computer science. Worse, my ignorance of the software available to me meant that I inadvertently sent the message to my peers that blind people can never be their full academic counterparts. Today, schools don’t find it acceptable to deny access based on race, gender, and religion. Let’s make sure schools also display knowledge and sensitivity toward students protected under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Accessibility News Now

WIN 8 phones are talking, campus speechifying, Inclusive Design doesn’t have to be bland

By Molly Holzschlag

Speech Comes to Windows 8 Phones. An exciting feature of the Window 8 phone is that it has a speech platform. This brings a layer of accessibility to the phone that did not exist prior – voice commands, speech recognition, and speech synthesis. Read about  Windows 8 Speech Platform at MSDN:

Campus Leaders Speak Out On Value of Keeping Tech Accessible. You can check out a video and detailed explanation of top educators discussing the value of accessible technology in Higher Ed:

Is Inclusive Design Bland? Check out the pros-n-cons. Well-known user experience leader Jared Spool says yeh, inclusive design can be bland. But, it ain’t necessarily so, comes the thoughtful response from David Sloan, researcher in Inclusive Design for the University of Dundee, Scotland,

Knowbility Signs Deque Systems as Major Sponsor for Worldwide Accessible Internet Rally (AIR)

Austin-based nonprofit Knowbility, Inc. has signed on Deque Systems as a major sponsor for Open AIR, the worldwide web design competition benefitting people with disabilities and nonprofit organizations. Open AIR makes web sites accessible to people who are blind, hearing impaired, mobility impaired or who have other disabilities. The best web designs receive awards and international recognition. Participating nonprofits receive new, accessible web sites.

Deque Systems, Inc. is a leading provider of automated web accessibility software solutions. In addition to financial support, Deque will provide Open AIR site judges with access to the Worldspace Sync testing tool for evaluating accessibility. Knowbility is excited to welcome Deque CEO, Preety Kumar, to AIR’s panel of esteemed judges.

Knowbility, Inc. is a national leader in web accessibility whose mission is to support the independence of people with disabilities by promoting the use and improving the availability of accessible information technology.

Development teams, non-profits, individuals, and sponsors can register to participate in Open AIR at http://www.knowbility.org/v/open-air-registration/.

About Open AIR

Open AIR provides basic and advanced training in accessible web design and free web sites to nonprofit organizations. Development teams are given one month to code, then come together on Rally Day (November 17th) to finish their sites in a high-energy environment. Sites are judged based on accessibility, usability, design and use of media. Teams will compete in regions, with the top-ranked sites of each region moving on to a second round of judging and awards presented at a SXSW event. The first place team will win tickets to SXSW Interactive 2014!

The last day for team registration is October 1, 2012, and nonprofit/development team matches will be announced at the Kick Off, held October 17th. Training for both teams and non-profit organizations, which are essential to participants getting the best experience possible, is available online, on-demand.

The registration fee for development teams is $100 (team of four). Individuals who may not have teams – web designers, project managers, graphic artists and content developers – can register and be placed on a rally team. Registration fee for non-profit organizations is also $100. Participating nonprofits receive a professionally-built accessible website.

To learn more about the AIR program, visit http://www.knowbility.org/air or contact Ella Jane Moore, Community Programs Manager, at ella.jane@knowbility.org.

About Deque Systems

Deque Systems – http://www.deque.com/ – provides automated testing for web accessibility, along with consulting and training services, to make corporate and government web sites accessible to people with disabilties and compliant with federal and state accessibility guidelines.

Considering the Case for Creating an International Society of Accessibility Professionals

This is Part 2 of a blog series.  The first was Web Accessibility and Coming of Age

The 27th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference will be held in San Diego between February 27 and March 3, 2012.  On Tuesday of that week, the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA) – the technical and engineering division of the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) – will host an Accessibility Forum. For a $245 – $295 additional fee beyond the cost of the regular conference, attendees may participate in a series of panels and discussions entitled “Taking Accessibility Mainstream – Making the Case for an International Society of Accessibility Professionals.”

CODE for Accessibility Task Force

The forum discussion is based on research, commissioned by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), about the barriers to the implementation of accessible design techniques by mainstream developers.  I participated in the research project as Chair of the Sub-Committee on Education for the project which ATIA led and named the CODE for Accessibility Task Force.  The Task Force describes itself as  “driven by the private sector and focused on the accessibility-related needs of the developer community.”

It is quite a worthy project and ATIA is to be commended for organizing it. I was pleased to be part of the Task Force, sharing and updating much of the research I had done several years earlier for Knowbility’s own certification studies. The Education sub-committee worked collaboratively with input from universities, software companies, and technical services companies. Our conclusion was that a certification in web accessibility skills could be quite useful, but the report stopped short of recommending a framework for the delivery of a certification program.

ATIA went on to compile case studies to explore the possibility of creating a professional association dedicated to training web developers and certifying skills.  The full CODE Task Force Report can be downloaded from ATIA as well as a Case Study Implementation Analysis based on scenarios similar to Task Force recommendations.

In summary, the Task Force Report is a compilation of the work of the four sub-committees and the Case Study document compares the need for web accessibility to parallel needs identified within the web privacy and security arena and other areas of web specialization.

Knowbility’s position

I won’t be able to directly participate in the forum since I am teaching two days of accessibility policy and web development skills at preconference session called AccessU at CSUN that occurs at the same time.  But because my name is included as a Task Force member, I feel like I must contribute to the ongoing discussion to say that I am by no means convinced of the need to create yet another professional organization.  My hope is that our community will step back and think long and hard about universal accessibility goals and ask ourselves if this is really the best way to accomplish them.

In some ways it may not be fair to comment without hearing the case fully made.  But on the other hand, I have been involved with this research effort for over a year and have thoroughly read both referenced documents.  At this point, Knowbility does not support the formation of a new professional organization.  I wrote background in an earlier post to put the following remarks in context.  Here are  three top reasons for being skeptical about creating a separate professional organization for accessibility. We could offer more, but are especially interested in hearing from others who have been watching or considering this issue.  Please respond with your own thoughts.

Three reasons to think twice about creating another professional organization.

1. There IS an authority in web accessibility standards and design techniques

The case study document refers several times to the need for an “authority.”  However, there already IS a global authority on web accessibility at the W3C.  It is the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and develops global standards that align with other W3C technical specifications. (Full disclosure, I serve as an Invited Expert on the Education and Outreach Working Group for WAI).  Work there is done by consensus and is largely free of vendor bias.  They have a process to develop certifications and are already global in scope.  The W3C also works in open, non-proprietary methods that are consistent with accessibility.  We all know that the consensus process at the W3C can be cumbersome and tedious, but they have recent success in streamlining that process through community groups and other methods.  WAI works collaboratively (much more important in the context of accessibility than for the privacy comparison that was made in the case study). With the exception of IBM, I am not aware that the corporate sponsors of the Accessibility Forum have made major, significant, sustained contributions to the field of accessibility.  Rich Schwerdtfeger and IBM of course provides outstanding leadership on the development and promotion of the completely open WAI-ARIA guidelines, one of the most significant advances in recent accessibility history. Note that the ARIA work was done at the W3C.

2. Too expensive – needed voices will be excluded

Which brings us to item two, the costs associated.  The case study contains plenty of multiple million dollar budget items that will need to come out of someone’s pockets.  Whose pockets will provide those funds…  developers? … the companies that employ developers?  Why not spend those projected millions to support organizations that have history and existing leadership in accessibility rather than reinventing the alt tag? Before proceeding any further I would want to know more about how the planning has engaged with the community most affected – people with disabilities.  While there seem to be individuals with disabilities serving on some committees, I have not seen any indication that this planning process reached out to and included the full community.  My hope is that associations, such as the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT), and other groups that speak for the wider community of people with disabilities are being consulted.  But no groups like these are listed as major sponsors.  Remember “Nothing about us without us?”  If you are attending CSUN and can’t afford the additional fees to participate in the Accessibility Forum, head to the Wednesday conference session on “Web Accessibility Community Collaboration” and WAI staff and volunteers from the W3C will be happy to hear your thoughts.

3. Accessibility must be integrated everywhere, not only commercially

The last and probably the most important reason for not segregating accessibility into the purview of a professional organization is the need for it to be woven into the fabric of any and all web and application development.  The analogy to the privacy issue that is cited in the case study document only goes so far.  For privacy issues, it makes sense to create highly regulated oversight for concerns that impact the protection of citizen and consumer financial and personal data.  Privacy is an issue that is easily subject to the development of strict protocols. Accessibility is more of an art.  Accessible design and development must be taught in context. That is one of the reasons Knowbility’s AIR program turns developers into advocates so effectively. Creating a separate society of accessibility professionals will reinforce the notion that accessibility is something outside of the basic development process – just the opposite of what advocates have been working for for years. Accessible design is more likely to catch on, in my opinion, if it is seamlessly integrated into all training for web and application development offered in all educational settings. The integrated approach makes the most sense to me and promises to have the greatest impact in making true the adage that the late John Slatin used to sign off on his emails – Good design IS accessible design.

An excellent example of how this can work is in progress at – you guessed it, the W3C, under the leadership of Chris Mills from Opera.  It is the newly formed Web Education Community Group and has the potential to integrate accessibility training into any training received by web developers at any level – trade school, community college, university, or elsewhere.   So by all means create certifications, but not within the context of a new professional association to which we must all pay dues and whose conferences we must add to our annual round of expenses for travel and fees (see number 2).

Let’s figure it out together

I don’t want to leave with a list of complaints like a truculent teenager. I want also to recognize that this was a great deal of useful research by ATIA and the AIA. It is an important conversation to have.  They deserve a round of applause and thanks for bringing this up, creating the Task Force, and sparking the discussion – kudos for moving the conversation so far forward.

I strongly agree that it is time to think about certification. But can’t we think of another way to do this?  Please?

OK, now you know what I think.  As always, we at Knowbility want to hear from our community.  What do you think?!