2001 Conference Proceedings

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Access And Equity In Web Based Education: ATAP's Policy Recommendations

Leonard R. Kasday, Ph.D., Universal Design Engineer
Institute on Disabilities/UAP at Temple University
423 Ritter Annex
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Email: kasday@acm.org 
Phone: (215) 204-2247

Steve Noble, M.P.A., Policy Analyst
Kentucky Assistive Technology Service Network
8412 Westport Road
Louisville, KY 40242
Email: Steve.Noble@mail.state.ky.us 
Phone: (502) 327-0022

I. Introduction

This paper is based upon testimony given to the Web Based Education Commission by the Association of Tech Act Projects (ATAP). The mission of ATAP is to collaborate with persons with disabilities and others at the national level to increase the availability and utilization of assistive technology devices and services for all individuals with disabilities in the United States and territories. ATAP's full testimony can be found at

The Web Based Education Commission is authorized by Title VIII, Part J of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998. The Commission is required to conduct a thorough study to assess the critical pedagogical and policy issues affecting the creation and use of web-based and other technology-mediated content and learning strategies to transform and improve teaching and achievement at the K-12 and postsecondary education levels. The Commission must issue a final report to the President and the Congress, not later than 12 months after the first meeting of the Commission, which occurred November 16-17, 1999. The final report will contain a detailed statement of the Commission's findings and conclusions, as well as recommendations.

II. Policy Issues

A. Access and Equity in Education

Web-based education has the potential of removing many of the barriers to information access commonly found in standard classroom settings. Information typically provided on chalkboards, overheads, and print handouts which may be inaccessible to students who are blind, visually-impaired or have learning disabilities can be made readily accessible if properly rendered on the web. Oral presentations which may be inaccessible to students with hearing impairments or difficult to process for students with Attention Deficit Disorder, can be produced for web presentation with built-in access techniques such as captioning and display reinforcement abilities. Indeed, the web has great potential for creating universal access courseware and educational offerings that can provide simultaneous inclusive access for nearly all students, regardless of their disability.

B. Legal Mandate

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits educational institutions that are recipients of federal funds from discrimination on the basis of disability [29 U.S.C. 794]. Federal regulations enforcing this law indicate that recipient organizations cannot deny individuals with disabilities the "opportunity to participate in or benefit from" any aid, benefit, or service [34C.F.R.104.4 (b) (i)]. This same protection is similarly afforded against discrimination by any state or local government entity under regulations enforcing Title II of the ADA [28C.F.R.35.130]. It is clear that the right of students with disabilities to participate in all class offerings of an educational institution is a fundamental tenet of law.

Educational institutions have a clear responsibility to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal, effective, and inclusive opportunity to participate in any web-based class or course component offered to others. It is our recommendation that policies be enacted ensuring that all web-based courseware and class offerings should be developed in such a way that students with disabilities using assistive technology (either at school or from home) will have equal, effective, and inclusive access.

C. Intellectual Property Protection and Access Issues

The education community has for some time utilized the well-established limitation of copyright on intellectual property commonly referred to as "fair use." In the words of the House of Representatives report on the fair use statute, "the making of a single copy or phonorecord by an individual as a free service for blind persons would properly be considered a fair use under Section 107" [17U.S.C.107. House Report 94-1476]. The basic understanding of this application of fair use is that a copyright owner cannot restrict a person with a disability from obtaining access to the information contained within a work protected by copyright.

This line of reasoning applies not only to printed works, but also to other forms of intellectual property. As the concept of intellectual property rights is extended to materials delivered over the web, the same principles of fair use and unimpeded access for people with disabilities must be applied. It is important that the developing policies and techniques of controlling intellectual property on the web-including Digital Rights Management-should not impede the ability of assistive technology devices to effectively render information contained in any web-based educational resource. It is our recommendation that further statutory revisions of the U.S. copyright laws be enacted explicitly granting the doctrine of fair use and access by people with disabilities to any and all information distributed on the web within the United States. This would include, but not be limited to, transforming inaccessible web sites to make them accessible to people with disabilities.

D. Teacher Training Needs

Teacher training in technology and disability access-will be vital to the success of web-based education. However, the task at hand will not be an easy one. In current classroom situations, many teachers have difficulties with computer technology as it is. In fact, in a 1998 survey of regular classroom teachers in public schools, only 20% of teachers reported feeling "very well prepared" to integrate technology into classroom instruction [U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. 1999. "Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualification of Public School Teachers." NCES 1999-080]. It is therefore only reasonable to conclude that this magnifies the difficulty of dealing with assistive technology and access to web-based information issues in the regular classroom.

Unfortunately, the situation is perhaps even worse in the special education classroom. In a 1996 survey of public schools, administrators cited "special education teachers not being sufficiently trained" as the greatest single barrier to the use of advanced telecommunications resources by students with disabilities [U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. 1997. "Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Schools, Fall 1996." NCES 97-944]. It is clear that well-designed teacher-training programs in the areas of advanced telecommunications, assistive technology, attitudinal barriers, and general access issues relating to students with disabilities, will greatly benefit all teachers and the students they educate.

E. Costs of Access

Some contend that the costs involved in providing access to web-based instruction is too expensive, and therefore not required by law due to it causing an undue burden. All too often this assumption is unfounded and is based upon conjecture rather than reasonable investigation. What is very clear, however, is that the costs of providing access are always less when incorporated at the beginning of the design stage. Furthermore, the ability to claim undue burden in cases of making poorly designed courseware accessible may be substantially restricted. In a settlement letter issued by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, it was indicated that when an educational institution selects software programs which are inaccessible to students with disabilities, "the subsequent substantial expense of providing access is not generally regarded as an undue burden when such costs could have been significantly reduced by considering the issue of accessibility at the time of the initial selection" [U.S. Department of Education. Office of Civil Rights. Settlement Letter: Docket Number 09-97-2002]. It is quite evident that designing universal access into web-based education from the beginning is the most effective strategy for cost containment.

III. Web Accessibility Requirements

The web can benefit students by enhancing their ability to search and retrieve information, communicate with other people, experiment with virtual, interactive environments, and create their own web pages and web sites. We'll now discuss how to design web sites and train teachers,so that students with disabilities gain perform these activities equally with their non-disabled classmates.  This discussion is based on recommendations of the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative.

A. Searching and Retrieving Information (e.g. receive instruction or do research)

First, be sure there are no gratuitous barriers, i.e. a feature that has no purpose, and makes access difficult to a person with a disability. In other words, practice Universal Design.

For example, avoid unnecessarily small selection areas (difficult for people with motor disabilities) or unnecessarily small and faint text (which makes reading difficult for a student with even a mild visual disability). Presenting large blocks of text as images (i.e. as the colors of thousands of tiny pixels) instead of "real text" (i.e. codes for each letter) is a gratuitous barrier for people with low vision: real text is better because it can more easily be changed in color and magnified and, when magnified, it wraps at the right hand border instead of extending beyond the screen and forcing the user to pan back and forth to read it. Another gratuitous barrier is making objects selectable only with a mouse, instead of a keyboard, making access difficult or impossible for students who are blind or who have motor disabilities.

Next, provide functional equivalents of those features that must be included because they help some students. For example, provide non-visual equivalents for graphs, drawings and interactive graphical environments. Static textual equivalents are sometimes sufficient accommodation. Interactive equivalents are of course needed for interactive graphical environments; they may also aid examination of static graphics. Synchronize audio descriptions in multimedia presentations. Also provide textual equivalents for speech and audio, and synchronize them in multimedia presentations.

Finally, students and teachers should be given capabilities recommended by the W3C WAI User Agent Guidelines, and both students and teachers should be trained in their use and capabilities.

B. Communicating with Other People (e.g. participate in group discussion, email course assignments)

Teachers and students can now have extensive chats and conferences in real time via text, audio, and video, among themselves, and with people around the world; and exchange email, often with multimedia attachments.

User interfaces must be fully accessible and/or compatible with adaptive systems (e.g. screenreaders, word completion utilities, and alternative keyboards). Essential information in graphical, audio, or multimedia components of any communication must be available in forms accessible to students with any disability.

For Deaf participants, real time captioning or sign language interpreting should be provided, at the participants’ site, or provided remotely and linked into the web conference.

Teachers and students need training in communication etiquette required when some participants have disabilities. This particularly applies to internet video and audio conferencing. AAC users, whose communication rate is typically slower than that of other people, should be given sufficient time to complete their contributions (and encouraged to prepare statements in advance). When Deaf participants are present make sure only one person is speaking at a time. Presenters should take care to read or describe visual material when any participants are blind.

C. Experimenting with Virtual, Interactive Environments (e.g. virtual science labs)

The web can simulate activities that students with disabilities would otherwise find difficult to participate in, such as field trips or science lab experimentation. In addition to considerations discussed above (section III A-C) real-time interaction is crucial. Thus, a student who is blind must be given means to quickly scan information; a student who has a motor disability must be given interaction means that minimize the number keystrokes; and a user who is deaf must be given simultaneous captioning of audio content.

D. Creating Web Sites (e.g. for individual, class, or school projects)

All tools used for web site creation must be usable by people with disabilities, or alternative, functionally equivalent tools must provided. In addition to the requirements described in Sections III A-D, the student must be given information about the page that he or she might not be able to directly perceive. For people who are blind, e.g., images in image libraries should be described, and special effects described. For people who are deaf, sound clips in sound galleries must be captioned.  See also the W3C WAI Authoring Tool Guidelines.

E. Repairing and Transforming Web Sites

When an institution offers on-line or classroom courses that use external web sites, those web sites should ideally be made accessible; but if they are not accessible, and they are beyond the control of the institution, there may be ways for the school or a third party to help students access the web site. For example, if the inaccessible site has images without alternative textual equivalents ("ALT text"), the school (or a third party) could examine the service, create a database of images of ALT text for the images, and create an on line "filter" that adds that ALT text to responses from the inaccessible site. (These services do not yet exist, but strategies for repair and transformation tools are under discussion at W3C).

IV. Need for Additional Research and Development

Accessibility techniques for simple, non-interactive web pages, or web pages that interact only via forms, are well established by the standards described above. However, research and development is required to better understand how to design web based education to:

V. Policy Recommendations

What policies are needed to insure the equal access we have described? The government has a number of ways to apply leverage. We propose the following steps:

A. Create Standards

Establish Web Education Accessibility Standards for web sites, and the software used to create and access them. We recommend that these standards be based on recommendations of the Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee (EITAAC Final Report), which in turn references the web accessibility standards, priorities 1 and 2, of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The standards should track the latest versions of the WAI standards for web content, user agents, and authoring tools. These are among the guidelines being used by the Access Board to implement section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

In addition, when educational institutions rely on external sites that are inaccessible they must use any software or third party means available to improve their accessibility.

B. Study Accessibility of Commercial Software

Item 1 of the Web-Based Education Commission's Charter is to conduct a thorough study to access the educational software available in retail markets for secondary and postsecondary students who choose to use such software. This study should include an investigation of the accessibility of the software, as defined by the Web Education Accessibility Standards.

C. Establish Purchasing Requirements

No public funds shall be used to buy inaccessible software.

D. Include Accessibility Requirements for Public Funding

Require any educational institutions receiving funding to promote web based education to enforce the Web Education Accessibility Standards, and the teacher training required to use them, and describe, in any funding applications, plans for complying with the standards. This must include, but not be limited to, web sites, software, hardware, and textbooks. It shall also apply to all types and levels of education (for example, higher education as well as levels K-12).

E. Enforce Existing Laws

Incorporate these standards into regulations enforcing existing laws, in particular section 504 (described above).

F. Include Accessibility Requirements in Accreditation Organizations

When funding depends on accreditation, only recognize accreditation bodies that require compliance with web education accessibility standards, and that give teachers appropriate training in making web based education accessible.

G. Explicitly Grant Fair Use to Produce Accessible Versions

As described in detail above, it is our recommendation that further statutory revisions of the U.S. copyright laws be enacted explicitly granting the doctrine of fair use and access by people with disabilities to any and all information distributed on the web within the United States.

H. Fund Research and Development

Fund research and development to find ways to provide universal access to information and interactivity not currently available.

I. Establish Training and Dissemination

Insure sufficient capacity in each state to train their teachers, acquire and create accessible software, hardware, web sites, and textbooks, and best utilize these resources for their students and teachers with disabilities. This can be done through capacity building in existing state-based AT Act Sites.

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