A tick-box approach to accessibility is unlikely to work in practice, say Neil Witt and David Sloan. Students with disabilities should be involved in developing e-learning as part of a holistic solution.
Mention "accessibility" to anyone involved in web or e-learning design and you will probably see a haunted look appear in their eyes. A surge of activity in the past two years has raised awareness of the implications of disability legislation for higher education, and developers have been urged to meet disabled learners' needs by providing accessible e-learning.
Many institutions are still struggling to meet the challenge. Despite comprehensive guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), confusion remains. Since they are just guidelines, not standards, they can be only conformed to, not complied with, and they are not enforceable and so may be seen as a hindrance.
No positive definitions exist of what UK web and e-learning content providers must do to avoid breaching the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. A case in summer 2003 between two service providers and the Royal National Institute for the Blind was settled out of court, unfortunately wasting an opportunity for case law to clarify what is and is not required to avoid being discriminatory under the DDA. So the law prohibits unjustified discrimination, but does not stipulate how websites should be designed to avoid such discrimination.
To many, this is an excuse to say "we don't know what we need to do to comply, so we'll just do the minimum" - this being far short of an acceptable experience for a person with disabilities. To others, it is an opportunity to develop their own rules and use non-compliance with these rules as a stick with which to beat ill-informed web designers.
The confusion, lack of standards and the introduction of legislation here and abroad have made web accessibility financially lucrative for web designers, consultants and software developers. It seems that nearly every web design company is now an expert, and there is no shortage of consultants to assist academic institutions in their quest for "DDA compliance".
One such adviser announced last year that it had helped a university develop a website that reached the W3C's highest possible level of accessibility. Yet a check of the site's home page revealed that it had failed to meet several basic guidelines.
This illustrates the growth of an industry of accessibility consultants and the inevitably diverse ways in which they generate business. "Naming and shaming" has become common, although the guidelines pinpointed are often subjective.
Many people assume that web accessibility is an issue only for blind people, but Higher Education Statistics Agency data show that the largest group of students declaring themselves as disabled are those with dyslexia. So there is a danger of assuming that accessibility is associated with a single disability, when all are equally important and all access needs must be addressed.
Several IT managers breathed a sigh of relief when a major software producer, UsableNet, contacted universities about a product that automatically creates a text-only website as a solution to web accessibility. But this is hardly an inclusive web strategy. It is the digital equivalent of a theatre announcing that, rather than providing wheelchair-accessible viewpoints of the stage, it will provide a television in a ground-floor room where wheelchair users can go to watch a recording of the performance. (UsableNet now accepts that the software is only a partial solution.)
But accessibility shouldn't be seen as an ailment that expensive software will "cure", or an irritation to be soothed by consultants. Technology can and should break down barriers and widen access to more people. E-learning can ensure that the challenges for disabled people looking for an education are only of the intellectual kind, rather than how they get into the lecture theatre or read course notes.
The culture of accessibility has changed and it has become almost cool. So, while campaigning is still important, we now need to encourage and support rather than name and shame.
A designer ticking boxes on an accessibility checklist may end up with something that is technically accessible, but effectively unusable for a disabled person. Careful and judicious use of internationally recognised pan-disability design guidelines is important, but the best way of ensuring a piece of e-learning content is accessible is to involve people with disabilities in its development.
In education, the long-term strategy must be to treat the issue in a holistic manner - to look at the role of a website in the overall delivery of learning and teaching. Accessibility must be embedded in institutional policy through staff development programmes.
The DDA and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act of 2001 have rightly made web accessibility a hot topic. But if the witch-hunts and scaremongering continue, we may see the loss of some extremely valuable educational material, as people become too frightened to allow access to e-learning in case they are named and shamed, or even sued, because they have not jumped through the virtual hoops imposed by some self-appointed watchdog.
Neil Witt is from the Institute for Science Education, School of Earth, Ocean and Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth. David Sloan is from the Digital Media Access Group, University of Dundee. Both authors are TechDis Associates.
ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3