Research Makes Internet Kinder
At the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University, a research project is underway to help make the Internet more friendly to users with cognitive disabilities. The WebAIM Steppingstones initiative has identified features that make Internet use easier for people with reading, distractibility, language or learning issues. Until recently, the effort to make the Web accessible focused mostly on users without cognitive disabilities. Federal regulations that require accessibility are tailored for disabilities that are not cognitive, leaving the Web inaccessible to the largest group within the disability community. What’s more, those regulations are only binding on Federal government entities and organizations that receive Federal funding. As a result, children with cognitive disabilities are facing real challenges adapting to today’s changing classrooms. Nationwide, 40 percent of children with specific learning disabilities will spend 80 percent of their time in a mainstream classroom, where Internet use becomes more and more critical. With virtually all public schools using the Internet, the Web is quickly outpacing the school library as a source for information. Tobey Fields likes what the Internet has brought to the special needs classroom: a flood of resources that are fun and free. The assistive technology specialist from the Cache County School District can bring up site after site that offers information to children with learning difficulties and the teachers who work with them. Materials range from a website that will read cut-and-pasted text to free video clips that can be placed in a multimedia project to a singing moose that helps children learn mouse motor skills. Field paused, though, when asked which sites were set up so children with cognitive disabilities can navigate them. That is harder, she said. Joy Zabala is the project manager of the Accessible Instructional Materials Consortium, a fifteen-state project headed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), funded by a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs of the US Department of Education. She believes that websites friendly to learners with cognitive disabilities are out there; the biggest challenge is just sorting through what’s available. “The incredible flexibility of digital text and the seemingly endless resources of the web are both a gift and a challenge. A gift in that there is so much, and a challenge because there is so much,” she said. In the coming months, a free online evaluation tool will help determine which websites are accessible to people with cognitive disabilities. It is being developed by the WebAIM project, which provides a website with free information on Internet accessibility and web design. It can be accessed at www.webaim.org. In the meantime, a review of existing literature has generated a list of things to look for in a website friendly to learners with cognitive disabilities. Identifying them is tricky, since elements that can help one group with cognitive disabilities can make learning more difficult for another. For example, pictures may be helpful to people with reading issues but divert the attention of a child with distractibility issues. Still, the WebAIM Steppingstones Initiative identified some common elements: The website uses consistent design elements and navigation throughout a site, with links and search boxes in a predictable place. Links look like links, and text that is not a link cannot be mistaken for one. Prompts help users avoid making mistakes, but if they do get an error message, it tells them what they did wrong. The content is written in active voice using simple language. It avoids metaphors, idioms or abbreviations. Images or multimedia elements draw attention to important things. Elements like bold face, color or highlighting make main ideas stand out. Related items are grouped with visual cues like headers, bulleted lists and white space. Since it is more easily read on a screen, a sans serif font is used. Distracting elements are not used. Animation, moving text and pop-up windows all have the potential to direct a website user away from the content he or she is looking for. Existing standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act are followed. These help ensure that the images and text they use are discernible from the background and that automated screen readers can read the web page, for example. The WebAIM project has developed WAVE, a free evaluation tool that helps determine if a website is accessible. To use the tool, visit: http://wave.webaim.org.