Break through the barriers

17th June 2005 at 01:00
School websites must do more to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, argues Adrian Jones

It's something most of us take for granted. We switch on our PC, log on to the internet and start exploring the World Wide Web. We go online to search for information, book a holiday, shop or entertain ourselves. And of course, many of us use the internet to access online educational resources.

We click on web pages and navigate around websites without even thinking about it. Yet a large number of internet users find things much more difficult when it comes to going online: people with disabilities. The reason is that many web pages and websites are poorly designed when it comes to enabling people with disabilities (especially those with hearing or visual impairment) to use the internet. This is ironic when you consider what an important lifeline the internet can be for people with disabilities. It's also a growing concern, because the push towards e-learning means that more of us will be going online to access teaching and learning resources.

So just what is the problem? Well consider this. Last year, the Disabilities Rights Commission (DRC)- an independent body established by Parliament to stop discrimination and promote equality of opportunity for disabled people - carried out a survey of 1,000 websites and found that more than 80 per cent failed to meet the minimum standards when it came to accessibility. The DRC encountered many problems, such as websites that made it hard for people to use a screen reader (a device that helps blind people operate a computer by using speech to describe text or images on a screen). Others had web pages with such poor contrast that the text was difficult to read, while some used text that was simply too small.

This report added that there was no substitute for involving disabled people themselves in the design and testing of websites, but I wonder how many school websites have consulted disabled students during their development? Remember that it isn't just the disabled who benefit from better-designed websites - everyone does and that includes dyslexic users.

Education should be inclusive; no one should be held back or excluded. But if your school or college website makes it hard for disabled people to access it, then that is the outcome. There's another good reason why schools should be ensuring that their websites offer good access to all: they are breaking the law if they do not. As far back as 1995, Parliament passed the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which made it unlawful to provide services that discriminate against disabled people. The law is wide-ranging and there are many types of disability covered by the Act. It also covers everything from providing wheelchair access to making websites accessible. It's easy to see if your school provides wheelchair access and the solutions are obvious, such as installing ramps and widening doorways.

But these same considerations are often not given to websites.

The Act sets out the steps that public and private bodies should take to ensure wider access. Sadly, 10 years after its inception, there is still widespread ignorance over what the DDA is and the onus it puts on organisations, including schools and colleges. Part of the reason is that the Act has been introduced in stages (in 1996, 1999 and 2004). Another factor is that there are a number of loopholes and organisations have been given time to comply with the Act. The result has been a general lack of urgency in confronting these issues and, more importantly, dealing with them.

But schools can no longer afford to take a relaxed approach towards the DDA. After the results of its survey were published, the DRC warned that organisations could face a flood of legal challenges from disabled people on the grounds of exclusion. We've already seen schools being sued by able-bodied pupils who claimed that bullying deprived them of their education, so it isn't far-fetched to see disabled students going down the same road if they can't use online resources like everyone else. But it should not take the threat of legal action to motivate schools and colleges to make their websites more accessible.

I suspect that school websites which don't comply with the DDA are a result of ignorance or a feeling that developing DDA-compliant websites is expensive, time-consuming and very technical. Not so. Without wishing to turn this piece into a commercial, our company has developed a software package called Create, which helps schools and colleges develop websites that are widely accessible (other similar packages and services are also available). And you don't need to be a techie or have programming skills to use it. When you design a web page, Create automatically helps with features like page navigation and layout. If you add an image to a page, the software prompts you to describe it in text, and this is automatically embedded in the page code so that it can be read by a screen reader. It means that you don't have to compromise when it comes to creating a website that is visually exciting and, at the same time, accessible to all.

My message is simple: schools and colleges need to be very careful when it comes to ensuring that their online resources are accessible to all. Senior management needs to understand the issues and then act on them. When was the last time you took a long, hard look at your school's website?

Adrian Jones is a partner at educational software provider Blue Spheres. He was talking to George Cole

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