Limits to Accessibility

Posted to the NODE on 12 August 1998

I have to agree with what Denise Morrison just stated, above. The web - and more specifically, the internet - is much more than a series of display pages. As Morrison says, the web and the internet are first and foremost communication tools.

With respect to universal access, therefore, a host of additional questions need to be raised. Universal access involves rather more than including image and link descriptions, as the article implies. In some cases, the technology does not yet exist to enable full accessibility. In other cases full accessibility will be either impractical or impossible.

Let's look at some of the technological hurdles first. Many web sites, and especially educational offerings, employ forms. Technology needs to be developed to enable users to identify elements of, say, a drop-down form or radio button selection, in order to make a choice. Or to enter text into one of several text windows. (Or at least, if any such technology or standards exist, I haven't heard of them).

But these are minor items and no doubt, if solutions do not yet exist, solutions are already being developed. As we move into more involved applications, the difficulties multiply.

For example, many courses employ chat rooms or MUDs to facilitate discussion. Users type their comments into an input form and see their and others' comments displayed on a screen. In a room with more than a few users, these comments fly across the screen at an astonishing speed, much faster than a text-to-speech converter can manage, since even the best converter is going to have an upper speed limit (once a voice starts talking a speeds greater than 120 words a minute or so, it becomes unintelligible).

So what is the solution here? Legislate a limit on the number of users in a chat room at any given time? legislate a limit on the speed and frequency with which they can post their messages? Or do away with chat rooms all together? Obviously none of these solutions is realistic. So designers will be faced with a Hobson's choice: either incorporate chat facilities, which will pose hardships on the blind, or limit chat facilities in ways which compromise their effectiveness.

Or, to raise another example: an emerging technology in online education is the use of virtual reality (VRML) simulations. In VRML a user can look at an object from any angle, manipulate the object, navigate through a three dimensional environment, and so on. Perhaps with 3-D sound (say, Q-sound) a VRML environment could be rendered in sound. But this is rather beyond the limits of technology today. So, should designers give up on VRML because it is not universally accessible? This must be balanced against the usefulness of VRML in a specific educational context.

An additional factor to consider is the cost of universal access to online educational materials. It costs very little (though there is an identifiable and measurable cost) to add proper descriptions to image and link tags. The cost of improved design for user forms will be larger still. The cost of developing a Q-Sound alternative to a VRML environment will be substantial. These costs, at all levels, will have to be balanced against the need for universal access.

For example, if I am offering an online course in brain surgury, I can reasonable calculate that the need for access to blind students will be minimal. I do not expect that there will be very many blind brain surgeons. Or if I am developing a VRML driving simulator for my driving class, again I do not think I need to worry about access for the blind.

In general, once we get beyond the platitudes and look at implementation, especially in an educational content, it is easy to see that there is much more to this question than a matter of getting people to buy into the concept. There are deep technological, economic and pedagogical issues to consider here. Lines will have to be drawn and limits to accessibility will have to be defined - that's just the nature of the medium. In the United States, these lines will probably be defined through litigation under the ADA. For the rest of us, I hope some rational prior consideration will be sufficient.

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