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Promoting Universal Design and Disability Access

Gregg Vanderheiden, Director, Trace Research and Development Center, Professor, Industrial Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Only a few short years ago, the Internet was not a part of daily life. Today, lunch-hour errands to the bookstore or to a travel agent can be avoided, thanks to Internet booksellers and on-line ticketing services. Waiting in long lines to get the right tax form has been replaced by forms downloaded from the IRS Web site. News of world events arrives instantly at your desktop from on-line newspapers and TV networks. However, for users with disabilities, the graphical user interfaces and point-and-click procedures of the Web may be impossible for them to navigate, leaving them in the wake of the computing revolution.

"There is a community of users whose needs aren't served by much of current computing technology," says Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If you are blind, have low vision, are deaf, are deaf-blind, or have physical and cognitive disabilities, you should still be able to use technology to gain access to the same information and services that are available to other users." The Trace Center focuses on making technologies such as kiosks, automatic teller machines, hand-held electronic personal digital assistants, computers, and the Web more accessible to people with all types of disabilities.

Vanderheiden is also the principal investigator of the Universal Design and Disability Access project, which receives funding through NPACI's Education, Outreach, and Training (EOT) thrust area and leads disability outreach efforts for the Access and Inclusion team of the Education, Outreach, and Training Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (EOT-PACI). EOT-PACI is the joint organization formed of the EOT activities of both NPACI and the National Computational Science Alliance.

"The Web is proliferating at the rate of millions of new sites added daily," Vanderheiden says. "As scripting technology for the Web becomes more sophisticated--including use of Java, Dynamic HTML, and more image maps and graphics as links--the Web can also become increasingly inaccessible to those who rely on assistive technology to read the page to them."

Bobby report of Trace Center Web siteFigure 1: Improving Web Accessibility

The Bobby tool, from the Center for Applied Special Technology, analyzes Web sites for accessibility problems and suggests ways to address them.



Accessibility is an immediate concern--for every user, not just those with disabilities--when information is presented on-line. Vague or hard-to-find links on a Web page can put walls between users and the information they are seeking. Graphics and icons that take a long time to download or are difficult to interpret add another type of barrier.

And an inability to interpret graphics or read text on a screen may not be just the result of disability, Vanderheiden points out. As NPACI pursues ubiquitous computing capability, researchers are investigating delivery mechanisms that could one day be used in the car, or while a person is out walking or involved in any number of situations that keep a user's eyes otherwise occupied. In research, education, and situations where looking at a screen is impractical, assistive technologies may be used to read descriptive text while an image changes on the screen. All these scenarios highlight the need for broad usability in applications.

"People with disabilities are a valuable stress test for flexibility and adaptability," Vanderheiden says. "Many times a design feature--which only comes to notice when it blocks access for blind or deaf users--is actually silently degrading the usability of the interface by many other people, without the developer even knowing it."

The Trace Center promotes the concept of universal design, and has developed procedures for avoiding inadequate usability of products through early and systematic use of diverse user scenarios in the design phase. Besides helping users with disabilities, these principles also make systems easier to access by mobile computer users and intelligent electronic agents.

NPACI offers Trace the opportunity to integrate principles of universal design into technologies and applications being developed within advanced computational science and networking. "Many of the advanced server capabilities integrated into the NPACI infrastructure are highly specialized," Vanderheiden says. "The more specialized these capabilities, the more their means of connecting with users needs to be robust and flexible to maintain any sort of user volume. In other words, the more specialized they are, the more accessible they need to be."


The Trace Center was founded in 1971 to address the communications needs of people who are non-speaking and have severe disabilities. The center was an early leader and innovator in the field that came to be known as "Augmentative Communication." Among its early achievements was the development of the first portable, user-programmable electronic communication device for non-speaking people.

UDDA logoSince that time, the Trace Center has used its visibility to spur discussion of and attention to users' special needs among government, industry, and academia. In 1984, starting with a White House meeting on the topic, the center served as coordinator for the nation-wide Industry-Government Initiative on Computer Accessibility. Guidelines developed by this initiative have been widely used by computer companies, both as design guidelines and as a yardstick for measuring their products' capacity to accommodate users with disabilities.

The Trace Center has also worked with computer companies to integrate disability access features into their standard, mass-marketed products. As a result of this work, disability access features are now incorporated into most major computer operating systems. Recently, the center's software development and organizing efforts led to the Cooperative Electronic Library on Disability, currently in its 9th edition.

On the research and development front, Trace has focused on information kiosk design, talking touch-screen technology, accessible Web graphical interfaces, and infrared linking systems. They are currently investigating user interfaces such as keypads, noises and voices, and on-screen menus and instructions, as well as how tactile sensation may aid symbol interpretation among blind users. They also develop and disseminate design guidelines and participate in the development of electrical and electronic standards, including electrical interface transducer standards, general input device interconnection standards, and serial wheelchair control interface standards.

Support from the Trace Center has benefited such Web accessibility projects as the Bobby tool from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). The British police officer who walks a neighborhood beat --known as a bobby--is there to prevent problems before they occur, identifying s a potential problem and intervening tactfully. Since their Web Accessibility checking tool is also designed to head off problems before they start, CAST named the tool Bobby.

Bobby was first introduced as an interactive Web site, and recent enhancements make Bobby available for download. With Bobby running on the user's computer, the user can work offline and check an entire Web site for accessibility, rather than go page by page. The guidelines Bobby checks are those established by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), in which the Trace Center is active with the World Wide Web Consortium. Bobby's reports put the WAI Page Author Guidelines--which list issues and strategies for addressing access--in the context of the author's own page (Figure 1).


In August, the center was awarded a five-year, $6.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to make information technology more accessible to people with disabilities. "The NIDRR grant leverages the universal access work we're undertaking with NPACI," Vanderheiden says. "NPACI partners will have expedited access to the research performed for the NIDRR grant through our involvement with EOT-PACI."

In the coming year, the Universal Design and Disability Access project plans to establish advisors to work with NPACI's Technologies and Applications thrust areas. These advisors will provide resources and guidelines for developers, identify tools to help NPACI project teams provide more accessible tools, and explore how to use NPACI advances to solve to access problems.

The Trace Center is initially collaborating with NPACI's Interaction Environments thrust area. "The Interaction Environments group is already developing architectural principles and strategies that make tailored interaction environments easy to construct from generic capabilities," Vanderheiden says. "That kind of an architecture will also make it easier to build client-centered interaction environments which adapt to end-users' preferences and needs, including special needs. This is the kind of advanced architecture that is needed so we can indeed have an every-citizen interface to the information infrastructure in the future." --AFEND