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Integrating Accessible Design into the
Educational Web Design Process

Alan Foley

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The way we think about how people use computers informs our attitudes toward how we design web sites. We often tend to think of those who use the websites we design as passive users in the process rather than active participants in a generative exchange. A productive starting point for thinking about this is Brenda Laurel’s (1993) work that moves considerations of how people interact with technology away from the notion of mere “computer users.” Laurel views computers as theatre - an experience that varies from viewer to viewer and that is dependent on varying experience, attitudes, and ideas. Laurel suggests that humans working with computers are not merely "users,” but human agents. The potential that a person has, not as merely a computer user, but as a person acting with agency to shape her own experience adds endless possibility to the conception and mediation of identity and agency. This notion that there is agency possible when using computers is an important one, because just as the possibility for agency exists, so does the possibility for domination and unequal power relations. Considering computer users as agents shaping their experience offers hope for those trying to utilize computers and the Internet as ways to ameliorate some of the less-than-desirable effects of the information revolution. This notion of the agent also forces web designers to think about the people who will be using their web site – what experiences, background, learning styles, and abilities they bring to the experience. Web designers often do not make these considerations for a variety of reasons. 

The rapid growth of the Internet has changed the ways people communicate, teach, and learn, while at the same time increasing the isolation of those who do not have access to information technologies. As methods of teaching with Internet technologies continue to proliferate and more educational materials are placed online, it is important that educators consider the social, political, and pedagogic implications of disability and difference and the Internet. What most discussions about accessibility in education fail to recognize is that access is not about the “limitations” of the individual, rather it is about society’s inability to accommodate difference (Charlton, 1998). Similarly, educators who might be aware of learning style and difference in a classroom setting often lose that awareness in an online environment1.

Educators often do not consider the broader implications of accessibility for two general reasons. Schools have, historically, delegated the issue of disability to Special Education. This separation within schools has created an environment where most teachers do not think of disability as a larger issue. This tendency runs aground when education goes online. Additionally, the notion of accessibility is ill defined and is often only thought of in terms of specific disabilities, not benefit for the larger community.

As an educational technologist, a continuing concern of mine is the teaching of and use of technologies like the Internet in socially just and inclusive ways. It is at the intersection of educational technology and efforts for social justice where web accessibility comes into play. Accessible web design ties in with many of the notions of the progressive tradition of education. The progressive tradition in education, while initially conceived to facilitate the education of democratically engaged citizens, has broad implications for the teaching of technology. One of these implications is respect for diversity. This requires that each individual be recognized for her or his own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and identity. The progressive tradition also necessitates a critical and socially engaged dialogue with concerns for issues of social justice, equality, and access to learning. These concepts are even more vital online. When education is taken out of the classroom – out of the traditional school environment, a whole new range of possibilities and limitations occur.

It is important to note that accessible web design benefits all. By ensuring that content is accessible to a variety of individuals, many unintended obstacles are removed from the process for all. While accessibility most specifically refers to making web pages accessible to individuals with disabilities, the principles that guide accessible design are broadly applicable. When we place information on the web, we drastically increase the potential audience for that information.

There are multiple themes discussed within this article. These themes address the questions: what is accessibility; why is accessibility important in educational web design; and who benefits from accessible web design? Toward this end, several definitions of accessibility are offered in order to broaden awareness of web accessibility for issues, the legal and social mandates for web accessibility are discussed, and the broader implications for accessibility are discussed. This article deals primarily with the issue of accessibility, but issues of accessibility overlap in places with issues of usability. Because of this overlap, usability issues will be discussed but only as they pertain to accessibility. This article is not a technical “how-to.” Granted, some technical information is given, but the intent here is to provide an introduction to and context of the issues at stake in educational web design. There are links to additional information at the end of this article. 

What is Accessibility (and Usability)?

The challenge for designers of web-based educational materials is to create materials that are engaging, appropriate, and accessible. The first two terms immediately resonate with educators, and the third term, “accessible,” probably does as well, but the exact meaning might be amorphous. Strictly defined, accessible has the following definitions:

    1. Easy to enter or reach physically
    2. Able to be appreciated or understood without specialist knowledge
    3. Able to be obtained, used, or experienced without difficulty
    4. Not aloof and not difficult to talk to or meet with
    5. Susceptible to or likely to be influenced by something
    6. Able to be referred to from another possible world, so that the truth value of statements about it can be given (Encarta world English dictionary, 1999)

Immediately, one might think accessibility refers to access to the technology with which to utilize various educational media. This is an important and relevant interpretation of the term. It is in this definition of accessibility that we must consider the issues of the  “Digital Divide”: race and ethnicity, gender bias, and other areas where inequity exists in regard to access to resources. This reading of the term accessible is a crucial component in the progressive tradition of education, but is also applicable to other conditions that technology necessitates.

Traditionally educators have accommodated individual needs without changing courses (Bowe, 2000). Components of a standard curriculum are modified in some way to make them accessible to an individual with a disability. This is often referred to as accessibility – making materials accessible to those with disabilities. Conversely, usability generally refers to the functionality of a site for a broad group of people.  Most current legal and technical guidelines for web accessibility (e.g. the W3C WCAG and Section 508 – discussed below) focus primarily on making web content accessible to individuals with disabilities. This is an important facet of web design. For the purposes of the article, these guidelines and definitions will be used as starting points for discussion on making accessibility an integral part of educational web design.

Accessibility concomitantly describes several processes: the ability of the user to access information electronically; the efforts made by the designer to enable a page to function with the assistive devices and multiple technologies; and an understanding of the nature of difference that might span the audience of a particular web site. Usually, efforts toward accessibility will greatly increase the usability of a site as well.

For the user, the challenge of accessibility is to identify the tools that will provide the most convenient access to web-based and other electronic information. For the designer, the challenge of accessibility is to remove the obstacles that prevent these tools from functioning properly. In many cases, these challenges are relatively simple to overcome; others require a bit more thought and effort.

An important component of understanding accessibility is understanding how disability is defined and what technologies individuals with disabilities use. Disabilities are broad and difficult to categorize. A 1997 report by the U.S. Census Bureau2 categorized 19.6% of the U.S. population as having some sort of disability. Within that group are individuals with visual impairments, hearing impairments, cognitive impairments and motor impairments. Each category describes a much wider range of conditions. For example, vision impairments include limited vision, color blindness, and blindness. These categories may also describe temporary disabilities. For example someone with a broken wrist may have difficulty using a mouse, but still needs access to the Web to meet the day-to-day requirements of their job. At the same time, statistics about individuals with disabilities may be misleading. As we get older, most of us will face a disability of some kind. While on the whole, nearly 20% of the U.S. population has a disability; these numbers get higher as the population ages (see Table 1). For example, almost 75% of the population over 80 years old has a disability. Thus, accessibility is about more than just opening doors, it is also about keeping them open. Accessibility allows us to maintain a level of independence that age and disability would likely otherwise make difficult. For K-12 educators, issues of age might seem irrelevant, but ignoring them excludes the parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults who participate in a child’s educational process.   

Table 1

Prevalence of Disability by Age: 1997

Number w/Disability
Percent w/Disability
All ages
Under 15 years
15 to 24 years
25 to 44 years
45 to 54 years
55 to 64 years
65 years and over

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 6, Issue 1, Winter 2003
ISSN 1097 9778
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