2000 Conference Proceedings

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Making Multimedia Accessible: Guidelines and Solutions

Madeleine Rothberg and Tom Wlodkowski
The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media
125 Western Avenue, Boston, MA 02134
Phone: (617) 300-3400 Voice
(617) 300-2489 TTY
Fax: (617) 300-1035
E-mail: madeleine_rothberg@wgbh.org or tom_wlodkowski@wgbh.org 
Website: http://www.wgbh.org/ncam

Computer technology has opened many doors for people with disabilities. Even so, many disabled students are left behind when their teacher decides to incorporate multimedia-based software into the curriculum. This scenario holds true for several reasons: (1) current software design does not accommodate users of assistive technology due to the high degree of customization and prevalent use of graphics, (2) software developers aren't aware of the needs of students with disabilities and that technology exists to design accessible software and (3) parents, teachers and school administrators aren't aware of what to look for and ask for when purchasing software.

Fortunately technological solutions exist to produce accessible software. Guidelines such as those prepared by the CD-ROM Access Project at the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) also exist to aid developers in the production of accessible educational multimedia. As a result, parents, teachers and school administrators now have solid ground on which to stand to begin advocating for the availability of accessible software in the marketplace. This paper will: (1) highlight some access solutions, (2) describe the scope of the CD-ROM Access Project guidelines, (3) profile ongoing legislative work in states like Texas and California to mandate the availability of accessible software for the classroom and (4) explain possible approaches people can take to advocate for the purchase and availability of accessible software in their community.


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CD-ROM Access Project description

The goal of the CD-ROM Access Project is to create and disseminate guidelines that enable educational software developers to produce products for the classroom that are as user-friendly and educationally enriching for blind students as this software has become for sighted students. While the project's primary focus is on addressing issues specific to the usability of science and math based multimedia, many of the recommendations also apply to the accessibility needs of a broader range of software. In addition, while the emphasis is on the needs of blind and visually impaired students, the resulting guidelines address barriers encountered by students with a variety of disabilities. For example, implementation of a keyboard interface is an essential navigational tool for a blind student, but it is of equal benefit to students with physical disabilities. A recommendation to use SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language) for formatting of audio and video content benefits both blind and deaf students because the SMIL format allows content producers to add audio description and closed-captions to all audio and video components in the software. (See the W3C's note on SMIL Accessibility.)

In order to develop meaningful guidelines, the project was divided into three phases. In the first phase, project staff tested a wide array of existing science and math products and documented barriers preventing blind students from using these products. Next the project prototyped access solutions on two different authoring platforms: Java and Macromedia Director. Now, in the final phase, project staff are developing and disseminating a comprehensive set of accessible software design guidelines. The guidelines encompass existing software guidelines produced by organizations such as Microsoft, the Trace Center and IBM. They also reflect the findings of our analyses and the lessons learned from solutions explored during the prototype phase.


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1. Access solutions

There are an array of readily available solutions that can vastly improve the usability of multimedia software by blind students. There are several technologies to address barriers encountered in navigating around a product caused by the widespread use of graphics to operate essential on-screen controls. Technologies are also available to ensure the accessibility of the abundance of audio and visual content common to multimedia software. Effective implementation of these technologies will overcome the vast majority of barriers that prevent blind users and those with other disabilities from effectively realizing the intended goals of educational multimedia.

Software accessibility solutions fall into two categories of access -- direct and indirect. An "indirectly accessible" piece of software is designed with a screen reader and magnifier in mind. This level of access assumes the user has a preferred assistive technology package installed and is relatively comfortable with it. A "directly accessible" product is designed so that a blind person can operate all on-screen controls and access the product content without relying on the aid of third-party assistive technology such as a screen reader or magnifier. The product should have a keyboard interface with audio output. Audio should also announce the presence and status of all on-screen controls and convey the atmosphere of the software.

Many teachers of visually impaired students report that students of the same age may have differing levels of experience with assistive technology, and therefore direct access is preferable in many cases. However, even though a product is directly accessible, steps should be taken to ensure compatibility with assistive technology, for example for use by deafblind students who will not be able to use an audio interface unless it is accompanied by accessible text output.

Below are brief explanations of some of the key technologies that can vastly improve the use of educational multimedia by students with disabilities:


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2. CD-ROM Access Project Guidelines

While the technology is available to design accessible multimedia software, it is clear that multimedia developers, many of whom have little or no experience accommodating the needs of users with disabilities, can benefit from some guidance on how to best implement these solutions. A variety of guidelines from organizations like IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Trace Center and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) already exist. The goal of the CD-ROM Access Project guidelines is to synthesize what is known about software accessibility and to serve as a central resource directing developers to specific content already addressed in other guidelines. Issues specific to math and science software, such as how to provide blind students access to math equations, graphs, images, etc., will also be addressed.

The CD-ROM Access guidelines are targeted to several audiences - educational software publishing executives, software developers, and software purchasers (teachers, school administrators and parents of children with disabilities). In order for full access to be achieved, it is essential for all of these audiences to have specific information at hand. Publishing executives need concrete information on estimated costs for producing accessible software. Current studies estimate accessibility adds about 3% to the product's production costs. Additionally, executives need to know about policy and legislation to mandate accessibility, at both the federal and the state level. See the section on policy and legislation below for more information. Developers need technical information -- how to make a graphic button accessible to a screen reader, how to synchronize closed-captions and audio description to media components, alternative means for conveying the information in a graph or chart, etc. This information must be searchable and easy to understand. And software purchasers need information about what levels of accessibility can be achieved, so they can formulate policy, and about how to configure software to meet the needs of diverse users.


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3. Policy and Legislation

Policy makers in the U. S. and in other countries want to ensure that the software their governments purchase is accessible to their users with disabilities. For example, the Access Board of the U. S. federal government is in the process of creating rules to govern the development and purchase of electronic and information technology which will require accessibility for employees of the federal government and members of the public who need to use federal information.

The accessibility of educational software is being addressed in two notable state efforts - California and Texas. In addition, the New York State Board of Regents is investigating policies which could improve educational opportunity for students with disabilities, and are looking at the impact of inaccessible software.

The California legislature approved a law on September 15, 1999, which requires providers of printed and nonprinted instructional materials to provide electronic files for use by students with disabilities at the University of California, California State University, and all California Community Colleges. While the law states that publishers must provide electronic files compatible with braille, speech synthesis, and other assistive technologies, and not that the materials themselves must be accessible, publishers may find that for materials which are already in electronic form it is easier to make the mainstream product accessible than it is to provide an alternative version. In addition, the California Community Colleges have recently announced a policy requiring all distance learning materials to be accessible to users with disabilities.

In Texas, efforts are underway to improve accessibility of textbooks and other educational materials in the K-12 system. Texas has a centralized textbook purchasing program known as "adoption." The State Board of Education convenes a panel which decides which textbooks will be used throughout the state and districts can then choose their books from the approved list. The State Board of Education, at the time of this writing, was moving toward adding incentives to encourage textbook publishers to provide accessible electronic books, with the possibility that they might be required in the future. For more information visit the Texas Education Agency web site.


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4. What Parents and Teachers Can Do

Despite the existence of comprehensive guidelines on accessible educational software, parents, teachers, and other advocates for students with disabilities have a prominent role to play if accessible software is to be a reality. Since not all software is purchased centrally, through district-wide or state-wide adoptions, publishers need to hear directly from parents and teachers that there is a market for accessible software and that their efforts will be rewarded. Advocates can use the existing guidelines to begin asking publishers to voluntarily implement accessible authoring practices. At the same time, advocates should encourage their school districts to create a purchasing policy that ensures accessibility is integral to district-wide purchases.

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