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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 7, April 17, 2000

Project IMPACT and Introductory Design Tips
for Increasing the Accessibility of Web-Based Courses

by Todd D. Schwanke, MSE, ATP
Bhagwant S. Sindhu, OTS
Roger O. Smith Ph.D., OT, FAOTA
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Who should read this article?

This article is appropriate for any instructor who is considering or currently teaching a Web-based (online) course. It is of particular interest for instructors who design their own courses in utilities such as Blackboard CourseInfo, WebCT, Web Course in a Box (WCB), and LearningSpace. The article can also be useful for Web page designers of any ability level and anyone with an interest in disability and accessibility.


Technology has the potential to bridge gaps, remove barriers, and create new opportunities for students with and without disabilities. Technology can provide alternative methods of access, reduce the importance of physical location and environments, and provide information in different formats and media. However, the design and use of technology can also duplicate existing barriers and create new ones. This article provides an overview of Project IMPACT (Integrated Multi-Perspective Access to Campus Technology), a program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee created to increase access to technology. Tips for improving the accessibility of Web-based (online) courses are then used as examples of Project IMPACT’s initiatives.

This article is separated into the following sections:

Project IMPACT Summary

Project IMPACT serves as a national demonstration project to improve access to assistive technology and enhance accessibility of educational technology for students with disabilities in a post-secondary educational setting. The project is organized as a collaboration of support services and academic units across a medium-sized urban campus of more than 20,000 students. This team is implementing various strategies that are proactive, responsive, and indirect.

Project IMPACT works with issues related to cognitive, motor, and sensory disabilities. Readers are encouraged to consider all three areas throughout this article. Examples of these types of disabilities include, but are not limited to:

Some individuals may have multiple disabilities or a combination of impairments affecting more than one area.

The project team promotes the creation of accessible systems through the use of universal design principles, rather than reliance on accommodation to meet individual needs. Some of Project IMPACT’s activities include:

Universal Design Overview

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design (Connel et al., 1997). This approach can be applied to educational technology and education systems.

A curb ramp (also called a curb cut) is an example of universal design. Curb cuts started out as a way to increase accessibility for people with disabilities. Later it was discovered that curb cuts enhanced sidewalks for all users. In fact, people with disabilities used the curb cuts much less often than users with baby strollers, shopping carts, and bicycles.

Introductory Design Tips for Online Courses

This list of six tips is intended as an introduction for instructors and does not include all of the issues related to accessibility in distance education courses. Common characteristics of these tips include:

If you have previous experience with Web page accessibility guidelines, the tips may look familiar. In most cases, online courses are a specific type of Web page designed to deliver instruction, so accessibility guidelines for Web-based distance education are similar to those for standard Web pages. The tips have been tailored to this subject. Course authoring tools (utilities) such as WCB and WebCT simply provide an infrastructure so that course instructors can concentrate on course content rather than the basics of Web pages. Accessibility is a portion of content.

Tip 1: Choose high-contrast color combinations for text, backgrounds, and graphics

As an example of the effects of contrast, view the following graphic from a distance and note which item becomes difficult to read first. Examples of font readability on 3 backgrounds

text description of image for contrast example

Tip 2: Choose standard fonts that are sharp and easy to read

Unusual fonts may look aesthetically pleasing, but can have unpredictable results on different computers and may be difficult to read for many users, especially for extended periods. As a rule, fonts with slanted characters (including italics), script appearances, and serifs (fine strokes or other embellishments at the ends of letters) are more difficult to read for all users. The following image presents several different fonts in the same size. Which one(s) can you read from the greatest distance?

Four font examples

text description of image for font style example

Tip 3: Create descriptive ALT text for graphics and functional ALT text for buttons

What is ALT text? – ALT text is text provided in a Web page that can be used as an ALTernative to an image (or other object) when that image is not available or cannot be seen.

The following image may be used to provide information about different ways that information can be input into a computer.

Photo of hand drawing an arc on a computer using a touch-sensitive screen

The following image is a button that might be used as a link back to the top of a page. The image is transformed into a button because it links to another page or location.

Go to top of page

text description of button example

Effective ALT text – "Top of Page" – Describes what happens if the button is clicked

Some graphics contain more information than is practical to place in the ALT text field. In this situation, long text descriptions can be provided after the graphic, as demonstrated in by the contrast example and the font example above.

Tip 4: Create links that are significant without their surrounding context

The following paragraph shows two links without their context.

As shown by the following paragraph, these two links refer to the same location, but the first is insignificant without its context.

Tip 5: Organize your course information into small segments, using links

Long documents displayed as single Web pages are often overwhelming and physically/cognitively difficult to reference.

Tip 6: Watch for increased abilities to provide captions for online video and audio in the coming year

The technology to provide text captions and descriptions for Web-based video and audio is available, but has not matured yet. Until this technology is more widely available and standardized, provide text transcripts of audio and video. Many instructors already have electronic narratives and outlines that they used for producing the audio or video clip. These files can be added to the course. An example of a text transcript can be see at the University of Wisconsin Madison by clicking on "narration script." This transcript provides an alternative to multimedia slides that were presented as a RealPlayer file, in which the audio component would not be accessible to individuals who:


Online Resources

NOTE: The following are authoritative resources and primarily contain intermediate to advanced materials. Few materials on this subject are written at an introductory level. – Related to making Websites usable and informative for a majority of a site’s visitors

California Community Colleges "Distance Education Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities, August 1999"

The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media's "Captioning and Audio Description on the Web"

Microsoft’s Web page on "Closed Captions for Web Multimedia"

Special Needs Opportunity Windows (SNOW) Courseware Accessibility Study from the University of Toronto

Trace Research and Development Center – Designing a More Usable World for All

University of Wisconsin System Administration Guidelines for Web Page Creation

UW System white paper: "Final Report of the Committee on Access to Technology for Individuals with Disabilities," December 1999 (in PDF format)

World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative

Project IMPACT Contact Information

Todd D. Schwanke, MSE, ATP
(414) 229-6568
TTY (414) 229-5628
Fax (414) 906-3959

Occupational Therapy, Enderis Hall 9th floor
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
PO Box 413
Milwaukee, WI 53201


Project IMPACT is a campus-wide initiative to increase access to technology for students with motor, sensory and cognitive disabilities. One way this is being achieved is by promoting the use of universal design principles to make systems more usable for all students. Instructors delivering courses on the Web can integrate features such as high-contrast color schemes, sharp fonts, and descriptive links into their courses to improve accessibility. These features have potential benefits for all students and may reduce the need to accommodate individual needs.


Connel, B.R., et al. (1997). What is Universal Design? Center of Universal Design. Retrieved February 29, 2000, from the World Wide Web at


This project is funded in part by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, Office of Special Education Programs, under Grant #H078C970021. The opinions herein are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

Ó 2000 Copyright Schwanke, Sindhu, Smith

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