• September 2, 2015

Colleges Lock Out Blind Students Online

Blind Students Demand Access to Online Course Materials 1

Photographs by David Wallace for The Chronicle

Darrell Shandrow, a journalism student who is blind, can navigate around Arizona State U. just fine (above, he uses Foursquare, a location-based cellphone app). But he was stymied by Spanish 101, which uses an online workbook inaccessible to blind students.

More than 19,000 people have visited a new student union that Arizona State University put up last year to build a better sense of campus community.

Darrell Shandrow, a blind senior studying journalism, can't get through the front door.

He's stuck because the new social hub is built of bits, not bricks—a private Facebook application for Arizona State students. And, like so much technology used by colleges, the software doesn't work with the programs that blind people depend on to navigate the Web.

"Basically, I'm locked out," Mr. Shandrow, 37, says.

So are many others. Colleges that wouldn't dare put up a new building without wheelchair access now routinely roll out digital services that, for blind people, are the Internet equivalent of impassable stairs. Roughly 75,000 students at colleges and trade schools are visually impaired, according to Education Department figures. Barriers to access could deny them equal learning opportunities. And colleges are finding that the problems are lawsuit bait, generating litigation and complaints.

This is a distressing trend because technology should actually benefit the blind. Mr. Shandrow's life is a daily demonstration of that potential. In his apartment near the campus here, he uses text-to-speech software that reads Web sites out loud. To get around town, he runs iPhone applications that identify nearby buildings and even the bills in his wallet. He also blogs, tweets, shoots video, and hosts an online radio show.

But even though he can navigate so much of the world, Mr. Shandrow hit a wall when he got to Spanish 101. The obstacle: an online workbook that failed to correctly label images.

The Chronicle, after more than two dozen interviews and a review of federal records and recent research, found widespread access problems like that.

Some other examples:

  • College Web pages are "widely inaccessible" to people with disabilities, according to a recent National Science Foundation-backed study that looked at 127 institutions in the Northwest over five years. A recent study of 183 colleges, nationwide, found similar problems. (See table.)
  • Many colleges have no centralized way to ensure that online courses comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, says a November report from the Campus Computing Project and the Wiche Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications.
  • At one of the country's most prominent public institutions, Pennsylvania State University, blind students and professors suffer "pervasive and ongoing discrimination" because of inaccessible campus technology, says a federal complaint filed in November by the country's largest organization of blind people. The complaint names problem areas that include Penn State's library catalog, departmental Web sites, and, crucially, its "almost totally inaccessible" course-management software.
  • At Arizona State last year, advocates including Mr. Shandrow sued the institution over its use of Amazon's Kindle e-reader, which lacked audible menus for blind people. Arizona State agreed that it would strive to use accessible devices if it deployed e-book readers in classes over the next two years.

"In a number of respects, blind students are at a greater disadvantage today than they were 20 years ago," says Daniel F. Goldstein, counsel to the National Federation of the Blind, who filed the complaint against Penn State. (Both that university and Arizona State have responded to complaints by stating that they are committed to accessible learning for all.)

The Vision Problem

For Mr. Shandrow, the Kindle suit was the latest episode in a long and sometimes lonely fight to get people to care about this issue, a fight that has put him at odds with technology companies, colleges, other advocates for the blind, employers, even his own family.

It's much more than just the use of e-readers that bugs him about Arizona State. For instance, there's the technology adopted by the journalism school, in Phoenix, whose modern downtown campus Mr. Shandrow reaches by light rail. Arizona State participates in News21, a national multimedia project that aims to "train a new generation of journalists capable of reshaping the news industry." But News21 uses an online video player that gives Mr. Shandrow's screen reader a fit.

Daily frustrations like that drive his one-man advocacy war. When he finds a problem, which is often, the journalism student doesn't hesitate to shame the offender with a volley of messages to his 1,100 Twitter followers.

This tendency has earned him criticism from other advocates. Publicly scolding people rather than privately counseling them may actually do more harm than good, they argue. And some other blind students don't get all the fuss. Rhonda S. Partain, 46, remembers the misery of her student life in the early 1980s. Inaccessible technology? Try a typewriter. You might write three blank pages, she says, before realizing that your machine had run out of ink. With computers, however imperfect, she was recently able to complete an online degree at Liberty University.

"This is immensely better," she says. "Some of these people who are complaining now should have known how it was then, and they wouldn't complain so much."

Mr. Shandrow takes a harder line. Accessibility is a "human right," in his view. If a sighted person can use a piece of technology, he should be able to as well.

In person, his appearance is as loud as his advocacy. Unlike some blind people, who favor inconspicuous short canes, Mr. Shandrow scrapes the sidewalk with a 63-inch staff that extends beyond his ear. "People can see—they should watch where they're going," he explains. "I'm here!" His belt advertises his presence, too, with a large turquoise-and-silver buckle and "Darrell" engraved in the leather. About the only thing he hides are his eyes, blinded since childhood by glaucoma and veiled behind gold-tinted aviator sunglasses.

Mr. Shandrow became a hardened activist as a teen. Craving a mainstream education, he tried to transfer to a local public school from the Arizona State School for the Deaf and the Blind. Officials discouraged him, he says, with irksome questions: How would he go to the bathroom? Eat lunch? Long story short: His family went to court, and won access to public school.

That early struggle changed him, says Mr. Shandrow's wife, Karen, during a late-November dinner at an Applebee's restaurant in Tempe. Her guide dog, a golden-retriever/black-Lab cross named Joyce, slurps from a bowl of ice cubes at her feet. Karen, too, is blind.

Her husband realized early on that blind people can't depend on others to get their needs met, she says. They need to do everything in their power to fight for themselves. Everything.

"He's still an ethical person and stuff," she continues. "But—"

"I'm willing to go pretty far if I feel the need to," says Mr. Shandrow, finishing the sentence.

How far?

He smiles. "Let's just say anything short of violence or terrorism or something like that. Anything short of that goes. Do anything, say anything, to get accessibility."

E-Reader Trouble

In 2009, he got the chance to make a big splash for the cause.

Amazon was touting its Kindle e-reader in the textbook market with college pilot programs. Advocates for the blind like the National Federation, angry because of the device's inaccessibility, wanted to shape this emerging market by taking a tough legal stance.

And Mr. Shandrow was in a position to help, since Arizona State, where he had returned in 2008 after dropping out in the 1990s, was one of Amazon's pilot partners. It wasn't a perfect position, because the university's pilot program was limited to the honors college, to which Mr. Shandrow didn't belong, so the program didn't directly affect him.

Still, when a lawyer on the case reached out to him, his answer was instant: "Sign me up."

The fight hit Mr. Shandrow close to home. In the 1990s, he "virtually bombed out" his first two semesters of college and withdrew from most classes, largely because of a lack of textbooks in Braille or electronic format. Nearly two decades later, access to books remains a very thorny issue. Many publishers have "dragged their feet" making textbooks available in alternate formats, says Jack Trammell, director of disability-support services at Randolph-Macon College, in Virginia. That creates delays and leaves colleges scrambling to figure out alternative fixes, such as scanning books themselves.

Amazon's Kindle had the potential to avoid such problems. Unlike ink on paper, digital texts aren't inherently visual or aural, advocates argue, so they should be equally accessible to blind or sighted users. In fact, the Kindle did come with text-to-speech technology. But its menus were not accessible to blind users.

Mr. Shandrow's family begged him to stay out of the fight: "When I told my father-in-law about it, he just about went crazy. He said that I would ruin my chances for future employment, and people would see me as a troublemaker."

Mr. Shandrow was willing to take the risk. In June 2009, he joined the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind in suing Arizona State to block it from deploying the Kindle. The groups also filed complaints about Kindle pilots at five other colleges.

The outcome was mixed. Since Mr. Shandrow was ineligible for the Kindle pilot, a judge dismissed him from the case for failing to identify "any clear policy by ASU that will in any way impact him." But then, in January, Arizona State agreed to settle the case. Denying any legal violation, the university said it would strive to use only accessible e-book readers for a two-year period. Similar agreements were soon reached between the Justice Department and other colleges identified by the advocates.

In Washington, meanwhile, federal authorities seized on the Kindle controversy to broadcast a sharp message to colleges nationwide: Requiring inaccessible e-readers may run afoul of the law. The warning came in a public letter released jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education.

"It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students," the government said.

Assistance From Alex

Yet they continue to do just that, Mr. Shandrow says, and a visit to a darkened room in his apartment shows how. He calls this his accessibility command center. The dusty tangle of cords, headphones, gadgets, and Kit Kat wrappers gives off a vibe like a hacker's nocturnal den. Speakers above the desk fill the room with a serene robotic voice that sounds like Hal, the murderous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The sound is Alex, Apple's name for one of the voice options in the text-to-speech feature that is built into Macs. Alex speaks both the words on Web pages and the stage directions that blind people need to surf them: navigation buttons, links, images, punctuation.

You could spend days listening to Alex crash into inaccessibility roadblocks. There's Arizona State's new virtual student union, for instance. It's actually a Facebook application, sold to colleges by a company called Inigral. People can use it to find classmates with the same major or see if anyone has an extra ticket to the Roger Waters concert. But to do that, they have to read guidelines and click a button that says, "Okay—Let's get started!"

Or, in Alex-speak: Okay. Dash. Let's get started. Button.

But Mr. Shandrow can't start, because of an accessibility flaw that is common online. Like most blind people, he controls his computer with a keyboard, not a mouse. This "start" button isn't keyboard-enabled.

There are problems with online courseware, too. Last year Mr. Shandrow took a Spanish class that used an online workbook from a company called Quia Web. It was filled with unlabeled images. Such labels, part of the code under the hood of Web pages, are crucial because screen readers use them to describe pictures. Their absence forced Mr. Shandrow to depend on a sighted aide when he took the class. (The image problem is not limited to higher education. The Chronicle's Web site, for instance, lacks text describing many images for blind readers.)

Inaccessibility is a major issue for the movement to post educational content free on the Internet. Hundreds of colleges have spent tens of millions of dollars producing lecture videos, notes, syllabi, and other free online materials. But Hal Plotkin, a senior policy adviser in the Education Department, says he would be surprised if more than 10 percent of these open educational resources are fully accessible. That flaw has "dramatically" held back their deployment, says Mr. Plotkin, a former community-college trustee in California.

Public institutions "will not use these materials," Mr. Plotkin says, "because the lawsuits that would follow would be inevitable, and very costly."

And that's too bad, because Alex also shows that some of this software is pretty attractive once past the initial hurdles. After a reporter helps Mr. Shandrow get inside the Inigral Facebook program, for example, he doesn't have much trouble moving around. In fact, he likes it. He's a tech geek with a new toy, one he admits "could be a fun app." He finds a comment posted by a woman, soon to be 28, who says how nice it is that the app has a group for "older students."

"Are you kidding? You're only 28?" Mr. Shandrow says, rocking back and forth with a smile on his face. "I'm 37, girl. C'mon! I'm old!"

Under her post, he tries another button used for quick evaluations of Facebook posts, and it works fine: "Like."

Adjusting Attitudes

What he doesn't like is the attitude of many software developers, who often fail to consider accessibility. When The Chronicle asks whether the Facebook application is accessible to blind people, Michael Staton, chief executive of Inigral, gives a simple answer: "No." But he quickly points out that students aren't required to use it. "It's all just part of the social experience," he says.

Still, inaccessibility can be bad for business. One college Inigral had been talking with went with a competing product because blind people could use it, Mr. Staton says.

So does he plan to make his technology accessible? "I wouldn't know how to approach that at the moment," he says.

Mr. Shandrow and others argue that the right approach is for universities to force companies to include accessibility by refusing to buy their products without it. What tends to happen, though, is that the issue gets dealt with later, when students report problems to campus disability-services offices.

As a result of their history handling accessibility through these offices, college officials have been "lulled into complacency on this issue," says Deborah Kaplan, who directed California State University's Accessible Technology Initiative until this year.

An Arizona State spokeswoman declined to discuss Mr. Shandrow's specific allegations. But in general, the university bases its technology choices on cost, functionality, suitability, and accessibility, says the spokeswoman, Sharon Keeler. And ASU is committed to "providing access to all programs and facilities for students with disabilities."

She added, "We undertake efforts to provide reasonable accommodations when the students make us aware of the need for them."

Penn State, too, says it is committed to accommodating students. It complies with the law by doing things like making sighted aides available to help with inaccessible technology, says a spokeswoman, Annemarie Mountz. It's also studying new course software, including tests by blind students. "What we're finding is that all of these learning-management systems have accessibility issues," she says.

There are hopeful signs. California State University has shown how powerful colleges can be when they make access a high priority. The nation's largest public-college system turns its size into influence by denying problem companies access to its market of 430,000 students. That helped push Apple, Google, and Blackboard to upgrade their products for the blind. (See related article.)

Blackboard got so much better that in March, the National Federation of the Blind lauded the company for "great improvement" in the latest release of its course-management software. Navigation is smoother, and so are the forms, allowing blind students to do things like submit assignments and participate in discussions. Blackboard even offers a self-paced course for professors to get guidance on building accessible classes.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is considering amending the ADA's regulations to specify that the Web, like a building, is covered by the law.

Alex J. Hurder, a clinical professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, says the potential changes are "a big deal," because anyone in the business of preparing content for the Internet "would be warned in advance that you need to take these factors into consideration when you're preparing your programs. Otherwise the market will dry up for you, and nobody will be allowed to buy them."

A hearing on these issues is scheduled for December 16 in Washington. Mr. Shandrow, guided through the capital by his iPhone app, will be there.

Jeffrey Brainard provided additional reporting for this article.


1. 11294251 - December 12, 2010 at 10:24 am

It's great to see that this issue is finally getting the attention it deserves. One step that colleges and universities can take to address the problem of accessibility is to have their web sites continually reviewed for ADA compliance. The cost for doing so is tiny while the benefits are significant. A service that Reed College uses for this purpose is SiteImprove ( http://siteimprove.com/ ) We highly recommend that other institutions explore this or similar services.

Martin Ringle
Chief Technology Officer
Reed College
Portland, OR

2. joshcrary86 - December 13, 2010 at 05:50 am

I, myself, am blind. I do wish to make note that an important part of the equation in accomidations is that blind students work effectively in making accomidations happen: notify school, get in touch with new profs ahead of time and get text book info months in advance. I believe more schools should do training with instructors about uploading proper PDFs as well. I can say though that UNH and Boston College are wonderful for asisstance with these services.

3. amnirov - December 13, 2010 at 08:45 am

Sometimes, though, reasonable accommodations cannot be made. EG it is almost impossible and is sometimes wholly impossible to create reasonable accommodations in university CMS. In those situations, a single blind student could cause the removal of these services for every other student on campus. EG the Kindle debacle was not a victory for people with disabilities, instead it was a failure for everyone. This will be a trend during economic hard times. Think of it in terms of a physical space... instead of addressing, say, the lack of a wheel chair ramp or an elevator, a campus may choose instead to board up a building. Not good.

4. george_h_williams - December 13, 2010 at 09:02 am

@amnirov: Could you provide some specific examples of who it "is sometimes wholly impossible to create reasonable accommodations in university CMS"? Thanks.

5. george_h_williams - December 13, 2010 at 09:03 am

^ ["who" should be "how"]

6. aaoci - December 13, 2010 at 09:22 am


7. tbstoller - December 13, 2010 at 09:29 am

The ASU spokeswoman said, "We undertake efforts to provide reasonable accommodations when the students make us aware of the need for them."

This is a horrible approach to take towards accessibility issues. Students need to be able to concentrate on course material day one--not be trying to figure out how to use the workbook that is inaccessible to a blind student or track down a key needed for a service elevator for a physically impaired student to get to a class. The web designers, administrators and other decision-makers should have to navigate their campus while simulating a variety of disabilities--they have no idea of the hell they put students through.

I am a parent of a disabled child--now a college grad. When we toured an elite midwestern college and asked the admissions counselor about accessibility she responded, "Well, it's getting better. We have just settled a lawsuit out of court with the federal government to make changes". In the past they had taken the course of making changes as requested, but, surprise, surprise, not many disabled students had ever enrolled so few changes were made. I prayed they would not accept her because I didn't want her to have to expend the emotional energy to fight to get what she needed to attend class. Fortunately she went to a big state university that was (somewhat) used to accomodating a variety of needs.

That said, I think the answer to the Kindle issue would be to only use texts that can be accessed in a variety of ways--if a blind student can have his textbook scanned in a Kurzweil machine so it can be digitally read to him, I don't see how he is harmed by another student reading her copy on a Kindle. It is the content, not the format that is important.

8. gplm2000 - December 13, 2010 at 09:36 am

Another case of a miniscule minority disrupting and generating high cost to colleges, etc. The rights crowd demands that everything be changed in an instant to cater to a statistical insignificant cause, while ignoring the rights of the majority. That is not to say that an effort should be made to insure access, physical and virtual, should not be mdade, but not to the extremes and high cost their advocates want. Sort of like the disruptive use of a signer at every event, regardless of who is attending.

9. flowney - December 13, 2010 at 09:59 am

With the rapidly increasing use of instructional video comes new barriers to accessibility. Although the technology for lowering these barriers (alternate audio tracks that also describe action for the vision impaired and soft subtitle tracks for the hearing impaired), have long been available (see: http://hercules.gcsu.edu/~flowney/research/MPEG-4/subtitles/), very little is being done to deploy these technologies. The cost of adding such assists is not the only problem. Web-based controls that TTS (text-to-speech) relies upon to turn them on and off simply do not exist yet. The W3C is working on these things for HTML 5 but there is no ETA yet that anyone can plan with.

10. cgsnet - December 13, 2010 at 10:09 am

On October 8th of this year President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Accessibility Act. The purpose of the Act is to make smart phones, televisions, and other communication technologies accessible to persons with vision or learning loss. It does little good however to have the hardware accessible if the software is not designed to be workable with screen readers and other software solutions. The American Foundation for the Blind has a service called AFB Consulting that will work with companies to help them achieve accessibility of their products.

11. shrek - December 13, 2010 at 10:51 am

I sent this article via e-mail to a blind university student I know. Unfortunately, his screen reader was not able to access the content of the article.

12. amnirov - December 13, 2010 at 10:56 am

Okay. Let's consider what Shrek just did. If I were to post a link to this article to my CMS, and a blind student couldn't read it, then I'd have the choice: type the entire article out in a way that would permit the screen reader to access the content (I imagine that would be covered under academic fair use), or remove the link. If I don't have time to type it out, or money to pay someone else to create a compliant file, I have no choice but to delete it for everyone. It's a minor issue, one article, but it quickly expands to the point where one well-structured complaint could bring down every online course on offer at an institution.

13. janla - December 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

Thank you for bringing this issue to the public's attention. What I don't understand is how schools are getting away with this despite ADA and Section 508. There are currently existing guidelines for web accessibility which any school accepting public funds must comply with. How are they getting away with not doing so??? One answer to my question, no doubt, is hinted at in the comments of gplm2000 above - attitude. I have personally met many community college and university teachers who have a similarly bigoted view of the world. Such people have no idea how hard the disabled must work to get an education - work like taking a bus to school, finding the disabled student office, and requesting pdf copies of textbooks (among many other chores), following up this numerous times, as well as educating/putting up with teachers who do not care about their special needs. Personally, I think the teachers and the schools should be sued. Our students cannot wait for slow change that is constantly hindered by those who care only for themselves.

14. melanee - December 13, 2010 at 11:39 am

The truth is, we have no idea how many people with accessibility needs visit our sites each day. Sure we count and assist students and faculty who self report, but how many other prospective students, parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, etc. encounter our technology daily? Why should these people, who deserve to have the same technology as everyone else, even have to ask at all? Making sites accessible is not that hard, nor is it that hard to caption video (captioning and/or transcription is time consuming, but not difficult). The items scored in Mr. Gunderson's survey are easy to correct. They should have been built right the first time. If web and software developers, just took a little extra time to make this a priority ... AND guess what web developers? Creating sites that are accessible usually increases the effectiveness of the overall site through improved search engine optimization. A win-win in my book.

15. george_h_williams - December 13, 2010 at 11:43 am

My latest ProfHacker post, partly inspired by Marc Parry's article: "Universal Design, Usability, and Accessibility." -- "Many college and university web sites are poorly designed for any user, much less for users with disabilities. Colleges should rethink their approach to designing online environments and digital tools in order to better meet the needs of all of their users, not just those with disabilities."

16. 11196496 - December 13, 2010 at 12:05 pm

My experience in dealing with students who have disabilities is that the more I understand about teaching them, the better I am able to teach the general college population. Here I include visual, aural, orthodpedic disabilities, ADHD, brain stem injuries, etc. Each student with whom I have worked has provided me with an opportunity to learn more about effective teaching and teaching technologies. Thanks to all of you.

17. fcshofstra - December 13, 2010 at 12:05 pm

amnirov is incorrect and ridiculous in his/her claims. Obviously the article could simply be cut and pasted as text only into a CMS if that were what was needed to get out of the issue of frames, non-keyboard-accessible buttons, etc., that unnecessarily plague screen readers attempting to navigate websites. I hope no one is taking that person's comments seriously.

Where content is already electronic, there's really no good excuse for it being inaccessible. And it is easier than ever to provide alternative formats (text descriptions for images or movies, for instance, or audio-only soundtracks enhanced for the blind) than it has ever been before. People who want to throw up barriers to accessibility for whatever reason of their own are simply not credible.

18. momosgarage - December 13, 2010 at 12:38 pm

This is simply an example of how the larger job market will treat applicants with disabilities in their future careers. Essentially the message is that using technology productively "as-is", trumps accessibility. This is only going to get worse for these students with disabilities and imparements. But at the very least the colleges are giving these students a taste of what they will experience at large in the private sector job market.

19. gracefarfaglia - December 13, 2010 at 01:03 pm

I am a subject matter expert for a publisher producing an online course for nutrition. I am also an adjunct instructor with multiple sclerosis. Visual impairment is one of my symptoms. Our client, a large eastern university, has yet to discuss the need to make the site ADA compliant. It would be very difficult for our team because the electronic student guide is protected by prior licensing agreements and at the point of course design cannot be modified. The student guide is a pdf file with a password protection so that students do not violate copyright protections. The gradable activities (puzzles, matching, fill in the blanks) are dynamically generated would be a challenge to someone with a text reader. I fought the battle for more audio, and lost. None of these barriers are insurmountable, but may be cost prohibative. The publishers and the universities need to negotiate these issues up front. In the past for my face-to-face courses, I modified my online site for my visually impaired students. But because I use an increasingly digitally supported text book, the student resources are beyond my control.

20. dhill - December 13, 2010 at 01:04 pm

A button leading to the FB app should not be a barrier! Assistive technology developers are the missing link in this article and the accessibility debate in general.

I'm wondering when the debate will also include assistive device standards and the problems posed by the lack of an industry standard. Think of it this way, if my circa 1995 web browser won't work with a 2010 web page, do I sue the web page owner or upgrade my browser? Maybe that's not the most compelling analogy, but the point remains that somehow, assistive technology developers have to be drawn into the accountability matrix with the rest of us.

21. mpstaton - December 13, 2010 at 01:53 pm

As the maker of the ASU Facebook Application, no employee or manager of Inigral had heard of any accessibility issues prior to speaking to Marc Perry. We spoke to him on the topic of Social Learning, and we were alarmed by the news that any student was having trouble accessing our application for student engagement.   

None of the schools we work with or any of their students have alerted us to problems of accessibility.  

It's of the utmost importance that Inigral that the Facebook Applications we provide are able to engage all students.  We are planning to meet with the Disability Resource Center at ASU to discuss this particular issue, and we have been researching issues of accessibility and planning our resources accordingly.  

We will continue to deliver the best way to leverage Facebook for admissions and student engagement, and we will be improving and optimizing truly engaging all students through social software

22. mpstaton - December 13, 2010 at 02:07 pm


I thank you for bringing this issue to the attention of the design community focused on Higher Education.

@janla, I've never met any administrator in Higher Education that wasn't thinking of the best outcomes for their students. But I'm glad you have some urgency to communicate about these issues and have the expectation that everyone will take them seriously.

@dhill, feel free to contact us about this. perhaps there's some synergy.

@shrek, if that's true, that just further demonstrates that designing applications on the internet involves a lot of complexity. it's hard to get everything right, especially if you're still early in your design and development iterations.

23. mpstaton - December 13, 2010 at 02:10 pm

I just talked to a gentleman named Marc Grossman from the American Foundation for the Blind Consulting Group. He was extremely helpful and pointed me to a website:


You can visit afbconsulting.org to find out more about what Marc's up to....

24. bob_martinengo - December 13, 2010 at 03:53 pm

There is a federal commission studying this issue right now. Here is their webpage:

The Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials
in Post-Secondary Education for Students with Disabilities


25. latico - December 13, 2010 at 04:29 pm

I would like to point out to amnirov and gplm2000, and others who agree with them, that the likelihood that they will become disabled at some point in their lives is high. Do you want to be shut out of technology when you get older? Disability issues are for everyone, because it is the rare and lucky person who does not deal with disability as he or she ages. All of the people happily using technology with no difficulty now may find in 25 years that they can no longer access devices on which they have come to depend. That is why it is worth fighting for accessible software and hardware when you yourself are not disabled. It's not an act of generosity: it's something that has a potential future benefit for everyone.

26. lotsoquestions - December 13, 2010 at 05:09 pm

I'm really happy that people are starting to realize that the responsibility for identifying these issues is at the level of the software developers and the university personnel who decide what software to purchase. In other words, the idea is to anticipate the problems and figure out how to solve them PRIOR to the student discovering that the issues exist when he can't read his course materials or participate in discussions and so forth.

However, the way it works at my university, usually, is that two weeks before the course is about to start, the disability services representative contacts the professor and generates a list of tasks for the already overworked professor to carry out to make the course more accessible for the student. (At our university, the professor would in all likelihood have received a tasking telling them to find a fix for the Spanish book issue.) ADA issues are EVERONE'S responsibility -- not just the professors and certainly not just the student's.

27. 11272784 - December 13, 2010 at 06:23 pm

Doing the right thing is one challenge; affording it is another.

All accommodations take staff research and time. Higher ed institutions are all walking the razor's edge in their budgets. It's easy to predict that given all the conflicting demands for funding and staff, this is going to be one of the things that only gets attention when the subject is forced upon them.

Let's be clear about one thing - where faculty build courses, they don't have a clue about disability access, and they're not going to. It's not their skill set, and they're not going to learn how to do this. It's up to other staff at the institution to deal with disabled access...both on general websites and inside academic courses.

I see both sides, and I don't have a solution. Our institution has more than 3,000 online course accounts, many dating back as much as 12 years, and there is no money to go through them in the near future and update them to compliance. They'll end up getting that kind of attention only when (or if) the faculty member teaching the course asks for instructional design support.

This is not going to be a revolution - it's going to be evolution. I'd love for it to be faster, but logic, staffing and budgets say it's not gonna happen fast...and never happen completely.

28. chinadoll5 - December 13, 2010 at 08:42 pm

American with disabilities are constantly faced with web sites that don't takes the disabled needs in account. I read in an article where Google is working to become accessible to disabled users, which will be good. We all know that no one intentionally set out to create an inaccessible web site. After all, the point of having a web site is to reach all people, even if they are disabled or not.

Anita Gayden

29. garay - December 13, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Excellent article and update on an ever-increasing time-sensitive issue. It's December 2010 :: there really is no excuse for not designing class materials, student activities and the overall course development process without taking sound Universal Design principles and Digital Accessibility in mind, right from the outset.

Today's Teaching & Learning Technology affords us a myriad of pedagogical opportunities for engagement, effective teaching and active learning that need not discriminate against people with disabilities. As Academia further embraces multimedia and educational video content, in particular, we must ensure that our schools provide an equivalent high-quality experience to the disabled. Fortunately, it is a lot easier to do the right thing, ...IFF (if and only if) we try...

30. interface - December 14, 2010 at 03:56 pm

Wow. glmp200's post could be a contest: "How many offensive ideas completely unexpected in anyone over the age of 14 can YOU find?"

And just a reminder, mon ami: karma's a bitch.

31. joshcrary86 - December 15, 2010 at 05:40 am

Amnirov - you are making rediculous claims. Copy/paste the text. Or, convert that article into an OCRed PDF. Don't make up rediculous procedures to justify your obvious care free atitude towards aiding those with disabilities. I believe we should use e-readers, they'll save students money in the long run, but I absolutely believe we must make steps forward to include the blind in the development. I am tired of being thought of at the after thought for use. Amnirov, educate yourself.

32. jffoster - December 15, 2010 at 07:38 am

32, that you "absolutely believe" something is not an argument for that thing.

The hippopotamus in the pudding is the question of who pays?

33. george_h_williams - December 15, 2010 at 09:51 am

Creating accessible digital resources is not especially difficult, and it doesn't cost any more than creating inaccessible digital resources. The problems are simply apathy and ignorance.

34. bekka_alice - December 15, 2010 at 11:14 am

Sometimes programming is a challenges - but setting up strawmen of difficulty when addressing the most basic response to usability concerns makes every argument used thereafter suspect. I'm seriously wondering why one button on the virtual campus environment does work and the other doesn't and a company leader says he doesn't know how to address the one that doesn't - he should have his programmers look at what they did to create the one that does work.

I appreciate the grit of the lady who had to suffer through the early days of accessibility issues on campus, but my response to her argument is the same as it is to my husband who tends to say things like "Oh, your broken hand isn't so bad, at least you didn't lose your arm!" Just because losing the arm is worse doesn't mean breaking the hand isn't bad. What I'd like to see is a general thought in the back of any educational site developer's mind about how to make the site compatible - because developing that while doing initial programming is vastly easier than trying to engineer individual patches after the fact.

When we initiated a new ticket system that people would be able to use directly across the schools in our system, in training I asked the vendor whether the system was Jaws compatible, and they didn't know - eventually they came back with an alternate login page that will work with Jaws and suggested that the main page have a "blind users click here" note to route to the alternate login. The funny thing is, the page looks exactly the same to a sighted user; the compatibility code is in the background and it had no compatibility issues with any other program or system, so there was absolutely no sense in routing blind users to an alternate page - why wasn't the vendor simply using the compatible page as our primary site? It was evident the developer thought of it after the fact and appended code, when they could have saved themselves time and organizational effort by just making the initial site compatible to start with. Although this is an egregious and simple example, I'm certain the thought problem as a whole is endemic to development teams.

35. bekka_alice - December 15, 2010 at 11:30 am

Sometimes typing is a challenges too. ^_^

36. texasmusic - December 15, 2010 at 11:35 am

The comment I noticed was how use of the virtual student union was not required. Well...neither is attendance at college. If it's a service that someone with a disability wants to utilize, the law says we make it accessible. Doesn't matter if they NEED it or not. It only matters that they WANT it. The disabled deserve the same opportunities as everyone else.

37. 22221757 - December 15, 2010 at 04:29 pm

The accessibility issues outlined in this piece remind us all that barriers remain for disabled students on America's campuses, and that new technologies can be either a barrier or a tool for the success of these students.

For years America's textbook publishers have worked to ensure that disabled students have the tools they need to succeed in college. Two years ago, higher education members of the Association of American Publishers donated almost $1 million to create the Access Text Network (accesstext.org), a non-profit, national online database of alternative course materials. Launched in 2009, the AccessText Network has greatly enhanced the speed and ease for students with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia, or physical impairments to get the alternative electronic textbooks they need for college.More than 700 colleges and universities in 47 states have enrolled in the AccessText Network, which hosts alternative textbooks from 10 of the leading educational publishers that comprise approximately 90 percent of the titles used at America's colleges and universities.

While barriers still exist, new technologies continue to be developed - providing new and necessary accessibility for disabled students. And while Darrell Shandrow's story shows that there is still much work to do, together publishers and student advocates are pressing forward as members of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education to assess barriers and identify technical solutions to improve time delivery of accessible instructional materials.

Tom Allen, President and CEO
Association of American Publishers

38. gledder - December 16, 2010 at 04:06 pm

I am particularly bothered when I hear someone say they didn't know their technology is not accessible to the blind. Nobody ever creates a web education site or a technological device without giving some potential users a chance to try it and suggest changes. How hard would it be to find a blind person to try the new technology at that early stage? I suggested this to the web site developer at my institution and received a reply that said, in effect, that some set of published guidelines were fully adequate to judge accessibility and that there was no value to having a real blind person try the web page before posting it.

Screen readers, such as Jaws, can convert html code into sound, similarly to the way browsers convert html code into a display. The people who maintain the html language standards have done an excellent job of providing standards that make web pages accessible. Usually an inaccessible web page is a sign that the person who created the page doesn't know enough html to do it right.

I am a college professor, father of a blind college student, and husband of a blind person in the work force. This combination has given me a good understanding of what is possible for the blind. Screen readers can read Word documents and html files, but they cannot read pdf files. I usually post pdf documents for my classes--but if I have a blind student it is no trouble at all to send that student the original Word file from which I created the pdf. Many blind students have a device that they can use to read Word documents manually (the device has software that converts the text to Braille and hardware that presents the Braille in a row of cells). There are other devices that can photograph documents and render them into sound. My wife can read the information on a pill bottle with one of these, for example. However, these devices don't work when eye-catching graphics result in a Byzantine layout.

Glenn Ledder

39. gledder - December 16, 2010 at 04:17 pm

One last item for University administrators: Universities should boycott Kindle. A screen reader that is inaccessible to the blind is inexcusable. How can anyone design such a device and fail to account for the possibility that it might be useful to the blind? It would have cost neither time nor money to have designed the Kindle with actual buttons to control the functions, as button technology is much simpler than touch screen technology. If enough people refuse to use Kindle, it won't take them very long to produce an accessible model.

Glenn Ledder

40. lisa123636 - December 23, 2010 at 07:23 am

Wow soooo you guys really have nothing else better to do than argue with complete strangers huh
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41. lisa123636 - December 23, 2010 at 07:27 am

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42. barmstr2 - January 03, 2011 at 09:49 am

I am a teacher of the blind/visually impaired in NYC public high schools. Yes, technology has made a world of difference but, as Mr. Ledder responded to 'fcshofstra', screenreaders and the braille notetakers (braille computers) cannot read pdf's and it is difficult to locate the text on 'busy' internet pages (some do have the 'print as text' option). Yes, students can print out and scan as the article mentions but, even when I do that for my students, scanners cannot always produce a 100% clean copy and reading the result is like a 'cloze' reading exercise.

For us, NIMAS (National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard), has greatly improved accessible texts but many publishers have yet to adopt the federal ADA guidelines and we have to do tedious prep (scanning, translating, enlarging, ...)to supply the assigned materials. NYC DOE is slowly integrating i-Pad's for large print readers as the NIMAS books and other e-books can be downloaded as a lighter-weight option to heavy large print texts.

I am preparing my graduates for college life (no, there is no SAT or ACT prep material easily accessible for my students) and this article gives them some good questions to ask of the prospective schools when they interview/apply.

I hope this was an academic kick-in-the-pants for many programmers, publishers, and institutions.

43. simpleapply - January 11, 2011 at 01:32 pm

This is an issue that is going to be spotlighted in 2011. Please see the following blog article about the requirement and recent data:


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