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An international peer-reviewed journal

Online Learning: Designing for All Users

Cindy Poore-Pariseau

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, August 2010, pp. 147 - 156

Article Contents

Relationship of Laws and Guidelines to Electronic Media

As previously stated, s508 was created to increase accessibility of electronic media for people with disabilities in the U.S. According to this law, U.S. federal government agencies cannot buy, develop, maintain, or use electronic or information that is not accessible to people with disabilities (Brophy & Craven, 2007). The WCAG (mentioned in the previous section) was later formed as a worldwide organization

in order to bring accessibility considerations into the technology development of the [W3C] Web Consortium and to determine guidelines for accessible technology including web authoring and user agents (browsers). As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, and the Director of the W3C put it, ‘The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. (Association of Tech Act Projects, 2007, p. 3)

In regards to accessibility of electronic media, the standards of WCAG (1.0 and 2.0) are similar to the standards outlined by s508, but the WCAG standards go a couple of steps further. The Association of Tech Act Projects (2007) outlines the checkpoints addressed by WCAG, which are divided into three priorities, as follows:

1. A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use Web documents.

2. A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers to accessing Web documents.

3. A Web content developer may address this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it somewhat difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will improve access to Web documents (p. 3).

Although a comparison of WCAG 2.0 guidelines and s508 standards has not yet been made available, a side-by-side view of the WCAG 1.0 guidelines and s508 standards can be found at http://www.jimthatcher.com/sidebyside.htm. This website gives full details of the similarities and differences between the WCAG and s508, but suffice it to say that the WCAG principles are more extensive and include guidelines that make online information as inclusive as possible for people with a broad array of abilities. While s508 is broad in terms of its mandates (see http://www.section508.gov/ for specific details), WCAG guidelines are specific enough to detail actions that can and should be taken to make online material accessible. For example, in designing courses with the WCAG 2.0 in mind, an instructional designer should consider (and apply) the guidelines shown in Table 1 to their electronic media.

Table 1. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0*

Table 1

*The content for Table 1 was compiled from excerpts from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C; December 8, 2008) website, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

While there are various tools available that will evaluate online material for degrees of accessibility (Bobby, currently owned by IBM, is one example) many of these tools cannot fully evaluate for accessibility when it comes to checkpoints such as scripting, accessibility of video and audio files, or the suitability of alternative texts that serve to describe graphics for those who are visually impaired (Wisdom et al., 2006). Wisdom et al. expand on this thought by adding that such tools are not effective if web content designers do not have a working knowledge of those accessibility guidelines that require human judgment. The need for assistive technology can be decreased if accessibility guidelines are implemented on the front end rather than trying to retrofit accessibility measures.

Although the guidelines are extensive and will involve extra time and energy up front, the increased accessibility may open distance education to a larger audience as well as assist educational institutions in preventing future lawsuits.

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