Research Institute in Networks and
Communications Engineering (RINCE)
Dublin City University
22-Sep-2000: Opportunities are available now for research students to work on this project. If you are interested, please contact Barry McMullin for further details and application information.
The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
--Tim Berners-Lee. Inventor of the World Wide Web.
The rapidly emerging Information Society has the potential to substantially improve access to information, goods and services for all citizens. Unfortunately, there is a significant danger that its benefits will not be shared equally--or worse, that existing inequities and social exclusion may actually be magnified by the inaccessibility of new technologies to particular social groups.
This project focusses on one particular such group--people with visual impairments--and their access to the World Wide Web. Because of the naturally graphical character of the Web, visual impairment can seriously limit access to it. In principle this can be substantially ameliorated by the use of appropriate assistive technologies, combined with careful design of Web sites and services to facilitate this kind of access.
The objective of this research project is to investigate the current status, availability, and uptake of relevant assistive technologies by the visually impaired in Ireland; to critically assess the accessibility of Irish Web sites to such users; and to investigate the practical obstacles to improving accessibility.
The results of this research will be of immediate relevance and benefit to the visually impaired community in Ireland, both by identifying and evaluating effective assistive technologies and by significantly raising awareness of accessibility issues among Web developers. But, perhaps more importantly, the research will provide concrete and practical experience and advice which can then inform strategic planning and design of Web facilities by all Irish organisations with an interest and commitment to developing a fully inclusive Information Society.
The project will run from October 2000 to September 2001.
The research issues are naturally divided into those focussed primarily on the ``client side''--the visually impaired users themselves, and assistive technologies which they may use--and those focussed on the ``server side''--the Web sites designed and operated by public, private and other organisations.
The server side issues are largely concerned with appropriate design of Web sites and services, so that they will complement and interact effectively with assistive technologies at the client side. Much work has been done both nationally and internationally on formulating guidelines for design to ensure such accessibility. There are also some automated tools for evaluating Web sites against these guidelines. However, there is very limited information on levels of actual compliance with these guidelines, or practical experience with their implementation.
The methodology here will be firstly to design an accessibility ``audit'' process which could be applied to Web facilities. This will combine the use of automated tools and manual usability testing. A limited, but significant, sample of Irish Web sites will then be audited using this tool, and the results collated and analysed. As far as possible, the auditing activity will involve the participation of sample users having a variety of visual impairments. This process should serve both to demonstrate the current status of accessibility of Irish Web sites, and also contribute to testing the adequacy of the existing design guidelines themselves.
Auditing can identify accessibility problems, but it cannot in itself solve them. As a separate activity within the project, a demonstration Web service will be developed which will strive to maximise accessibility, without compromising on functionality. This will serve to provide practical experience of the obstacles to achieving effective accessibility.
Trained staff and volunteers work with NCBI in providing a wide range of quality services to over 6,000 persons eligible to use them. Over 1,000 persons every year confronted by significant sight loss use the services of the NCBI to again establish their equilibrium as fulfilled, independent people coping successfully with their loss of vision.
The client side issues are chiefly concerned with identifying and evaluating effective assistive technologies to enable visually impaired users to access the Web. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) has long been to the forefront of assessing and delivering assistive technologies of all sorts, and the project will involve working closely with that agency. Because of the rapid pace of Web technology development, it is particularly important to continuously review new and emerging assistive technologies, and to evaluate their use in authentic and realistic contexts.
The work will involve the establishment of a dedicated assistive technology evaluation facility at DCU. This will be equipped with an extensive variety of available technologies. These will be assessed comparitively, on functionality, usability, and costs. Evaluation will, as far as possible, involve the participation of sample users having a variety of visual impairments. The results will provide practical guidance for visually impaired users in selecting, installing, and using appropriate assistive technologies, according to their specific requirements.
The project described here should produce substantial immediate benefits in itself. However, it is not intended as a single, isolated, initiative. The issues of accessibility of Web services for the visually impaired will continue to develop--and indeed, become even more challenging--as Web technology itself advances. Conversely, technological developments could also contribute to continuing improvements in assistive technologies, but these developments must be nurtured, encouraged, and ultimately deployed to the visually impaired community.
Accordingly, this project is intended as a basis for establishing a research effort which will have a long term presence and impact. The success of this initial project will provide a strong foundation for seeking support from a wide variety of potential sponsors and funding agencies. This will allow the research to be widened and deepened, and for the development of long term collaborations with individuals and agencies concerned with these issues.
Dr. Barry McMullin has been a lecturer in the School of Electronic Engineering of Dublin City University since 1987. As early as September 1994 he was responsible for the establishment and on-going management of the World Wide Web information server for the DCU School of Electronic Engineering. He served as academic manager of the Innovative Teaching Group within the School from 1997-1998. He is the author of The Internet in Ireland: an Absolute Beginners' Guide, and also serves as a consultant on computer mediated communications technology.
In February 1999 Dr. McMullin was appointed for a three year term as the first DCU Dean of Teaching and Learning.
|Address:||Research Institute in Networks and|
|Communications Engineering (RINCE)|
|Dublin City University|