Friday, 23 May 2008

Spoke too soon....

.... seems there was a little crash the other day in exams..... wondering if anyone else has issues with JAWS - I've never had anything other than some sluggishness with the internet....

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Supporting students in exams - lessons learnt!

I learnt a lot this week. One lesson that I firmly believe in has been reaffirmed. That you can only really learn by doing and that when a thing goes wrong, it's invariably at the most inconvenient time.

Today is day 2 of a student sitting exams with JAWS. So far so good, no phone calls to tell me it's packed in and collapsed and the student has been hauled off with stress. I'm pleased.

Day 1 involved no crash of equipment either, just a few niggles and they would come when I was in the midst of trying to sort out coffees and teas for a meeting. (How the venue could have thought that it was at 5 and not 3, I don't know, when I had it in writing from them that all would be well at 3!!!)

Yesterday I sat for 2 hours and fiddled around with dear old JAWS and fixed it. I'd say I knew a lot more about it now than I did even 2 days ago.
  • Always have a back-up computer in exams for students sitting them with assistive software
  • Always save work regularly. If you can link it to a server, even better, but transfer to a safe computer and print it out too. You can never be too careful.
  • Reassure people, especially student, and non-familiar IT and college staff, that the world won't collapse if JAWS talks in a slightly odd voice.
  • Work on improving the situation for next year!

Monday, 12 May 2008

Making it accessible from the start

I wanted to talk about basic accessibility and maybe point some of you towards good advice on creating accessible learning resources. Slightly off tack with Web 2.0, but not hugely, and if it drops you back to Web 2.0 by a round about route, so much the better!

When you're writing something, your aim is to get your information across as clearly as possible, isn't it? You're making it 'accessible' to your readers, whoever and wherever they are. You want to make sure everyone can read it. So when it comes to writing it and publishing it online you want to think about those who may not be able to read it in standard print and may use screenreaders or other assistive technology. So....
  1. Basic text/Word document - Microsoft may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's the Word processing system a vast majority of people use. This is where you can start to build in accessibility. Assistive software like JAWS makes use of the Headings and Styles you get in Word documents. Although I've yet to use OpenOffice, the open source document writer, it also has the ability to implement styles and headings, and should also work with JAWS (something I'll try out later). So when you're writing your document/information you want to get across, have thought about it's layout, you really want to use those Headings and Styles. The best information I've come across so far in creating accessibility in Word docs is the TechDis Accessibility Essentials series. I learnt a lot from these and have taken all of their advice on board. It's simple and easy to add in Headings and Styles from the very beginning and can make a huge difference to people who may just need to adjust the size of the font, to those who use assistive technology. Let's stop using computers as typewriters and make the most of them!
  2. PDF documents - If you've already created your document using Word or another Text based document writer, converting it into an Adobe PDF file is easy with Adobe Standard or Adobe Professional. All of your headings will be kept and it will be accessible with screen readers. Adobe have been improving their accessibility in recent years. PDF image files are frowned upon, and although some users of assistive technology can make use of them, if they have OCR conversion software such as Kurzweil, don't make them available publicly on a website unless you want lots of angry complaints!
  3. Web pages - In general, if as above, you consider the structure of your information and make sure you have headings defined you will be on the way to improving accessibility. The move these days, I think, is towards XHTML, CSS and XML. These all build on HTML, and whilst not an expert in their use, I can see that XHTML is a cleaner form of mark-up language and that Cascading Style Sheets [CSS] provide an excellent opportunity for adding accessibility and making life easier for the web author. There are a wealth of resources on adding accessibility into your web pages, but don't just think about making sure it gets those little ticks by sticking it through the validator, think as well about the visual impact, how it's laid out, whether you can change the font size and what the font looks like. The RNIB have some nice helpful documents and also will do web accessibility testing for you and run training courses. Their Clearprint information is worthwhile.
There's quite a few good websites dedicated to making websites accessible. Using a search engine and a few search terms, such as 'web accessibility' or 'writing accessible web pages' should yield some interesting results. The ones I discovered:
Web accessibility is surprisingly easy, but it does involve thinking about structure and not just the visual design. Good design though, includes accessibility, giving everyone the same opportunity to find out the same information.

Monday, 5 May 2008

An interesting experiment

Well, I did what I said I was going to do, try out JAWS with various bits of Web 2.0 applications. Was it all a pointless application? Did I learn anything? I certainly think I did.
  1. I need to have more patience. If I needed to use this technology tomorrow, it would take me a lot longer to navigate round web pages. I'm so used to quickly looking at the page I'm on and finding my way by sight, it's suddenly a totally different learning experience to using your ears instead.
  2. There's an awful lot you have to listen too because there's an awful lot of information on web pages and not all of it necessary. I found it frustrating to be greeted by the same navigation list every time I went to another page when all I wanted was to read what was in the main body of text. Happily though, I discovered the wonders of short cut keys to skip between headings and lists of links. They make a huge difference.
  3. Alt text, alt text, please add alt text!! I found quite a few pages where graphics had no alt text. It's important, and not only for people who use screenreaders. On days when I'm not, it's still helpful to know what the picture stands for!
  4. Some pages I went to (I did flit around other sites in between faffing with Facebook) had 'Skip To' links but these were only accessible with screenreading software. Please don't hide these! Some people who rely on other accessibility software may find it useful. Having said that though, it can be a hindrance when you are using screenreaders as they can sometimes conflict with other shortcut keys the programme uses.
The internet and all web 2.0 applications give everyone the opportunity to socialise, network, interact, find information, learn more and meet others, shouldn't web developers make sure everyone can? Shouldn't we be open to talking to those who use accessibility tools? The internet is an open tool, you cannot decide how someone wants to use it and access the information, shouldn't we develop it accordingly?
The internet is interactive, shouldn't we all interact to improve it?