2002 Conference Proceedings

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Louise Stockfeld, Steve Wright, Kirsty Williamson, Don Schauder -Information and Telecommunications Needs Research (ITNR), Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
P.O. Box 197, Caulfield East, Victoria, 3145
Email: itnr@sims.monash.edu.au

Fran O’Neill – Northern Melbourne Institute of Technical and Further Education (NMIT)
77-91 St Georges Rd, Preston, Victoria, 3072
Email: FranO-ACC@nmit.vic.edu.au


Adaptive technologies have enabled access to computers and the Internet for people with a disability. Despite the progress that has been made, some problems of access are not solved by adaptive technologies. Because people with intellectual disabilities are often keen to use the Internet, this has resulted in an increased incentive for them to learn to read and comprehend written English. Earlier studies by the research group, Information and Telecommunications Needs Research (ITNR), indicated that suitable web sites for people with physical and intellectual disabilities are not readily available. It was found that websites of interest to people with an intellectual disability were often far too difficult for them to read and comprehend.

Our project was funded by the AccessAbility Program of the Australian Commonwealth Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. The aim was to determine website design which both appeals to adult learners with physical and intellectual disabilities and assists their literacy. Our focus was on the needs of our particular client groups, but the aim was also to develop websites to assist teachers and students worldwide. Key objectives were the development of suitable content and interfaces and models of best practice for the design of websites which can aid traditional and visual/graphical literacy.

ITNR’s previous research indicated that the interests of people with intellectual disabilities differed significantly from those of people with other types of disability. For example, people with intellectual disabilities are less likely than people with other disabilities to state reading as an interest. We have found that sports, arts and other varied recreational activities, including animals, were high on the list of key interests for people with intellectual disabilities (Williamson, Schauder, Stockfeld, Wright and Bow, 2001). It was therefore these areas of interest which have been emphasised in the content of the websites.

Research framework

The research involved many people: researchers, adult students with a disabilities, literacy experts, specialist teachers, and software programmers. This meant that an approach was required. Action research, which involves participants in the change process (Hart and Bond, 1995 p. 37) was therefore a very appropriate collaborative research method. Action research was also suitable because it involves a cyclical process of research, action and evaluation (Hart and Bond, 1995, p. 54). In terms of the website development, the cyclical process included: assessment of literacy levels of participants; development of websites suited to their abilities and interests; and feedback from a range of people including the students about the websites, with adjustments along the way. The final step was the evaluation of the effectiveness of the websites.

The target groups

The project focused on the needs of two student groups from the Northern Melbourne Institute of Technical and Further Education (NMIT).

The nine students with whom we worked in the Work Education unit were aged between 18 and 21 and had problems which include learning difficulties, mental illness, anxiety, autism, and Attention Deficit Disorder, as well as language difficulties, as a result of their speaking English as a second language. Their course, “Work Education” was geared to introduce and develop the skills required for finding employment.

The four students from the Arts Education unit, were aged between 37 and 41, had moderate to severe physical and/or intellectual disabilities. All four students were living in supported care accommodation. Their course includes developing skills in visual and performing arts, theatre and communication. Their disabilities in each case had resulted in language difficulties.


The initial focus groups with teachers confirmed that the meaning of literacy differed across the class groups with whom we were to work. In particular, it often encompassed far more than the traditional notion of literacy as the ability to read and write.At the same time, our target groups all shared a common goal of learning to use the Internet.

An innovative contribution to the development of English literacy for both groups is a browser add-on called WordCue (Seiler, 2001). Especially developed by the project, it provides assistance in reading words and phrases. When WordCue is activated, students can click on words which require explanation and a range of cues are provided. The cues include:

WordCue dialogue box for "football".

On the ABC website, the word ‘football’ has been activated by using WordCue and displays the above “dialogue” box.

Skill levels

To begin with, we assessed both computer skills and literacy levels of students using a tool developed by Australian software programmers, as part of the web browser “Enhancing Internet Access”. This tool assesses such capabilities as touch accuracy (using mouse or touch screen) visual memory and visual discrimination. It also measures reading levels of words and sentences and comprehension of more elaborate text – a skill often required on the Internet.

In this early stage, we also explored Internet sites of interest to individuals in the groups. While we found that interests varied as much as the individuals themselves, emerging commonalities shed light on the type of website design which was appropriate to each group.If we were to build a website which incorporated students’ needs and interests and would encourage the development of their English literacy, we had to determine what features of a website were appealing to the students as a group.

Webpage requirements and design

Based on the needs and interests of the students in each group, some similarities in website design emerged. WordCue and word games, which contained words relating to various interest areas were considered appropriate to both groups.The use of colour and graphics was seen to be popular as were links to useful sites.

There also emerged elements which needed to be avoided. These included frames, fonts which were too small, an overuse of uninteresting text, and advertising, which was seen to be distracting.

Below is a description of the specific needs of each group and how they were accommodated.

a) The Work Education group

As young people, all the Work Education students shared some common interests. They all liked colour, graphics and entertainment. This indicated that the site should include these elements, including animation.

Given that a number of students in this group were already frequent Internet users, we needed to include elements which were already familiar to them. As the website was to act as a portal to other sites, as well as a website in its own right, those ‘other sites’ would need to include students’ favourites as well as new sites to stimulate their interest. In terms of content, the initial research also revealed that there was an interest in biographical information concerning people or celebrities whom they knew. In general, there needed to be plenty of options to explore.

A key aim of this site was to encourage the used of literacy building tools as well as guide the students to useful, educational and interesting material. We also found that their ability to search the Internet and use the WWW as a tool for finding information was limited by their understanding of search engines. We therefore included links to simple search engines and directories, e.g. Google.Students also pointed out that spelling and text which contained larger incomprehensible words cause them difficulty. Links to tools such as a spellchecker, online dictionary and WordCue were able to assist with these problems.

b) The Arts Education Group

The four Arts Education students had special needs with regard to computer use as some had real difficulties with keyboards and the mouse. It was decided that the use of adaptive technology, for example a touch screen, would greatly benefit this group. The requirement for using icons to aid visual literacy also emerged. Among the requirements for the website to be developed for this group were:

WordCue has also proved to be of significant interest to these students.There is an obvious need for training, which has not been a problem as students have been keen to practise their computer skills.

The action research process of user needs assessment, web site design and development, feedback and adjustment, enables improvements and change. The process resulted in web sites closely tailored to the needs of specific groups of people with disabilities and should be relevant to similar groups, worldwide. WordCue, providing on-the-spot assistance with unfamiliar words, is a particularly innovative tool which has emerged from the project.

Development and evaluation of the websites will be ongoing, with management and ownership of the websites by stakeholder groups. Best practice and models of these website designs will be documented and published. In the meantime, this project has facilitated access to the WWW for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Working with them has been its own reward.

Hart, E. & Bond, M. (1995) Action Research for Health and Social Care: A Guide to Practice. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Seiler, R. (2001) What is WordCue? http://www.elr.com.au/wordcue/index.htm Access 28.09.2001

Williamson, Kirsty; Schauder, Don; Stockfeld, Louise; Wright, Steve; Bow, Amanda (2001) ‘The role of the Internet for people with disabilities: Issues of access and equity for public libraries’. The Australian Library Journal.  Vol. 50, No.2, pp. 157-174.

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