Home As the Social Web Grows, Access Becomes a Right

As the Social Web Grows, Access Becomes a Right

As the social web becomes more common, universities start to make use of it. As they do, their reliance on it grows until often the only place to access essential information is online. But what of those who cannot utilize that information in the same way as the majority of their fellows?

Just as lecture halls built prior to the Americans With Disabilities Act did not come with wheelchair ramps, universities’ online presence and strategy were built with equally little thought to those outside of the mean. And universities and students alike are beginning to pay the price for that oversight.

This is not a matter of a matter of some students not being able to access social and entertainment information–although those are important in their own right–this is about information like registration, class schedules, book lists and the like.

On the one hand, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, about 75,000 students at American schools alone are visually impaired. On the other, it’s not like assistive technologies like text-to-speech applications are in short supply.

As an example, the Chronicle takes Darrell Shandrow, a journalism senior at Arizona State.

“In his apartment near the campus here, he uses text-to-speech software that reads Web sites out loud. To get around town, he runs iPhone applications that identify nearby buildings and even the bills in his wallet. He also blogs, tweets, shoots video, and hosts an online radio show.”

He was stopped in his tracks, however, when an online workbook he had to use had mislabeled images.

A number of studies recently have found U.S. university websites to be inaccessible to students, alumni and community members with disabilities. In addition many, if not most, colleges have process for insuring online courses comply with the ADA.

Lawsuits and federal complaints have begun. One was a suit by Shandrow over the lack of an audible menu on his school’s e-reader. Another was over a major university’s almost complete inaccessibility of their web offerings.

The only way to fix this is for universities to partner with disabled students and geeks to build access into the systems from the ground up. It’s not an easy economic time, and American universities are as bureaucrat-powered as a French agricultural ministry, but the only other option is to wait until lawsuit after lawsuit forces piecemeal improvements.

Innovation and community involvement in tech issues can create more than millions of dollars and hundreds of “specialists.” If a university is smart, it will leverage the commitment of community now. They’ll save money and face.

University of London photo by Steve Cadman

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