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Over the past 20 years, advances in portable computer hardware, specialized software, and accompanying assistive technologies have helped make classroom instruction and participation more accessible to students with physical disabilities. Recently, however, the growing use of another computer resource, the World Wide Web, has created a host of problems for vision- and hearing-impaired students.

Left unresolved, these problems could limit such students' access to course material and, in some cases, entire classes and degree programs. Also, Web-only content not fully accessible to disabled students may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Interpreting Web page image files (graphically represented, non-text elements of a page) poses the most significant problem for disabled Web users. Blind students, for example, often rely on speech synthesizers that read aloud Web page text. If site builders don't provide descriptive tags (which can be read by a synthesizer) for the page's images, the information those images contain is not conveyed to the blind user. This is a serious problem when the images contain essential information, such as mathematical formulas, charts, graphs, and so on.

Deaf users encounter a similar problem on sites that feature sound and video clips. Unless the clips are accompanied by written transcripts, deaf users can't access the information.

Today, as more and more educators create Web-based materials to accompany their courses, and virtual classrooms become commonplace thanks to asynchronous learning networks, accessibility concerns are assuming even greater urgency, according to Jon Gunderson, coordinator of assistive communication and information technology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). "As this type of technology becomes more popular, and more and more courses begin to use it, we need to learn how to make it more accessible," Gunderson says.

Tools for Incorporating Accessibility
Gunderson devotes much of his time to securing, and in some cases constructing, the types of assistive devices that help UIUC students pursue their degrees. He also focuses a great deal of energy on efforts to improve the accessibility of UIUC's Web-based course materials.

Gunderson built accessibility verification features into CyberProf, a popular Web-authoring program developed by UIUC physics professor Alfred Hübler. Thanks to Gunderson's contribution, the program now automatically directs users to create descriptive tags, written transcripts, and other accessibility tools for elements that might pose a problem for disabled users.

Along with CyberProf, UIUC uses Text Only Maker, a program developed by UIUC computer science major Keith Wessel to scan Web pages for sections that could be made more accessible and then offer suggestions for improvements. Such tools encourage Web page designers and builders, most of whom may not think about page accessibility, to build in accessibility features from the start. Gunderson predicts that these software tools will soon gain wide use in academic circles.

Promoting Accessibility Standards
Gunderson's efforts to improve Web accessibility is not limited to his work at UIUC. He also serves on the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a committee of the World Wide Web Consortium. The consortium recommends technical standards for the Web. WAI is developing universal guidelines for evaluating site accessibility. (A draft of WAI's guidelines is available at
www.w3.org/wai.) When finalized, the guidelines will serve as a benchmark for Web designers and builders around the world. If followed, the guidelines could bring Gunderson and his colleagues' vision of a barrier-free Web that much closer to reality.

Kate Gibney is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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