Thursday, April 12, 2007

Making Australian Universities Accessible Online

The the Web Accessibility Forum 2007, Canberra, 11 April 2007 went well. Trevor Allan from ANU gave the introduction. I gave my talk on "Teaching Web Accessibility at an Australian University". Brian Hardy, from Vision Australia talked on "Making non-HTML content accessible" and Dey Alexander, from Dey Alexander Consulting, on "Australian university website accessibility revisited". The theme of the day turned out to be: "accessibility is not hard, but how do we get people to do it?".

Tom Worthington:
Teaching Web Accessibility at an Australian University

I talked about how the accessibility standards, practical examples and online tools were used to teach accessible web design to ANU students. One aspect of this is that the lecture notes are made available as web pages and a digital audio Podcast of the lectures is provided, making the lectures about accessibility more accessible.

Brian Hardy: Making non-HTML content accessible

Brian Hardy, from Vision Australia talked on making word processing, presentation and e-documents accessible. He concentrated on Microsoft Word, Powerpoint and PDF creation. He had a useful list of techniques to use and pitfalls to avoid.

The techniques to make a document accessible are very similar to those used by Ian Barnes and Peter Sefton, to convert word processing documents via XML, to other formats for archiving and electronic publishing.

To make a word processing document accessible (or convertible), you use a well structured template, avoid arbitrary formatting and label non-text items. Headings should be marked with styles (such as "Heading 2"), not by just increasing the font size. Images need captions to identify them for those who can't see them and should have an extended description in the text.

The process for Powerpoint is much the same as word processing, but with more work-arounds needed, due to Powerpoint's more limited structuring ability.

Brian made the point that Adoboe had made great improvements to accessibility in PDF and it was possible to make good PDF documents. But the document creator had to do work to make the documents accessible and newer reader software had to be used. Just selecting "print to PDF" does not produce a good result.

The issues seem to be similar to those for web pages: accessible documents are possible, but this takes extra expertise and work from the document creator. How can the document creator, or their employer, be motivated to put the extra effort?

This is a topic I have discussed at length for electronic document creation: if only we could get authors to use templates correctly, e-document creation would be so much easier; but can we? The alternative might be to have the author use a specialised authoring tool which enforces the structuring rules. With no font setting commands, the author would be forced to use styles.

But would people use new tools? This seemed unlikely, until the advent of web based services. Some authors are now used to using web based tools to create email messages, blog postings and the like. It is not too large a step to have them use similar tools to write a whole media release, article or book. Google Docs (previously Writely) shows it is possible to create a web based word processor (with limited functions).

Where a document creator is working as part of an organization, such as in the media center of a company, or even writing a scientific paper for a particular journal, it may be easier to get them to use a web based tool, than try and make them uses styles and templates in a word processor.

Dey Alexander: Australian university website accessibility revisited

Dey described work underway to assess the accessibility of Australian university web sites. A previous review in 2003 showed that almost all Australian universities failed the most basic accessibility tests. Work so far indicates that universities have not improved and may now have less accessible web sites than they did in 2003. This has serious implications for universities and the Australian economy.

Australian universities are at risk of court action for unlawful discrimination against the disabled. Many Australian universities run courses in other countries and are subject to the laws of those countries. The cost of a court action in the USA, for example, could be considerable.

Overseas students are a significant source of income for Australia and the universities failure to make their web sites accessible will be making Australia less competitive with other countries. Many of those in India and China have slower Internet connections and older computers with older versions of software. Students may turn to less reputable sources of information about Australia courses or look to other countries instead.

A recent survey of federal government web sites showed good and improving support for accessibility. There would appear to be no good reason why Australian universities should not be showing similar improvements. In contract they appear to be acting unlawfully and
presenting a poor image of Australian education internationally.

Universities which do not comply with Australia law should not be in business. DEST could put all universities on 12 months notice that those which failed to comply with web accessibility requirements would be banned from taking overseas students. If the universities failed to comply after a further 12 months they could then have all federal funding suspended, effectively shutting down the institution.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors'
Committee (AVCC) , which is soon to be renamed "Universities Australia", might like to take the initiative to have universities fix their web sites. This might lessen the need for government and court action. The Vice Chancellors would have a strong incentive to act, as they may be held personally liable under the laws of some countries for the actions of their institutions.

But the AVCC needs to first get its house in order. One surprising problem at the forum was the poor setup of the AVCC meeting room for computer based presentations. There was a video projector, but the connections for it were at the back of the room. As a result presenters had to sit behind the audience at the far back of the room. The audience had to swivel their heads from looking at the presentation to look at the speaker. This was ironic for a meeting on accessibility and would have been very difficult for anyone with a disability to use. It looks as though the AVCC is still in the "slide show" mode of the previous century.

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