MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 1
September/October 2004
Welcome Aboard President-elect Hockfield!
The Management of the MIT Endowment
Affirming Freedom of Expression at MIT
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Preliminary Position of the Faculty Policy Committee on Faculty Governance
Developing Musical Structures:
A Reflective Practicuum
Work of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, 2003 – 2004
Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Some Reflections on Aspects of the Undergraduate Education Policy
Benefit Changes for Faculty
Upon Retirement
Short Takes
Establishing Leadership in the Emerging Field of Engineering Systems
Concerto for Erhu and Subway
Spaces, Software, and Services –
Supporting Educational Innovation and Sustainability with Technology
Web Accessibility:
What Faculty Should Know
What Was it Like Working with OCW?
Printable Version

Web Accessibility: What Faculty Should Know

Kathleen Cahill and Edward Barrett

As increasing numbers of course materials migrate from paper to the Web, the issue of equal access for all becomes more than just a trite saying. For people with disabilities, especially those with visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, the World Wide Web presents an opportunity to find and read materials they may never have had access to previously. How to author a Web page so that all users can retrieve the same information is a vital and important part of Website design. The 2000 U.S. Census estimates that approximately 15-20% of residents surveyed reported a disability. (Disability Status 2000: Census 2000 Brief.)

Take an example of a blind computer user. Many blind and visually impaired users have screen readers installed on their computers, which read text out loud. The screen readers can only parse text, which makes it important for Web pages to have text equivalents (also called ALT text) for graphics, pictures, and other non-textual information. Some people with disabilities use assistive technology (such as the screen reader described above) to help them access a conventional computer. Other examples of assistive technologies include screen magnification software, voice recognition software, head pointing devices, eyegaze devices, or refreshable Braille devices. Some of these are available to try out in the ATIC Lab.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), based here at MIT, has developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to assist Web developers. MIT uses the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in its own MIT Accessibility Policy and Guidelines which have been in place since 1999. However, many Webmasters, or those who do Web page updates, use Web editing software such as Dreamweaver or Home Page, and do not know how to code in HTML for accessibility. Luckily, Dreamweaver, which is an MIT-supported product, has a built-in accessibility checker that allows a Web page author to make sure a Web page is as accessible as possible.

There are federal laws that apply to accessibility of programs and services offered by entities receiving federal funds. MIT is one such entity. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that educational programs be made accessible to people with disabilities. That includes accessibility of information and materials presented, be it over the World Wide Web or on paper. Other laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, have various stipulations regarding information delivered in accessible formats.

For Web accessibility, the issue often becomes one of consciousness raising and education. Most Web developers would not knowingly design an inaccessible page and once given the information, are willing to make the necessary changes.

And the changes are not difficult ones to make. Many Web site changes involve adding ALT text, making links more descriptive, making sure the Web page can be navigated with the keyboard, and using colors and fonts that are easy to read. Accessibility is part of universal design, where the page authors design for maximum usability of the page, making it more accessible by all users, even those connecting to the Web by cell phones or PDAs, or users with problems reading small print or with slow Internet connections.

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For faculty or their staff involved in creating course Websites or posting documents on a course Website, it is important to make them as accessible as possible. One of the biggest challenges involved in Web accessibility is making non-textual information accessible, be it online video, audio, simulations, or graphs and charts. For more information, please take a look at to find out more about Web page accessibility and Adobe T PDF accessibility.

Some of the MIT ATIC lab staff serve on the Information Systems and Technology Usability Team, which assists developers of Websites and applications in evaluating ease of use. The ATIC lab staff has provided accessibility feedback to OpenCourseWare, Stellar T , and other academic application groups. ATIC lab staff are in the process of developing PDF Accessibility Guidelines for PDF materials posted on the Web.

ATIC lab staff have also made presentations on Web accessibility for various departments and groups including 21W.785, Communicating in Cyberspace, (instructor, Dr. Ed Barrett). In this class, students work in small collaborative groups proposing and implementing a variety of Websites. The class requires Web designers to think about the end users of a site and how the end users might experience the site. To accomplish that, the IS&T Usability Team visits the class to teach students about usability and accessibility, to help students create test tasks, and to find testers who will perform usability testing for their site. The student project teams receive instruction on accessible Web design and are given feedback after their usability tests regarding these issues.

Early in the semester, ATIC Lab Web Accessibility experts visit the class when students are beginning the design process. Project groups have formed, initial proposals have been presented, and students are beginning to work on technical implementation for a mid-semester design review.

A Web Accessibility expert demonstrates how a blind person interacts with several mainstream Websites through a screen reader. What students hear is a cacophony of sounds emanating from his laptop as his screen reader attempts to voice information from sites that have not been designed in accordance with Web accessibility guidelines.

Students learn right away how difficult it is for the visually impaired to retrieve meaningful information from these sites. They also recognize as the screen reader frenetically attempts to parse elements of interface design and their connection to the underlying content, that these sites suffer from poorly organized content and information architecture. Next the Web Accessibility experts demonstrate several sites designed in accordance with Web accessibility guidelines. Compliance with these guidelines not only allows visually impaired users to retrieve information more easily, but also strengthens basic information architecture within the site, making it more coherent and organically related to interface design elements sighted users perceive on their screens. In other words, designing for diversity from the start results in more coherent information architecture, more effective interface and graphic design, more supple scalability and better overall performance for every visitor to a Website - valuable lessons for anyone posting educational materials on a class Website.

So, in summary, what should a faculty member do to make their course Websites and information more accessible?

•  Perform a 5-minute quick check for accessibility, located at

•  If you are composing a page in Dreamweaver, check the accessibility of your page in File > Check Page > Check Accessibility.

•  If you use PDF files on your site, please take a look at information on making PDF files accessible:

If you need further help, please contact the ATIC Lab at 253-7808 or We would be happy to review your site and offer feedback.

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