26 October 2006

Web Access - the right way

Accessible web sites are all too rare, and ones that are truly easy to work are even rarer, so I want to celebrate the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester and their fabulous web site.

Every page on the RAC site is topped by an accessibility bar that allows every web visitor to choose between the graphical version, a plain-text version, or a version designed specifically for screen readers. There are also quick buttons to change the type size.

Compare this to the typical educational site (allow me to use my own Michigan State University as an example). MSU's site does contain an accessibility statement, but it is in the very last line of the page - a screen reader user would have to allow a default reading of the entire page in order to come to this item. RAC does it correctly, with the choice in the upper left-hand corner where even a fully blind-browser or screen reading system (such as JAWS) would find it instantly.

The automatic creation of accessibility choices - without any need for any training or discovery time - is what makes this a perfect solution. The first time that I saw it, after communicating with one of the professors there about accessibility issues, I realized "this should be the model."

The challenge is to look at your school or university's web site. How easy is it to get to the accessibility options? How easy is it to make the type bigger? Could you operate your site with a screen reader and the monitor turned off?

Remember. This isn't just about students - schools often say, "we don't have any blind students." But what about parents? guardians? relatives? prospective students? or even the citizens who fund your school or grant it tax-free status? Someone in your school community needs these accommodations. And if they need the accommodations, they need to be able to find those accommodations without first taking a course in navigating your website.

For web access advice and tutorials you may want to start at WebAim and WC3, the Web Accessibility Initiative. To test sites, use CynthiaSays... and open your digital doors to everyone.

- Ira Socol

23 October 2006

What's Free?

A conversation on the SpeEdChange list (see right column) asked about free solutions. So lets go public with this. This is important because schools often say that they do not use assistive technologies or universal design technologies because they "are so expensive." I often respond by saying that if the school/university has already installed all the software freely available, I will listen to their complaint, but if not, I assume other (less pleasant) motives.

So here are some free options to make ICT in your school more accessible...

Microsoft Reader (all free, a three-step install - Reader, the TTS engine, and the "Read in Microsoft Reader Add-in" which allows instant conversion from MS Word. http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/pc.asp
for free books - http://etext.virginia.edu/ebooks/

Firefox/FireVox http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/ and http://www.firevox.clcworld.net/ or Firefox (1.0.7) with FoxyVoice http://www.filehippo.com/download_firefox/?390 (make sure tool preferences are set to NOT automatically update software) and the FoxyVoice Extension at: https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=269

Opera (with speech enabled) http://www.opera.com/

ReadPlease2003 http://www.readplease.com/english/downloads/

Dragnifier http://www.magnifiers.org/links/Download_Software/Screen_Magnifiers/Windows_Freeware_and_shareware/

GraphCalc - a marvelous free graphing calculator that allows easy intro of math notation into word via copy/paste (and may eliminate spending $100 a student on TI calculators)

Click-N-Type - perhaps the best, most flexible on-screen keyboard that talks to you as well in a ton of languages

Dasher - another "higher needs based" on-screen keyboard

Google Accessible Search (blind-low vision support)

SENSwitcher (early childhood, CI, etc)

Adobe Acrobat 7 (reads pdfs)

Another critical free resource is teaching students to use free on-line storage to back up their files. British Telecom (new), Google's G-mail and Yahoo Mail all come with 2 gigabytes or more of storage. The simplest way to use this is to attach files to message "drafts" and save them. This creates data storage that you can access from any computer (scan your passport, etc and upload it this way before you travel for one great potential problem solver).

And remember, Google now offers free calendars, word processing and spreadsheet software that not only is remotely stored but can be shared by workgroups, especially student workgroups.

- Ira Socol