The Growing Digital Divide in Access for People with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers To Participation In The Digital Economy

This paper identifies some of the emerging digital economy barriers, current efforts to address these barriers and expresses the author's vision of the long-term policy research agenda. Internet publication URL:


Data, Tools and Research

May 25 and 26, 1999

US Department of Commerce

Washington DC




Cynthia D. Waddell, J.D. 

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Multiple Methods for Access Benefit Everyone

III. Emerging Barriers in Web Page Transactions and the Internet Environment:  The Problem

IV. Disability Rights Law and Policy Impacting Web Page Transactions and the Internet Environment

V. Additional Problems Expanding the Digital Divide

VI. Emerging Solutions to Overcoming the Digital Divide

VII. Accessibility Rules and Research for the Digital Economy

VIII. References

I.   Introduction

This White Paper was commissioned by the National Science Foundation to be presented on May 25, 1999 at the “Understanding the Digital Economy” conference; a public conference convened in response to a directive from the President of the United States to the National Economic Council, in consultation with executive branch agencies. [1]

The conference is timely because there are significant law and policy issues impacting the community of people with disabilities in their ability to overcome digital barriers and participate in the digital economy.  The growth and success of the emerging digital economy requires that attention be paid to the mechanism for enabling dynamic participation.   Unless the civil rights of America’s 54 million [2] people with disabilities are addressed during this period of rapid, technological development, the community will be locked out from participation on the basis of disability and the technological world will not be enriched by their diverse contributions. 

The impact is systemic and reaches all sectors of our economy, whether or not the participant is a consumer, business owner, employee, educator, student, parent, child or citizen.  Specific digital economy barriers need to be addressed in our research in order to inform our civil rights laws and public policy.  As a person with a disability responsible for local government compliance with state and federal disability rights law, the author joins stakeholders in seeking a smart process that engages both individual differences and the collective community. [3]

This paper identifies some of the emerging digital economy barriers, current efforts to address these barriers and expresses the author’s vision of the long-term policy research agenda.  Because the benefits for overcoming these barriers extend beyond the community of people with disabilities, there are practical and significant business reasons for addressing this issue.  Rather than creating a growing digital divide, emerging technology can enable full participation in the digital economy for everyone, regardless of age, disability or the limitations of the technology available. [4]

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II. Multiple Methods for Access Benefit Everyone

As we examine the civil rights requirements for access and fairness, note the additional benefits that accrue:  by mainstreaming the functionality found in the assistive computer arena into the architecture of our digital economy, we will expand technological innovations and develop creative solutions.  By embracing our individual differences, the collective community receives greater benefits than that achieved through the segregation and isolation of people with disabilities.

Because the digital economy by definition requires a dynamic Internet environment, the very functionality required by the disability community can satisfy this dynamic requirement for web-based transactions.  Accessible web design enables dynamic web sites- whether or not it is for business transactions, voting or long-distance learning.  In addition, many benefits are emerging in the application of accessible web design.  Accessible web design enables CD and videotapes to be archived through captioning.  Accessible web design also enables electronic textbooks to be accessible.  Even illiterate populations can access the Internet by listening to screen readers audibly reading the web.  

And lastly, web accessibility enables low technology to access high technology.  People with slow modems and low bandwidth can access the electronic content of the web.  Even consumers without state of the art computer equipment or who only have a telephone, can participate in an accessible Internet environment using a telephone browser.

As Susan Brummel Turnbull pointed out in her white paper, “People with Disabilities and the NII: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Choice, [5] the public interest for investing in the National Information Infrastructure (NII) and people with disabilities is that it:

  •  Removes communications and information access barriers that restrict business and social interactions
     between people with and without disabilities
  •  Removes age-related barriers to participation in society
  •  Reduces language and literacy-related barriers to society
  •  Reduces risk of information worker injuries 
  •  Enhances global commerce opportunities.

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III. Emerging Barriers in Web Page Transactions and the Internet Environment:  The Problem

The more the marketplace is transformed into a digital economy, the more obvious it is to the community of people with disabilities that they cannot participate due to inaccessible web design. [6]  It is true that on a case by case basis computer stations with assistive computer technology can be tailored to the particular needs of people with disabilities.  But we have not fully addressed the linkage of the individual with the Internet community as a whole. Rapid changes in the Internet environment require that we examine not only the end-user workstation needs but also the technology barriers emerging beyond the computer workstation.  End-users utilizing assistive computer technology cannot conduct web transactions if the Internet environment does not accommodate the functionality needs of accessible design.  Unless this problem is addressed, expenditures on infrastructure and technology accommodations will be wasted if attention is not paid to the end-user locked out of the Internet due to inaccessible design. 

According to the National Council on Disability [7], computers and the Internet are used by a significant number of people with disabilities in America. [8]  But because the Internet environment is inaccessible, it is difficult to count the number of people with disabilities who would like to participate but cannot because of the barriers to access.  Counting users on the Internet is like counting the number of people using wheelchairs who are inside an inaccessible building.  It was once thought that since no wheelchair users were in the building, ramps were not needed. 

The transformation of the Internet from a text-based medium to a robust multi-media environment has created a crisis – a growing digital divide in access for people with disabilities.  Previously, people with visual disabilities were able to access the Internet with their screen readers audibly reading aloud the text on a web page.  Today, graphical web pages are a barrier if they do not incorporate accessible web design.  

This barrier is systemic and must be addressed in our policies as well as in our education and outreach.  In their practical guide to the information economy for executives and policymakers, Information Rules:  A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy, authors Shapiro and Varian point out that “[t]oday more than 60 percent of Internet traffic is to Web Sites, and of the Web traffic, almost three-fourths is images.” [9]

The problem for screen readers is that inaccessible web page design either hides the text within images, frames, applets or animated gifs or renders the text unintelligently in table, columnar, or portable document format (pdf).  Even on-line forms are inaccessible especially when designed to prevent keyboard navigation and input.  Whether the form is posted for school or event registration or on-line banking or shopping transactions, people with visual and/or mobility disabilities are faced with a significant barrier to participation.

But the impact is not limited to people with visual and mobility disabilities.  People with specific learning disabilities are also finding that they can no longer access web pages audibly with screen readers.  Even people with cognitive disabilities are becoming lost due to the absence of navigation elements at web sites.  Moreover, people with hearing disabilities cannot access the content of audio streaming and video clips posted on the Internet due to the absence of captioning.

The digital divide in web page transactions and the Internet environment has bred a host of additional problems for people with disabilities.  For example, commercial web-authoring applications lack access tool kits for webmasters to correct accessible web design problems.  In fact, many current web-authoring tools on the market make it extremely difficult to even design an accessible web page.  The scarcity of tools also contributes to the lack of education among programmers and web authors on why and how to code an accessible web page.  And if the webmaster herself is a person with a disability, she will also find a lack of web authoring applications that she can utilize.  This is especially true for webmasters with mobility disabilities requiring voice, eye tracking or keyboard input/output features in web authoring applications. 

Whether the digital barrier is the inaccessible design of Internet/Intranet web sites, Internet Service Provider “portals,” incompatible browsers, or inaccessible web-based platforms for on-line business, the trend is growing and must be addressed at the infancy of the digital economy.  Already, exciting electronic and information technology features are emerging in the areas of information appliances, real-time conference participation, audio-streaming, telephone voice browsers, search engines, news groups, chat rooms and 3-D imaging.  Unless functionality solutions for accessibility are addressed today, the state of the digital divide tomorrow may be impossible to overcome.

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IV.  Disability Rights Law and Policy Impacting Web Page Transactions and the Internet Environment

Consider the comments of Lawrence Lessig in his article on “Cyber-Governance”:

We have no problem of governance in cyberspace.  We have a problem with governance.  There isn’t a special set of dilemmas that cyberspace will present; there are just the familiar dilemmas that modern governance confronts- familiar problems in a new place . . . . Cyberspace is that space constituted by code- by software and hardware that together make up the architectures that cyberspace is . . . . These architectures are many; the values that they imbed- privacy, anonymity, access, control- are varied; and hence a choice about these architectures is a choice about these values. Yet we are at a time when we are strangely disabled from making choices about these architectures. [10]

If it is true that we are disabled from making smart choices about cyberspace architectures, then inaccessible web design is certainly evidence of this problem. Yet, the evolution of our disability rights laws have resulted in the understanding that access to information and communication is a civil right for people with disabilities. Some of the current federal statutes and their implementing regulations that protect this civil right include:

1. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [11]

2. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [12]

3. Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986 [13]

4. Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Tech Act) [14]

5. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) [15]

6. Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1990 [16]

7. Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EAHCA) [17]

8. Handicapped Infants and Toddlers Act [18]

9. Telecommunications Act of 1996 [19]

10. Section 121 of the U.S. Copyright Law [20]

11. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [21]  

Although each of these statutes, their amendments and regulations deserve an extended discussion as to the civil right protections impacting electronic and information technology, this paper is limited to highlighting some of the significant legal issues that can inform our policy impacting people with disabilities.

ADA Legal Challenges

First, as of this writing there have been no legal challenges under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) on the issue of inaccessible web pages and the Internet environment.  Nevertheless, attention is being paid to the application of the ADA to inaccessible web design because of the scope and impact of this statute protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in their access to employment and commerce.

As discussed below, the ADA requirements for “effective communication” and the provision of “auxiliary aids and services” and “reasonable accommodations” apply to the computer and Internet environment.  Because of the ongoing duty to remove barriers, it is not enough to respond on an ad-hoc basis to individual requests for accommodation.  There is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy involving input from the community of people with disabilities.  New technology must either improve accessibility or ensure compatibility with existing access design functions.  In addition, the ADA also provides for a “new generation of civil rights laws in which Congress assigned Federal agencies not only the duty to enforce, but also to inform all parties (persons with disabilities and covered entities) of their responsibilities and rights under the law.” [22]

Nevertheless, as discussed in this author’s article “Applying the ADA to the Internet:  A Web Accessibility Standard,” [23] the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) has issued only one policy ruling letter concerning web site accessibility dated September 9, 1996 (hereinafter USDOJ Letter). [24]  In fact, the USDOJ has been faulted for failing to provide proactive guidance on web site accessibility. [25]  But the USDOJ Letter does reiterate the ADA requirement that covered entities must furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue burden. [26]

Under the rationale of “effective communication,” the USDOJ Letter states that ADA Titles II and III require state and local governments and the business sector to provide effective communication whenever they communicate through the Internet.  The effective communication rule applies to covered entities using the Internet for communication regarding their programs, goods or services since they must be prepared to offer those communications via an accessible medium.   

Specifically addressing the needs of people with visual disabilities, the USDOJ Letter points out that providing a text format rather than a graphical format assures accessibility to the Internet for individuals using screen readers.  Without special coding a text browser will only display the word “image” when it reads a graphic image.  Moreover, if the graphic is essential to navigating the site (such as a navigational button or arrow) or if it imparts vital information (such as a table or image map) the user can get stuck and not be able to move or understand the information provided. 

Legal challenges are anticipated [27] amid the growing avalanche of ADA administrative complaint filings that have yet to reach the courts. In fact, a number of web site complaints have quietly settled with the covered entities promising to retrofit their web sites for accessible design.  Examples of the types of ADA complaints anticipated include:  employees requiring accessible intranet/internet environment as a reasonable accommodation under ADA Title I; employees and students requiring access to long-distance learning courses; citizens requiring access to internet kiosks for voting or participating in business or governmental transactions; or consumers requiring access to electronic textbooks and the web-based environment. 

  Emerging Legal Requirements for Internet Accessibility

  Section 508:  Electronic and Information Technology

The newly revised Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [28] now imposes strict accessibility requirements for electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by federal agencies.  As part of the Section 508 implementation effort, on April 2, 1999 Attorney General Janet Reno directed that all federal agencies conduct self-evaluations of their electronic and information technology and report by June 15, 1999 the extent to which their electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. [29]  This Section 508 compliance package includes a number of accessibility checklists for software, web page, information technology machines, (ITM) and information technology (IT) equipment as well as a Resource Guide. [30]

The definition of electronic and information technology under Section 508 includes: computers, hardware, software, web pages, facsimile machines, copiers, telephones and other equipment used for transmitting, receiving, using or storing information. [31]  It is expected that by February 7, 2000 the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) will issue standards that will define what is meant by electronic and information technology and will set forth the technical and functional performance criteria for accessibility implementation. [32] 

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights 

Lastly, for the last four years there have been significant legal developments coming out of the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, in their OCR Letters of Resolution against higher education institutions in the State of California. 

Access to the learning environment is a critical, front-line issue requiring an immediate resolution.   For example, library reference services are being transformed by the efficiency of Internet access to information systems and search engines.  Professors are teaching long-distance learning courses over the Internet and even if a student is physically in class, homework assignments and resources are being posted on classroom web pages.  Yet, even if a library terminal has assistive computer technology installed for students or visitors with disabilities, Internet research is not possible with inaccessible web page design. 

  The following is a summary of four selected California OCR Letters of Resolution impacting Internet accessibility: 

  1.                OCR Letter Docket No. 09-95-2206 (January 25, 1996):
Student complaint that a university failed to provide equivalent access to the Internet.  Student with a visual disability was required to make appointments with personal reader attendants as the exclusive mechanism for access to the Internet.  The University also failed to complete the “Self-Evaluation Plan” as required by ADA Title II.  According to the finding:

The issue is not whether the student with the disability is merely provided access, but the issue is rather the extent to which the communication is actually as effective as that provided to others.  Title II [of the ADA] also strongly affirms the important role that computer technology is expected to play as an auxiliary aid by which communication is made effective for persons with disabilities.  OCR notes that the “information superhighway” is fast becoming a fundamental tool in post-secondary research. [33] 

2.             OCR Letter Docket No. 09-97-2002 (April 7, 1997):
Student complaint that a university failed to provide access to library resources, campus publications, open computer laboratories, training on adaptive computer technology and computer test-taking.  According to the finding:

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II) requires a public college to take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with persons with disabilities “are as effective as communications with others” [28 C.F.R. § 35.160(a)].  OCR has repeatedly held that the term “communication” in this context means the transfer of information, including (but not limited to) the verbal presentation of a lecturer, the printed text of a book, and the resources of the Internet.  Title II further states that, in determining what type of auxiliary aid and service is necessary, a public college shall give primary consideration to the requests of the individual with a disability [28 C.F.R. § 35.160(b)(2)]. [34] 

In further clarifying what is meant by “effective communication,” OCR held that the three basic components of effective communication are:  “timeliness of delivery, accuracy of the translation, and provision in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the individual with the disability.” [35] 

OCR also points out that the courts have held that a public entity violates its obligations under the ADA when it only responds on an ad-hoc basis to individual requests for accommodation.  There is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or services. See Tyler v. City of Manhattan, 857 F. Supp. 800 (D.Kan. 1994) [36]  Moreover, according to OCR “[a] recognized good practice in establishing such a comprehensive policy is to consult with the disability community, especially those members most likely to request accommodations.” [37] 

Of particular interest is the analogy OCR draws between the rationale for bringing an existing building up to code for access and the purchase of new technology for information systems.  For example, buildings built prior to access laws are governed by “program access” requirements and remodeling triggers the requirement to install certain accessible architectural features. 

Similarly, the effective communication requirement according to OCR imposes a duty to solve barriers to information access that the entity’s purchasing choices create.  Whenever existing technology is “upgraded” by a new technology feature, it is important to ensure that the new technology either improves accessibility or is compatible with existing assistive computer technology. [38]  For example, web-authoring software programs that erect barriers in their coding of web pages fall under this scrutiny.  

Lastly, OCR states that when an entity selects software programs and/or hardware equipment not adaptable for people with disabilities, “the subsequent substantial expense of providing access is not generally regarded as an undue burden when such cost could have been significantly reduced by considering the issue of accessibility at the time of the initial selection.” [39]  Therefore all technology improvements must take into account the removal of barriers and ensure that new barriers to access do not occur.  Covered entities preparing to retrofit their web sites need to be aware of this requirement.  

3.      OCR Letter Docket No. 09-97-6001 (January 22, 1998):  
OCR Statewide compliance review under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The purpose of the review and subsequent OCR Report was to assess how 106 California Community Colleges meet their obligations to students with visual disabilities in providing access to print and electronic information. In OCR’s letter dated January 22, 1998, [40] the comprehensive review suggested nine strategies to address:  

  • Cost-effective approach to purchasing adaptive technology 
  • Adaptive technology training 
  • Access guidelines for distance learning and campus web pages as well as tools for training faculty and staff 
  • Inclusive language in the distribution of standard technology grants/funds addressing college responsibility to ensure technology access and compatible upgrades 
  • Print materials translated into alternate formats such as electronic text and Braille 
  • Central registry of textbooks in alternative formats 
  • Library technology initiatives for access to both students and patrons with disabilities  
  • Follow-up to OCR survey initiated in 9/18/96 to determine compliance progress 
  • Annual reviews of Disabled Student Programs and Services to include attention to the removal of barriers in electronic technology 

The Community College Chancellor has agreed to implement OCR’s recommendations to help the colleges meet their obligations under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. [41]  Whereas the assistive computer technology training, support and services for students with disabilities was once limited to staff exclusively working with the Office of Disabled Student Programs, a systemic plan is now required for mainstreaming this knowledge campus-wide:    “Technology access, like architectural access, must be addressed institutionally as an integral part of the planning process.” [42] 

Just as the removal of architectural barriers requires a plan for implementation, the removal of technological or digital barriers in programs and services requires a comprehensive institutional plan impacting every campus office. 

  4.      OCR Letter Docket No. 09-99-2041 (April 20, 1999): 
Student complaint that the university failed to provide access to the College of Business curriculum and other educational programs, including computer laboratories and classes in the College of Business.  OCR noted that although the academic community has heavily relied upon centralized units on campus to house and maintain assistive computer technology: 

[S]uch sole reliance upon a single centralized location (when not limited to adaptive technology training, but instead used for instructing disabled students in course subject matter) may run counter to the strong philosophy embodied in Title II and Section 504 regarding the importance of fully integrating students with disabilities into the mainstream educational program, unless such services cannot be otherwise effectively provided [see 34 C.F.R. § 104.4(b)(iv); 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(b)(iv)] .  Thus, OCR assumes in most cases computer access will be effectively provided to the student with the disability in an educational setting with his or her nondisabled peers and classmates at the various computer laboratory sites scattered throughout the campus. [43] 

As a result, the mainstreaming of students with disabilities has created the need for appropriate technology tools for access to the learning environment.  And as students with disabilities move into the workforce as employees, employers or consumers, accessible web design and an accessible internet platform remains a significant issue to be addressed in the digital economy.  In other words, overcoming barriers in the digital economy requires appropriate policies, technology tools and education for accessible system design and implementation.   

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V.      Additional Problems Expanding the Digital Divide 

We have seen how people with disabilities are locked out of the digital economy web environment due to the lack of accessible design. The digital divide will continue to expand if this issue is not addressed in our research, education and outreach.  As the rapid development of new web applications continues, it is necessary to ensure that new barriers are not erected to effective communication and commerce.  

This section briefly highlights some of the additional problems currently expanding the digital divide:  Internet Services Providers, Internet voting, accessible system design, Internet kiosks, smart cards, electronic textbooks, long-distance learning, and consumer household appliances.   

Internet Service Providers

According to a recent study by the American Foundation for the Blind, there are significant accessibility issues to consider when a consumer determines whether or not to utilize on-line services or Internet Service Providers.  Although America Online is one of the most popular services for accessing the Internet, it is currently not a good choice for consumers who are blind.  Expert screen reader users find it extremely difficult to navigate because of its nonstandard controls (buttons and icons) and lack of keyboard commands.     

The study also examined CompuServe and concluded that although it was more usable than America Online, its forums and chat rooms present accessibility problems.  The report concluded that the best solution for Internet access for people who are blind is an Internet service provider where the user can choose the most accessible E-mail program and Web browser for the screen reader being utilized. [44]   

Internet Voting

As government agencies look to the Internet as an efficient way to conduct elections, it is important to ensure that web pages utilized for voting do not contain accessibility barriers.  For example, currently a number of Fortune 500 companies provide Internet voting as an option for shareholder participation at annual or special business meetings and are unaware that there are accessibility barriers at their web sites.  This problem should be a reminder for governments that Internet voting for local, state or national elections requires accessible web design to prevent the disfranchisement of people with disabilities.

Accessible System Design

As governmental entities and businesses employ policies to satisfy ADA Title II or ADA Title I requirements, a systemic review similar to the Year 2K problem should be underway to remove accessible system design barriers impacting employees and consumers.  For example, designers of statewide or agency computer systems should be addressing the impact of their design ‘upgrade’ on current employees using assistive computer technology.  Employees with disabilities should not be suddenly losing their ability to do their job because of this lack of planning. 

Even if a vendor has a package with built-in accessibility features, it is important that people with disabilities are involved in the development of the product as well as in the procurement of the product.  By including this knowledge on the team, system planning can anticipate and address compatibility, accessibility and implementation issues. Examples of some of the problematic issues include:  the transfer of human resources/payroll/product inventory databases to particular intranet environment formats not friendly to screenreader access or keyboard navigation; the intranet ‘upgrade’ to database search engine capability when the search engine itself is not accessible to screenreaders; or the inaccessible design of a web-based vendor platform for conducting on-line business.  Research is needed on how to best incorporate difference and choice to address this growing problem.  The author has received numerous calls from state and business entities across the nation seeking solutions after a system upgrade “bumped” an employee from the workplace.

Internet Kiosks 

Internet kiosks and information technology machines (ITM) are appearing in the marketplace without ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities.  Whether the barrier is a touch screen feature or other inaccessible element, specific guidelines are needed for the industry to address functional requirements.  The Access Board has been researching the accessibility of ITM’s and a draft copy of their final report can be accessed from their web site at

Smart Cards

Smart cards, whether they are in the shape of credit cards, keys or rings, or demand vision to access digital displays of random password entry numbers for operation, require accessible design considerations.  As businesses and governmental agencies increase their investment in these products for security or employee identification reasons, the number of consumers and employees impacted by the lack of accessible design will increase.  Solutions are needed to address this problem. 

Electronic Textbooks 

Currently the State of Texas Education Code [45] requires the Texas Education Agency to develop a study project to determine the costs and benefits of using computer networks, including the Internet in public schools.  The issues to be studied include electronic delivery of textbooks and supplement updates as well as the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of producing electronic textbooks for students with disabilities. 

In response to this mandate, the Texas Education Agency issued their report in February 1999 entitled, Report on the Computer Network Study Project. [46]  This comprehensive report includes the following recommendations:

  • Establish an advisory committee to develop guidelines for designing accessible, interactive electronic instructional materials including simulations. 
  • Fund a study of the costs for developing accessible electronic textbooks [47] as well as two demonstration projects for developing two interactive electronic textbooks:  one electronic textbook to be CD-ROM-based that students with disabilities can use without assistive technology devices; the other an interactive accessible Internet-based or Intranet-based textbook that students with disabilities can use without assistive technology devices.
  • Require beginning in the year 2003 all CD-ROM textbooks or materials adopted by the State Board of Education comply with the basic accessibility requirements contained in the report.
  • Require all Internet-based or Intranet-based textbooks adopted by the State Board of Education comply with the accessibility guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium.
  • Require that all materials purchased by Texas public schools for preparing students to take standardized and college entrance examinations be accessible to students with disabilities. 

Likewise, in the State of California, Assembly Bill 422 [48] requires publishers of textbooks and instructional materials to provide an electronic version for people with disabilities if the material is required as part of a course or study in a community college, the California State University or the University of California.  A second bill, Assembly Bill 609 [49], addresses the needs of grades kindergarten through twelve and includes the requirement that publishers of instructional materials provide the state, at no cost, computer files or electronic versions of the instructional material.  Lastly, a third bill, Assembly Bill 395 [50], provides conformity with the IDEA for special education programs and requires publishers and manufacturers to provide instructional materials to the state in electronic format compatible with Braille translation and speech synthesis software.

The efforts in Texas and California are timely and if successful, then another barrier in the digital divide will fall.

Long Distance Learning 

The growth of the Internet has created virtual universities and on-line courses that have not been designed to allow people with disabilities to participate.  Whether or not these on-line courses are being taken by students or by employees, inaccessible design is a barrier.  As mentioned earlier, the January 22, 1998 California Community OCR Findings identified this problem: 

California Community Colleges, individually and collectively as part of the California Virtual University, are rapidly developing their capacity to deliver educational programs to offsite students through technology.  Little attention is being given to ensure that these distance learning programs are accessible to students with disabilities, especially students with visual impairments. [51]

The California Community Colleges currently have an enrollment of 4.1 million students and have responded by establishing a Distance Education Accessibility Work Group to develop Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines.  The draft guidelines are currently under review by a variety of groups within the system including the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, the general Distance Education Technology Advisory Committee, the Distance Education Accessibility Work Group, DSPS Regional Coordinators, and the High Tech Center Training Unit Advisory Committee.  It is expected that once feedback is received and incorporated, the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges will issue final guidelines. [52] 

As of the writing of this paper, the California Community College long distance learning guidelines will require all newly developed or acquired distance education curricula and instructional materials to be accessible for people with disabilities.  In addition, as part of the six year curriculum review cycle for accreditation, all existing curricula and instructional materials are to be reviewed and revised, if necessary, to provide accessibility. [53]  

Household Appliances

Digital components with touch screen or flat screen displays are bringing common household appliances into the digital age.  Unfortunately, consumers with disabilities are finding they cannot use these appliances.  Whereas household appliance switches and knob settings can be Brailled so that people with visual disabilities can operate the appliances, this solution is not available for appliances utilizing digital operational displays.  Some of the common household appliances converting to a digital operation display include stoves, microwaves, dishwashing machines, and clothes washing/drying machines.

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VI.    Emerging Solutions to Overcoming the Digital Divide  

This section highlights two particular efforts underway to address the problems of barriers in web page design and the Internet environment:  City of San Jose, California, web accessibility effort and the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative.  It also highlights some of the emerging benefits that extend beyond the community of people with disabilities.

City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard

As the ADA Compliance Officer for the City of San Jose, the author participated on an Internet Home Page Team from October 1995 through June 1996.  Our team purpose statement was “to lay a foundation including the establishment of standards, goals and guidelines for the City of San Jose’s Internet World Wide Web Pages.”  Of particular concern was the filing of an ADA administrative complaint against the City of San Jose by a blind City Commissioner.  The Commissioner complained that she was unable to access City Council documents as part of her work in advising City Council because the documents were posted in an inaccessible format, ie. portable document format (pdf).

By June 1996, the City of San Jose Web Page Disability Access Design Standard was developed in response to the monitoring of ADA Internet complaints and the need to incorporate City ADA implementation policies. [54]  By integrating the requirements of the ADA and applying Universal design  principles, we have ensured the widest public access to City electronic government information and services. [55]  Currently these standards are being incorporated into our web site and are subject to change as technology advances to solve digital barriers and integrate access tool kits in web-authoring tools. 

Just as curbcuts enable people using wheelchairs to navigate our City streets, “electronic curbcuts” [56] enable people with disabilities to navigate the digital economy. There are seven basic requirements in the City of San Jose minimum accessible web design standard: [57]

1.     Provide an Access Instruction Page for Visitors (includes email hyperlink for visitors to communicate problems with
  web page accessibility) [58] 

2.     Provide support for text browsers [59] 

3.     Attach “Alt” tags to graphic images so that screenreaders can identify the graphic [60] 

4.     Hyperlink photographs with descriptive text “D” [61] 

5.     Caption all audio and video clips by using “CC” hyperlinks [62] 

6.     Provide alternative mechanism for on-line forms (such as email or voice/TTY phone numbers) [63] 

7.     Avoid access barriers such as the posting of documents in PDF, table, newspaper or frame format or requiring
  visitors to download software.  If posting in PDF, the HTML text or ASCII file must also be posted. [64] 

As a result of our web accessibility effort, [65] the City of San Jose was awarded the League of California Cities Helen Putnam Grand Prize for Excellence [66] as well as recognition as a “best practices” model by the United States General Services Administration Center for Information Technology Accommodation. [67]  The author’s effort also led to being named to the “Top 25 Women on the Web” by Webgrrls International. [68]   

World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative

On May 5, 1999 the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the release of the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0" [69] specification as a W3C Recommendation.  This significant development provides a stable specification that has been reviewed and recommended by the W3C Membership as a tool for making web sites accessible.  As Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web aptly states:  “The power of the Web is in its universality.  Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” [70]

The W3C Recommendation is evidence of the W3C commitment to lead the way to full participation on the Web for everyone and is an important step since the launch of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) April 1997 in the County of Santa Clara, California. [71]

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) recognizes the problem of barriers on the Web for people with disabilities and is committed to pursuing solutions through five primary activities:

  • Ensuring that Web technologies support accessibility 
  • Developing guidelines for accessibility 
  • Developing tools to evaluate and facilitate accessibility 
  • Conducting education and outreach
  • Monitoring and engaging in research and development [72]

The WAI technical activity addresses technology, guidelines and tools coordinated through the International Program Office.  For example, in the technology arena, WAI has identified the following areas for accessibility needs:  HTML, Style Sheets, Multimedia, MathML, DOM, XML, Graphics, Mobile Access, Internationalization.  Currently there is a Protocols and Formats Working Group as well as an HTML/CSS Review Working Group. [73]

In the area of web accessibility guidelines critical for web site development and web application development, the WAI is coordinating page authoring guidelines [74] for accessible web sites; user agent guidelines, [75] such as browsers and multimedia players; and authoring tool guidelines, [76] such as editors and site management tools.  Currently there is a Web Content Guidelines Working Group, a User Agent Guidelines Working Group and an Authoring Tools Guidelines Working Group. [77]

Lastly, in the area of tools to facilitate web accessibility, the WAI is coordinating an effort to develop tools for evaluation, repair and proxy conversions.  Currently there is an Evaluation and Repair Interest Group and an Evaluation and Repair Working Group. [78]

The WAI International Program Office focuses on education and outreach and is separately funded by W3C Member activities, governments and corporations.  For example, sponsors include the U.S. National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, European Commission’s TIDE Programme under Directorate Generale XIII, Microsoft Corporation, IBM, Lotus Development Corporation and NCR. [79]

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VII.   Accessibility Rules and Research for the Digital Economy

 As stated in a recent report by the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee:

As we have the opportunity to use information technology to strengthen our societal institutions, we must understand the potential pitfalls, and the safeguards we must put in place to achieve both a free and fair flow of information. [80]

Overcoming the digital divide for people with disabilities requires a “free and fair flow of information” safeguarded by civil rights.  Civil rights principles should guide policymakers in the application of technology in the emerging digital economy.  Although information technology changes; civil rights principles do not. [81]

Already our civil rights statutes require government to consult the community of people with disabilities whenever policies, services or programs impact their community. There has also been a significant shift to include people with disabilities in the design, research and development of assistive technology. [82] 

 In More Than Screen Deep:  Toward Every-Citizen Interfaces to the Nation’s Information Infrastructure, [83] three recommendations are offered for federal research that are supported by the author of this White Paper:

1. Break away from 1960s technologies and paradigms with a research agenda acknowledging that the “human-machine interface is more than screen deep and should consider every aspect of a person’s experience in using computing and communications.” [84]  

2. Invest in the research required to provide the component subsystems needed for every-citizen interfaces with the highest priority being the determination of citizens’ needs. [85]

3. Encourage research on systems-level design and development of human-machine interfaces that support multiperson, multimachine groups as well as individuals. [86]

 In addition, overcoming the digital divide also requires collaboration in open source technologies [87] because civil rights principles reinforce the greater value of the functionality returned through the collaboration. [88]  Yet, according to Shapiro and Varian, there is the problem that

Open standards are prone to “splintering,” or “fragmentation.”  Splintering of a standard refers to the emergence of multiple, incompatible versions of a standardized technology. . . .Open standards can also be “hijacked” by companies seeking to extend them in proprietary directions, and thus in time gain control over the installed base.  Microsoft has been accused of trying to extend both Java and HTML in proprietary directions. [89]

Perhaps research is needed on how to best manage open standards where civil right protections are afforded the community of people with disabilities in their access to technology.  As suggested by O’Reilly, an area for future study is “where the ideal boundary ought to be between a core product controlled by a single individual or small team, and the input of the user community.” [90] 

Lastly, civil rights principles should guide researchers as the federal government addresses the ten critical “National Challenge Transformations” identified by the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee: 

These information technology transformations will affect how we communicate, [91] how we store and access information, [92] how we become healthier and receive proper medical care, [93] how we learn, [94] how we conduct business, [95] how we work, [96] how we design and build things, [97] how we conduct research, [98] how we sustain a livable environment, [99] and how we manage our government in the next millennium. [100]   

As our national research agenda addresses these critical issues, this White Paper calls for fairness and equity and echoes the view of the National Council on Disability [101] that

If equal access to multimedia for people with disabilities is to become a reality, knowledge and awareness will have to be developed across all areas. [102] 

A robust and strong digital economy requires the removal of barriers through the deployment of accessible design elements in our computer, information technology and communications.  By directing our research and policy directives to address these problems, we will overcome the digital divide and ensure full participation in the global digital economy.

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VIII. References

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© Copyright 1999. Cynthia D. Waddell. All rights reserved.