Rowland discusses online access
By Leslie Ye
Published on Wednesday, January 26, 2011
If a blind student needs to find the room where his University of Antarctica Biology 250 class is held, he might use a screen reader to interpret the information he cannot see. Once the student accesses an online class schedule, the reader — which reads aloud text on a webpage — spits out a stream of information.
“Table with 10 columns and five rows. Department code. Class. Section. Max enrollment. Current enrollment. Room number. Day. Start time. End time. Instructor. Bio. 400, one, 15, 13, five, Mon., Wed., Fri.” The reader continues to list the numbers and words of the schedule.
This hypothetical scenario is an example of the obstacles that disabled students currently face when trying to access the Internet, Cyndi Rowland, associate director at Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, said in a lecture titled “Web Accessibility in Civil Society: Persons With Disabilities in Today’s Educational Environments,” held Tuesday in Moore Hall.
“How’d we do?” Rowland, who also works as executive director of Web Accessibility In Mind, asked the audience following a demonstration of the reader’s capabilities. “What room are we going to?”
“Two comma two,” an audience member responded, to laughter.
Nine percent of incoming college freshmen in America report some sort of disability, while 8.5 percent of the general population has disabilities that inhibit web use, Rowland said.
Although a similar percentage of Dartmouth students report disabilities each year, there are no blind students at Dartmouth and none of the disabled students are inhibited from accessing the Internet, Director of Student Accessibility Services Ward Newmeyer said in the lecture.
If web accessibility does not improve to meet sufficient standards, there will be many implications for both college students and faculty — particularly decreased recruitment of individuals with disabilities, Rowland said.
“It is a very expensive proposition to think that you’re going to find quality individuals with disabilities if your web presence that you’re using to recruit isn’t even available to them,” Rowland said.
Accessibility is still not the final solution, as web resources must be easy to use, according to Rowland.
“One of the reasons that I brought up [the screen reader] example is that I wanted to juxtapose accessibility and usage,” she said. “It was accessible because you could hear it, but it was completely unusable to you.”
It is crucial to consider every member of society when developing technology that will be used by the general public, Rowland said.
“Stephen Hawking had severe disabilities, and if it wasn’t for technology you wouldn’t have some of these discussions that we have as a result of his work,” Rowland said.
Other disabilities, such as color-blindness, must also be considered. Rowland pulled up a slide showing a list of mushroom varieties with a title declaring that the varieties in green text were safe to eat, while varieties in red were not. Color-blind individuals might not be able to tell the difference between the two colors and would therefore be deprived of this essential knowledge, Rowland said.
To rectify these problems with accessibility and usability, website developers must avoid what Rowland called the “accommodation model.” According to Rowland, most websites are not designed with accessibility in mind, and are only later made accessible to people with disabilities upon request.
“We have an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy [regarding accessibility] in advance,” Rowland said.
Students and community members in the audience said they attended the lecture to learn more about the accessibility of resources for the disabled.
Denise Anthony, a sociology professor and research director for the College’s Institute for Security, Technology and Society, said she saw the importance of a new understanding of diversity in the context of technology.
“ISTS wanted to focus on issues of diversity related to technology,” Anthony said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “Technology has to be relevant to all of society, and this is thinking more broadly about diversity issues beyond just race and class.”
Anna Shubina and her husband Sergey Bratus said they came to the lecture because it relates directly to their field of study. Shubina and Bratus work in the computer science department as a postdoctoral researcher and a research assistant professor, respectively.
“Lack of accessibility usually indicates that there are potential security problems,” Shubina said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “If a screen reader can’t extract text out of a file, then it’s an indicator that there’s a lot in that format and there’s a lot of stuff in that file that could do bad things to your computer.”
Rowland emphasized the importance of increasing awareness to improve accessibility, but also said that “administrative will” at the College may be a reason why the College’s web system is not yet accessible to students with disabilities that would inhibit their Internet use.
“From everything I’ve heard, there is a welcoming administrative ear to this issue,” Rowland said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “But if there isn’t a commitment to this as an end goal, it’s not going to happen.”
Rowland said she was optimistic about the future of accessibility.
“More people will recognize the advantage that accessibility plays for them and will jump on the bandwagon,” she said. “The more that institutions like Dartmouth want to do this, more vendors are going to create products that help them do that, and the ball will start rolling.”
Rowland’s lecture was sponsored by the Institute for Security, Technology and Society.