Using Adaptive Technology
Knowledge of legal mandates for accommodation and empathy for those with physical and neurological challenges might be insufficient to inform design choices. One way to discover if a virtual composition classroom includes all people or instead presents barriers to some individuals is to experience the space firsthand. Composition instructors responsible for designing online composition courses should visit the sites using tools that emulate the experiences of those living with challenges. When designing a virtual composition classroom, these same tools aid in usability and accessibility testing (Seale, 2006).
Accessing Virtual Spaces
Text-only browsers provide one way to experience virtual settings as students with impairments do. Although intended to help individuals with visual impairments, text-only browsers also help appreciate the experiences of students with sensory processing issues. Text-to-speech programs work best when multimedia content and complex layouts are removed (Seale, 2006). An unfortunate side effect is that embedded audio content might be missing from a text-only rendering of a website.
In interviews, some learners with cognitive challenges indicated they preferred text-based computing (Wyatt, 2010). Some of these individuals use text-to-speech programs, not because of a physical visual impairment, but because they prefer auditory learning without distractions. Our desire to create rich, multimedia environments might result in virtual writing spaces that create physical and emotional distress for these students.
Two text-only browsers that work well with other adaptive technologies are Lynx (http://lynx.isc.org) and WebbIE (http://www.webbie.org.uk). The official Lynx website states the program was developed in 1994 at the University of Kansas. Versions are available for most computing platforms and are endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium for usability testing purposes.
Figure 1: Lynx visiting Yahoo.com
WebbIE offers a more current browser experience, but it is only available for recent versions of Microsoft Windows.
The WebbIE software programs are programs that make it easier for blind and visually-impaired people, especially using screen readers, to browse the web, get the latest news, listen to podcasts and radio stations and other common tasks. They work with any screen reader, including JAWS, WindowEyes, Thunder, NVDA and Narrator. They have been provided completely free since 2001 by Dr. Alasdair King. (http://www.webbie.org.uk)
Figure 2: WebbIE visiting Yahoo.com
The Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM) project of Utah State University offers another tool for testing websites in text-only mode. The WAVE Accessibility Tool is a Firefox browser plug-in that includes compliance testing and a text-only browser mode (http://wave.webaim.org/about/). WAVE is discussed later in this chapter as a design tool. Some individuals with disabilities use WAVE within FireFox to remove or block inaccessible content. For example, individuals with seizure disorders can use WAVE to block videos and animation. Keyboard commands permit the user to control the display of multimedia content to suit their specific needs, including screen sizing, volume control, video contrast, and playback speed.
Writing with Adaptive Technology
How a student writer gets words onto a screen or page should not matter if the final product meets expectations. Common adaptive methods for composing include voice recognition software, braille keyboards, and alternative input devices (Seale, 2006). To comply with federal regulations, all major software vendors provide alternative input methods for individuals with disabilities. Apple, Microsoft, and other companies provide instructions on using accommodations within their applications and operating systems. Current versions of Microsoft and Apple operating systems include basic voice recognition software. If instructors and tutors experiment with dictation applications, they will gain an appreciation for how some students with disabilities compose papers.
Regulators have requested that software publishers include accommodation information online. Composition instructors should consult these resources when designing inclusive online classrooms. Learning to write documents using these accessibility features will help instructors appreciate the experiences of students with special needs.
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