July/August 2002 // Commentary
Making Online Information Accessible to Students with Disabilities
by Janna Siegel Robertson
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Janna Siegel Robertson "Making Online Information Accessible to Students with Disabilities" The Technology Source, July/August 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

When giving online information or instruction, it is important to make sure your Web pages are accessible to all individuals, including those with disabilities. Computers can allow individuals with sensory, motor, and cognitive disabilities to get equal access to the same types of information that people without disabilities enjoy. The computer has allowed many people who could not attend traditional classes to get the education they want from online sources. On June 25, 2001 a set of guidelines developed by the Access Board went into effect. This board was the governing body that developed guidelines for United States federal agencies to comply with Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act. Federal agencies were mandated to make their electronic information as available to federal employees and the public with disabilities, as they would be to individuals without disabilities. There was an exception if "an undue burden would be imposed on the agency". (Access Board Scope, 2001) Though these guidelines are only required for federal agencies of the United States, the items in the guidelines have been suggested worldwide for everyone that wants to make their sites accessible. (Web Accessibility Initiative, 2000)

These guidelines assist Web page authors in constructing disability friendly sites. A site is considered accessible if individuals with disabilities can use assistive technology to navigate, read, or write on the site. As long as the Web pages can be read by screenreaders then a person with a visual impairment or reading problem can still get the information. Using onscreen keyboards or alternative keyboards/switches a person with motor problems could still write on a Web page form, chat box, or e-mail. Though many assistive technology devices cost money, there are free utilities that come with all computers that make them easily customizable and several shareware tools that can make computers simpler to manage for individuals with special needs. The purpose of this article to familiarize authors with the guidelines and some tools that are used by individuals who have disabilities.

Section 508 Guidelines for the Web

Section 508 is a part of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act amendments that took effect on June 25, 2001. This law requires that federal agencies must adhere to the guidelines developed by the Access Board, on March 15, 2000. All of these guidelines are designed to allow individuals to use assistive technology to access Web pages. The following is a brief description adapted from the access board guidelines. For a full description and specific examples please refer to the Access Board Guidelines. (Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications, 2001)

Section 508 Guidelines for the Web

Adapted from the Access Board June 21, 2001 (Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications, 2001)

  • Text Tags: (a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided. This can be done in the html tags, "alt" or "longdesc". This text equivalent should describe the purpose of the graphic, image, or sound as well as reiterate whatever text is on the graphic. You may also have a description of the graphic in the content of the page near the graphic.
  • Multimedia Presentations: Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation. This is usually done with captions that follow a video presentation. Sychronization is important so that a person's body language can be viewed when reading the captions.
  • Color: Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
  • Readability (style sheets): Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet. Individuals with visual problems sometimes set up their own style sheets so that Web pages can be altered to have increased contrast. If an overriding stylesheet is imbedded, then these options are not available. If the Web page use external stylesheets (where the style rules are put in another file), then they should pose no problems.
  • Server-Side Image Maps: Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map. Server-side image maps do not have the links or URL's (Uniform Resource Locators) identified. The screenreaders just read the regions of the map. With these types of maps the links will need to be repeated in a text format.
  • Client-Side Image Maps: Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape. A client-side image map is one where the regions of the map are identified with different links or URL's and can be read by a screenreader.
  • Data Tables: Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables. Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
  • Frames: Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
  • Flicker Rate: Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz. Individuals with photosensitive epilepsy can have seizures triggered by some of the animations that blink, flash or flicker at certain intensities. Only animations, Java applets or plug-ins usually have this problem and the rates are created when they are developed.
  • Text-Only Alternative: A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a Web site comply with the provisions of these standards, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
  • Scripts: When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
  • Applets and Plug-Ins: When a Web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to the plug-in.
  • Electronic Forms: When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
  • Navigation Links: A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links. Screenreaders read all of the text on the page and will read all of the repetitive links. Just as text-only pages are developed as alternatives, pages with no redundant links can also be constructed.
  • Time Delays: When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.


Online accessibility reviewers: There are online sites that also provide services that check to see if your Web sites are accessible.

  • WebABLE: WebABLE is a leading provider of Web accessibility technology, consulting, and training. Their work ensures that their client's Web sites are fully accessible to people with disabilities and in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Accessibility Utilities: Both PC and MAC computers have free accessibility features on their settings or control panels. Some features may have to be loaded from the operating systems disk if not already installed. They include options for display, keyboard, mouse, and sounds. For more information about the free accessibility utilities for both PC and MAC please check out the following Web sites Microsoft Accessibility and Apple: People with Special Needs.

Accessibility to a personal computer by those with disabilities can be improved by a number of additional utilities, two of these are screenreaders and onscreen keyboards, both are available for PC's and Macintosh platforms. One type of utility is the text-to-speech screenreaders. This utility will read aloud any text on a page. Web page readers are very useful for individuals with visual or reading problems. Another useful tool are onscreen keyboards. For individuals whose motor problems allow them to use a mouse or touch screen better than a keyboard, the onscreen keyboards can allow them to write. Onscreen keyboards are also useful for individuals with severe disabilities who need to use scanning software and buttons or switches. These tools and software, such as word prediction software, are not free and would take some training. For more information on assistive technology please look at The Alliance for Technology Access (ATA).

Good places to locate the screenreaders and onscreen keyboards are at CNET or TUCOWS. You can conduct a search for the type of utility you want and pick the downloads that are compatible with your computer. Though MACs come with SimpleText, this text reader is not made for use with the Internet. Not all text-to-speech programs work with the Internet, but several such as textHelp ScreenReader for PCs and I am Talking for Macs require the information to be highlighted in order to be read. The voices are still fairly computerized sounding for the free versions but the newer accessibility options are making the voices more human-like with each generation. Some onscreen keyboards include EOSK 1.0 for PCs and Type For Me for MACs. Besides these free shareware downloads, there are also demos (Demonstration Software) available for several tools that do require a fee for extended use.


In order to provide information and education online, we need to include individuals who have special needs. Though some of these issues may seem complicated, with a little effort, Web authors can make their Web pages accessible by someone who has a disability. The utilities are the responsibility of the user, but it is helpful if educators and Web authors are familiar with the availability of these tools. When making sure our pages are not discriminating against users with disabilities, it is a good idea to make all pages as text based as possible or have the option of being text based. Computer assistive technology tools seem to have problems when Web pages overuse graphics, frames and animation. Experienced Web page authors have learned to avoid the construction of complex pages since they also discriminate against individuals who have older computers and/or older browser software. Web sites such as Bobby and WebABLE will assess your Web pages for accessibility. With a little effort and awareness we can make sure that computers and the Web provide quality information and education for everyone.


The Access Board Scope. (2001). Retrieved September 1, 2001, from http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/scope.htm

Web-based Intranet and Internet Information and Applications. (2001, June 21). Retrieved September 1, 2001, from the Access Board: http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/1194.22.htm

Web Accessibility Initiative. (2000). Retrieved September 1, 2001, from the World Wide Web Consortium: http://www.w3.org/WAI/ brick bustercard gameskids gameshidden objects gamesmahjongbrain teaser gamesplatform gamessimulation gamesword games

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