Thursday, 24 May 2007

Making software accessible: rising to the challenge

Last Thursday (17/05/2007) I attended the Becta event "Making software accessible: rising to the challenge", with Andrew Evans, our Standards and Interoperability Specialist.

I have to say that the event was quite an eye-opener. I was struck by the emphasis on cognitive and learning disabilities which have such a bearing on education. It should be obvious that these are a prime concern for many educators and it seems silly now that I was surprised by it. I suppose I've been so focussed on the physical aspects of accessibility on the web that I hadn't considered the shift in emphasis when it comes to education.

Another issue was the need for teachers to be able to use the online material in different forms - extracting images, or cutting and pasting text for use in other documents. This is partly because some students respond better to physical resources, but also because many students aren't able to interact with certain pieces of software because they aren't keyboard or screen reader accessible. This is another thing I was shocked by. It's hard to believe that in 2007 vendors are still selling products to schools which can only be accessed via mouse control. Many of these vendors have been around for a decade or more, but for reasons I can only marvel at, haven't factored disability as a concern.

There was a great video demonstration by David Colvern of Ace Centres which showed a mobility impaired boy using a simple paint package. His impairment meant that he could only use one key at a time to draw a picture on the screen. He had to move the cursor, start drawing a line, end drawing a line, change colour etc. all with single key presses. The fruits of his efforts were astonishing, and if it hadn't been for a simple customisation of the package by the guys at the Ace centre then maybe nobody would ever have known that he could draw at all. I'll try and get permission to post a copy of the finished image to show here.

There were some very good presentations on the day, but Carol Allen, a respected practitioner from North Tyneside made a statement that summed the day up for me. She said:

Give me FLEXIBILITY!

...and for me that's the new challenge, helping Accessibility, Usability and Flexibility play together.

7 comments:

Blair Millen said...

"Many of these vendors have been around for a decade or more, but for reasons I can only marvel at, haven't factored disability as a concern"

I wonder how many will be around in 10 years time?

And...

Flexibility is the new accessibility? I like it :-)

grant said...

Yeah, that's a controversial one. It won't stick. I remember someone trying to convince me once that accessibility and usability were the same thing. Flexibility is definately in the mix though, it's broadened my thinking somewhat. Flaccesibility? Accflexibility? Accessibility 2.0? I'm not very good at this...

Aaron said...

There's a long overdue shift in education. You're right, it seems kind of like a "gee duh" moment that they're trying to focus on the cognitive end of learning disabilities, but as you so rightly mentioned, it's absolutely crucial. Education sets the foundation for who we become.

dotjay said...

Overlooked accessibility never ceases to amaze me.

My girlfriend works in IT for schools and I hear of or see some great software for kids with special needs, but general software / Web application accessibility aimed at schools does seem in particularly bad shape.

A friend of mine, Steve Lee, often comments on accessible open-source software in education. May make interesting reading for others in this area.

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