Rix Centre: Accessible Web Sites by & for People with Intellectual Disabilities

The Rix Centre specializes in developing new media technology and its use by people with intellectual disabilities to improve their lives. It is a research and development center as well as a charity based at the University of East London. In partnership with a team of Web users with intellectual disabilities, it develops standards and guidelines of Web accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities, particularly so they can participate in the rich-media world.

Click Start

One of The Rix Centre’s projects, Click Start, is of particular interest to me. Its purpose is to build, for people with intellectual disabilities transitioning to adult life, a network of accessible Web sites in ten North-East London boroughs.

Each site is a portal to smaller Wiki sites edited by staff of borough departments and by people with intellectual disabilities who use their services.  All are provided training, support and online software to produce and publish content.  “Easy read” Web sites are being created with photos, sound- and video clips alongside simple text.  The intention is to directly involve young people with intellectual disabilities so they may help each other with issues related to independent living, finding employment and education.

Important Goal

In a comment to my review of The Newham Easy Read Web site, Andy Minnion, director of The Rix Centre, states what he believes to be important about Click Start and the other such sites The Rix Centre has designed:

The key thing about these Websites and those that have followed ( at http://www.clickstart.org.uk ) is to engage people with ID in planning and developing the sites themselves so that their voices, experiences and opinions are shared and so that the support services featured are described by the people that they are designed to serve.

I could not agree with him more. I love that people with intellectual disabilities produce their own content for these Web sites.  Also, it appears to me they can publish it themselves.  My understanding is the “online software” being developed by The Rix Centre is a content management system accessible to users with intellectual disabilities.  This is wondrous to me.  That people with intellectual disabilities can produce and publish their own content is an ideal to which everyone should aspire.

I congratulate The Rix Centre, and wish every success to all the people involved in its projects.


Could Ruby, a HTML 5/CSS 3 Feature, Help People with Cognitive Disabilities?

It is generally accepted that a best practice of accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities is to avoid the use of non-literal text.  It has been suggested that Ruby, an emerging HTML 5 and CSS 3 feature, could be used to provide literal alternatives.


Non-literal text includes idioms, colloquialisms, sarcasm and metaphors.

The W3C defines Ruby as:

… short runs of text alongside the base text, typically used in East Asian documents to indicate pronunciation or to provide a short annotation.

Retrieved from: http://www.w3.org/TR/ruby/

Using Ruby

In H62: Using the Ruby element, the WC3 describes how to:

… use ruby annotation to provide information about the pronunciation and meaning of a run of text where meaning is determined by pronunciation.

Retrieved from: http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG-TECHS/H62.html

It is obvious, then, that the primary purpose of Ruby is for pronunciation assistance. The connection between Ruby and non-literal text is not immediately apparent.  It becomes a little more so with the last part of a statement from the same document:

Ruby Annotation allows the author to annotate a “base text,” providing a guide to pronunciation and, in some cases, a definition as well. (emphasis added)

Ruby Use for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Using Ruby for providing definitions is the connection. I believe discussions about this began with an article published in 2002 by Lisa Steeman.  She proposed that, for people with cognitive disabilities:

Non-literal text could be marked up in ruby and a literal translation attribute added to provide a literal alternative.

Ms. Steeman provided this sample code:

<p>The Prime minister wants to
<rb>have his cake and eat it too</rb>
<!– the metaphorical expression –>
<rt>get the benefit of seeming inflexible now, but be able to change his mind again later</rt>
<!– the rt element can be rendered alongside, or instead of, the rb content, according to the styling –>
in this instance.</p>

Retrieved from: http://www2002.org/CDROM/alternate/689/


It is clear from the above example how Ruby could technically provide literal alternatives.  In practice, I think it won’t work.  Definitions of non-literal text such as sarcasm and idioms are open to wide interpretation.  They are also culture dependent.  This means people will see different definitions for the same non-literal text, which will be confusing.  Furthermore, attempts at such definitions are likely to be clumsy and difficult to understand, such as the above example.  Ruby should not be used for this purpose.

Lessons Learned from a Budding Web Developer with an Intellectual Disability

Jeremiah has been teaching himself how to develop Web sites.  We were introduced because of this interest, and because Jeremiah is a person with an intellectual disability.

When I told Jeremiah of my plan to provide video-based tutorials on the future Clear Helper Web site, he immediately became excited.  He is especially interested in Web-based video as a medium for opening the public’s hearts and minds to the song and dance of his home country.

I am intrigued by the possibility that people with intellectual disabilities could actually develop their own Web sites. To my shame, this had not occurred to me before I met Jeremiah.  I will have to rethink the roles people with intellectual disabilities could play in the development of the future Clear Helper Web site.

Jeremiah showed me a HTML tutorial he found on the Web.  He had made it his home page.  It consisted of text-based lessons on how to code a Web page by hand.  In a quick search, all HTML tutorials I found focused on coding.  I explained that learning how to create Web pages might be better with a graphical HTML editor.  He could use its visual interface to include- and to place elements, and then examine how it wrote the associated HTML code.

It has been many years since I have seen a graphical HTML editor on the order of Dream Weaver or Front Page.  I no longer know what popular software people use who don’t code Web sites.  I assume many use Web-based content management systems.  Before my visit with Jeremiah, I did find a free Web-page creator with a graphical editor.

I learned during our visit that not only had Jeremiah already tried Kompozer, but he had downloaded it for installation on his recently-donated computer.  The savvy it took to find Kompozer and try it on his own indicated his capabilities to me.  It reminded me that people with intellectual disabilities are often quite adept in perhaps unexpected areas.

Trying Kompozer together showed it does have a graphical- and a code editor, but learning to use it was not immediately intuitive for Jeremiah.  I could not find a picture- and text based, step-by-step tutorial for using Kompozer’s graphical editor.  Likewise, I struck out trying to find on YouTube an appropriate, similar tutorial.

This reaffirmed for me one of the reasons I started this project; step-by-step tutorials just are not available on the Web for people with intellectual disabilities.  That’s a shame, because they would benefit many people.

If anyone knows of one, or knows of an alternative HTML editor Jeremiah could try, please contact me or post a comment.  Right now, Jeremiah must use free software. Yet with his newly-acquired, full-time job, he may soon be able to afford a commercial alternative.

I did explain to Jeremiah that his video files should be converted to Flash, and found a free converter for him.  I briefly showed him how to use it.  I promised to send him step-by-step instructions on its use, and then on how to embed a Flash file in a Web page.  While writing the instructions later, I was reminded how difficult it is to break down simple tasks, let alone the complicated ones I was trying to teach Jeremiah. Designing such content will be much more work than developing a Web site to deliver it.

As I have described, I learned important lessons in my brief time with Jeremiah.  I anticipate they will serve me well as I move forward with the Clear Helper project.  For this, I thank Jeremiah.

Note: No endorsement of Kompozer is expressed or implied.

Text-To-Speech Experiment & Evaluation: Cognable Speeka

I created a test page for an experiment with Speeka text-to-speech (TTS), graciously provided by Simon Evans of Cognable. I plan to incorporate TTS into every page of the future Clear Helper Web site.


Speeka, a free service, is a work in progress. It is not a polished, commercial product. It is one of many Mr. Evans is developing to improve accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities.  A brief description of each of his projects can be found on the Cognable home page.

I think Speeka’s initial implementation was on the the Web site of Inclusive New Media Design. INMD is an organization that, like me, is working to develop best practices of Web accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities. When I first saw Speeka, I immediately liked its small form factor compared to that of ccPlayer, which I have been using.

Appearance & Placement

Speeka is embedded throughout the INMD site in the top, right of the content section. It appears as the image below. Rectangular. 3 buttons: play, back, forward. A speaker symbol and the word 'listen'On my test page, it appears as the following image.3 buttons: play, back, forward. The words 'audio stopped' underneath

I too placed it in the top, right of the content section.  Of the Web sites I have visited that use a TTS feature, most embed it in a similar location.  Those that don’t place it on the bottom of their pages.


Setting up Speeka in my test page was a simple affair.  I inserted the HTML code provided by Mr. Evans.  I needed only to change the referenced file name.  I made one addition; that of the application landmark role to Speeka’s container. This helps people with screen readers, who use WAIARIA, to identify it. Upon placing the test page on the Clear Helper Web site, I invoked a hyperlink Mr. Evans provided to inform Speeka of the page’s presence.


I configured Speeka so it reads only primary content.  It can be set up to read all the textual content of a page, including menus, but I suspect it would be tiring to listen to the same menu over and over.

I chose to use a natural sounding, British male voice. [Edit on 2010-01-31: The voice is now an American one.] The test page it is reading contains text written as simply as I could at the time. Its pronunciation of the words and the sentences is very good. It had no problem with my last name.  I will have to test it with more complex text and with unusual proper nouns.

It announces every heading with the word “heading”; each list item prefaced by the word “bullet”; and the beginning- and the end of every list.  I was surprised. This feature is the first I have experienced with a TTS application.   It may be useful, but I think it would better serve as an option. [Edit on 2010-03-14: Announcement of list bullets, beginnings and ends is now an option. It is not active on the test page.]

General Navigation

The three-button interface is simple.  The audio narration can be played and paused with the same button. The forward button advances the narration by six seconds; the back button rewinds it by four.  Suggestions:

  • Perhaps it would be better if the forward- and the back buttons advance and rewind to adjacent sentences.
  • An option to restart the narration from the beginning may be helpful.  The only way I could do it was by refreshing the page using the Web browser.
  • Audio- and visible text labels for the buttons are a necessary feature, I think. An example can be found in a BBC Flash Player designed for people with intellectual disabilities.  It can be seen on the BBC’s Us 5 site, by clicking the link “Launch Us5 videos in pop-up windows”, then by selecting an actor.

Keyboard Navigation

Pressing the Tab key cycles through the buttons. The Space Bar or the Enter key invokes them. I had no trouble with this navigation within Speeka, but I could not tab inside the Web page to get to it. I could use the Tab key with Speeka only after changing focus to it by clicking it with my mouse.  This is not unique to Speeka.  I experienced the same with ccPlayer.  Keyboard navigation is important because many people with intellectual disabilities also have physical ones.  Such disabilities often preclude the use of a mouse, and require keyboard use or a single-switch device.

Interface Text

When the play button is clicked, the “audio stopped” text changes to a countdown of time until the end of the audio narration.  I think being presented immediately with the “audio stopped” text is potentially confusing.  I also think both it and the countdown test may not be necessary.

Speaka-Service Functions

Speeka converts Web-page text to MP3 files.  When a Web site visitor clicks the play button, the MP3 is streamed to the visitor’s computer from a Cognable server.  This is advantageous for Web sites that do not have a streaming-media server nor the bandwidth to support one.

A great feature of Speeka is it checks the text of each page on a regular basis.  When it detects a change, it updates the associated MP3 file.  Graphed statistics about this can be found on the Speeka home page.


Speeka has many nice features.  I think its inclusion on a Web site designed for people with intellectual / cognitive disabilities would provide site visitors with a significant accessibility feature. With all of Mr. Evans’ projects, I don’t know if he has the time to consider some of the options I have mentioned, but I plan to discuss them with him.

Note: No endorsement of Speeka or Cognable is expressed or implied.

Amazing BBC Online Videos By & For People With Intellectual Disabilities

Us 5 is a set of dramatic- and humorous videos starring actors with intellectual disabilities.  Episodes focus on making significant choices, and have interactive comic strips so users may try different choices.  They are also accompanied by an accessibility feature called “visual-captions”, which was designed for people with intellectual disabilities. Commissioned by the BBC, the videos were created by Gamelab London.

5 young adults striking hip poses

Accessibility Features

  • “Visual captions” or “vis-caps”, which are intended for “… getting across the gist of a scene in simple cartoon-like pictures rather than subtitles.” They appear in panels to the right of the videos when the “V” navigation button is clicked.
  • Video navigation and interactivity are keyboard- and switch accessible.
  • Each video has subtitles and an audio-description, invoked by clicking the “S” and the “V” buttons respectively.
  • When focus is on a navigation button, its name is announced out loud in a voice.


  • Tabbing through the navigation buttons skips the full-screen button.
  • In the opening menu-of-videos, clicking an actor’s picture does not launch the respective video.  Instead, the “Click to Play” button must be clicked.  Its audio description does announce the name of the actor’s story to be played, but the actor’s pictures do not have their names.
  • It appears the audio-description for the “spudnik” video is the wrong one; it does not match the scenes.


The videos are entertaining and have a high-production value.  The acting is simply terrific.  People with intellectual disabilities who have basic Web-surfing skills should be able to navigate the videos without difficulty.  The visual-captions feature is indeed innovative.  I look forward to seeing how its capability is advanced.

Wow!  I am a big fan.



  • To interact with the videos, some screen-reader users need to use the ‘invisible cursor’ for JAWS or the ‘WE cursor’ for Window-Eyes.
  • In England, people with “intellectual disabilities” are also known as people with “learning difficulties”.

Clear Helper Project Updates: On with the Development Work!

I’m taking a moment now to publish a few updates on the Clear Helper project.  My original goal remains: to develop a Web site using best practices of accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities.  I realized recently that my actual development work has slowed due to the significant amount of time I have been putting into related research.  In the next couple of weeks, I am going to renew my work on an experimental site design.

  • Simon Evans, of Cognable.com, has graciously set up an account for me to try his Speeka text-to-speech for Web sites.  I will create some tests, and will publish the results.
  • I will set up within the next several weeks a Web site that will use one or more commercial technologies designed to make Web sites more accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.  I will blog about my efforts to make this happen. Trying out these technologies on this new Web site will help me decide which to use on the Clear Helper Web site.
  • Within the next month, I will meet with a ten-person focus group of people with intellectual disabilities.  To my good fortune, they have agreed to work with me to develop and to evaluate the Clear Helper Web site.
  • I have been asked to help WebAIM evaluate some recent work in its wonderful project to advance the development of accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities.  I am honored to play even the tiniest of roles in this effort.
  • Finally, I can report a little accessibility-advocacy success.  I decided to blog with WordPress because its accessibility was commended and my evaluation showed it was good.  However, it has had an accessibility problem to which I had no access to fix: a missing label for the input fields of its e-mail subscription- and blog search tools. With a small amount of persistent prodding, WordPress technical support did fix the e-mail subscription form.  I am informed it will soon do the same for the other.

Accessible Tabs: 4 Recent Projects

[Edit on 2010-01-21:
I was incorrect in the original post (below). I should not have said I wanted a solution that does not use JavaScript.  What I want is one in which JavaScript degrades gracefully. (This means it will get and stay out of the way for users who have it disabled in their Web browsers.)]

Original Post

I have been asked to implement a tab-based, site-navigation menu bar.  An essential feature is that a click to each tab opens a new page or presents a drop-down menu of links to other pages. I suspect no accessible way to accomplish this exists, nor is there one for what I really want: such a menu that uses WAI ARIA but not JavaScript.

I have found four recent projects that attempt to create accessible tabs.

Example 1: No JavaScript, but no WAI ARIA

Dirk Ginader describes his effort as a “… jQuery Plugin that generates a Tab Navigation from Markup that makes sense without Javascript. The generated Tabs are the only ones out there that work for Screen reader users without support for WAI ARIA …”.

Examples 2 & 3: WAI ARIA, but use JavaScript

The Yahoo User-Interface Team developed an “Accessible Tab View” described by Ian Pouncey as using WAI ARIA to a great degree, and as including instructional text for screen reader users.

A project by Felix Nagel supports “… AJAX, collapsible content, open on mouse over …” and “… tabindex …”.  Its WAI ARIA features are “… labelledby, aria-role, aria-hidden, aria-expanded, aria-selected …” and “… aria-controls …”.

Example 4: No WAI ARIA, but has a version without JavaScript

Another project, by Jon Plante, is described by him as “… search-engine-friendly, handicap-accessible Ajax tabs using MooTools and PHP …”.

Project Shortcomings, At Least For My Purposes

  • None of the four projects use WAI ARIA but not JavaScript.
  • They use tabs that link to content on the same page. In Mr. Ginader’s article, in response to a comment asking if tabs could be linked to separate pages, he says it “… would be a big accessibility problem …” and that it “… will never be implemented …”.
  • None have drop-down menus for their tabs, nor do any of the other projects I found.


I found other jQuery projects that were similar to the above-described ones.  I also found many older, related projects that use now out-of-date techniques.  If you know of a recent source for accessible tabs, especially that have drop-down menus, please contact me or post a comment.  Thank you.

Definitions of “Cognitive Disability”


Find a recent, functional definition of “cognitive disability” written by an appropriate U.S. federal government agency, and adopted by government agencies and education institutions throughout the country.

Goal = Wishful Thinking

It appears no authoritative source has published a widely-used and accepted functional definition, nor a clinical one. Because I intend the Clear Helper Web site to be accessible to people with cognitive disabilities, it would have been helpful to find an authoritative, functional definition.

Definitions from Federal-Government Sources

The closest I came to my goal, at least for an authoritative source, is a clinical definition on the Web site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children & Families.  The definition is part of an explanation of why the term “cognitive disabilities” was not used instead of “intellectual disabilities” on the Web site of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

“Cognitive disabilities” is often used by physicians, neurologists, psychologists and other professionals to include adults sustaining head injuries with brain trauma after the age 18, adults with infectious diseases or affected by toxic substances leading to organic brain syndromes and cognitive deficits after the age 18, and with older adults with Alzheimer diseases or other forms of dementias as well as other populations that do not meet the strict definition of mental retardation.

Retrieved from: http://faq.acf.hhs.gov/cgi-bin/acfrightnow.cfg/php/enduser/std_adp.php?p_faqid=934&p_created=1068052784 (Published December 4, 2009)

The next-closest to my goal, in terms of a functional definition from a federal-government agency, is on the Web site of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cognitive disabilities cover a wide range of needs and abilities that vary for each specific person. Conditions range from person having a serious mental impairment caused by Alzheimer’s disease, Bipolar Disorder or medications to non-organic disorders such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, poor literacy or problems understanding information. At a basic level, these disabilities affect the mental process of knowledge, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment. Simply put, the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University defines cognitive disability as: “a disability that impacts an individual’s ability to access, process, or remember information.”

Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/accessibility/technology/disabilities.htm (Published December 29, 2008).  Syracuse University definition retrieved from: http://thechp.syr.edu/definitions_support_terms.html

I also found an older, brief, functional definition on a Web site of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Cognitive disability – Limitation of the ability to perceive, recognize, understand, interpret, and/or respond to information.

Retrieved from: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/sidewalks/appb.htm (Published January 20, 2004)

I could not find any evidence that the above definitions have been adopted by anyone, let alone widely-adopted.

Definitions From Other Sources

I found the following definition on the Web site of the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, at The University of Colorado.

When we refer to “cognitive disabilities” on this website we are primarily referring to mental retardation and developmental disabilities, acquired brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and severe and persistent mental illness. …

Cognitive disability stems from a substantial limitation in one’s capacity to think, including conceptualizing, planning and sequencing thoughts and actions, remembering, and interpreting the meaning of social and emotional cues, and of numbers and symbols.

Retrieved from: https://www.cu.edu/ColemanInstitute/background.html (Published December 14, 2006)

The most useful information I found is on the WebAIM Web site.  It provides general clinical- and functional definitions in the context of accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities.  It has a list of categories of functional deficits, with a relevant synopsis of each.

Cognitive Disabilities: Introduction (Published May 3, 2009)

The WebAIM article’s discussion of clinical- versus functional- definitions closely matches that of another useful article, posted on the Disabled World Web Site.

Cognitive Disabilities (Published February 10, 2009)

Search Term

In all my searches, I used variations of the search term: “cognitive disability” definition

Sources Searched

Note: If you know of a definition or a source of a definition for “cognitive disability”, please contact me or post a comment.  Thank you.

Ray Kurzweil’s Blio eReader: New, Free & Accessible to People with CD

Ray Kurzweil is a giant in the accessibility industry.  He has been inventing reading machines and devices used by people with visual- and reading disabilities for 35 years.  His newest creation is the Blio eReader, digital-book-reading software.

Note: At the time of this writing, the Blio eReader is not yet available to the public.  However, in a CNET interview (video below), Ray Kurzweil says it will be within one month.

Blio eReader Feature Highlights

  • It combines full-color, digital content with Web content, video, and audio narration.
  • It runs on Windows computers, tablets and mobile devices such as the iPhone.
  • It is free, and has access to a million free books. (Presumably, there will be a store of books for sale.)
  • Its catalog includes “cookbooks, travel guides, how-to books, schoolbooks, art books, children’s stories, and magazines”.
  • Books can have interactive, multi-media content and quizzes.

Accessibility Features Good for People with Cognitive Disabilities

The Blio eReader:

  • reads books aloud via either an accompanying, human-read audio track or via a text-to-speech reader;
  • synchronizes its synthesized voices with “follow-along word highlighting”;
  • has adjustable reading speed and font size;
  • has a text-only mode good for minimizing distractions and also for displaying on small screens;
  • uses a “3D book view which includes realistic page turning”; and
  • can be connected to a personalized set of reference Web sites for “one-touch look-up of highlighted phrases”.

In the YouTube video below, CNET interviews Ray Kurzweil about the Blio eReader.  A demonstration of it begins at about 2 minutes, 23 seconds (point 2:23).  This video is not closed captioned.


Note: No endorsement of the Blio eReader is intended or implied.

Making 1000s of Pages of Text Easier To Understand for People with CD

How can search results from Web sites such as MADIL be made as easy to understand as possible by people with cognitive disabilities? In particular, what can sites do that contain thousands of database records?

Sample Web Site

One of these sites, DisabilityInfo.org, provides information about programs for people with disabilities living in Massachusetts.  It does not yet have visitor-selectable easy- and standard versions and other accessibility features specifically for people with cognitive disabilities, but I plan to incorporate them into its next redesign.

For each program, a DisabilityInfo.org database record has:

  • contact information;
  • a narrative description;
  • program type(s);
  • service(s) provided;
  • populations and age-groups served; and
  • lists of agencies that provide referrals and/or licenses.

(Link To Sample Record)

This may be an overwhelming amount of information for people with cognitive disabilities.  Relevant guidelines, such as Juicy Studio’s Developing sites for users with Cognitive disabilities and learning difficulties, recommend breaking information into small chunks.

Alternatives for Reducing the Amount of Information

  • Display only a program’s contact information.
  • Display the contact information along with a link to the full record.
  • Display the contact info with a link that leads to the program record’s information categories written in simple language.  For instance:
    • “I would also like to see:”
      • “What kind of program this is.”
      • “What this program will do for me.”
      • “How old I have to be to get help from this program.”
    • With each line a link, a click could present only the relevant part of the program record.
  • Remove from being displayed the label of any field that does not contain data.
  • Replace repetitive labels, categories or information with a single instance of them.

Simplifying Textual Content

Many of DisabilityInfo.org’s records contain a narrative description, often a paragraph in length. None were written keeping in mind the plain-language manner recommended by cognitive-accessibility guidelines. Unfortunately, creating such a version for thousands of database records may be cost prohibitive.  Perhaps the narrative description should not be shown at all if visitors choose to use an easy version of the Web site.

Elaborating Textual Content

DisabilityInfo.org’s database records have many agency acronyms.  A flaw I plan to correct is that they are not spelled out as recommended by long-standing, general accessibility guidelines.  (No acronym tags are provided.)  It might be even better to link them to short, simply-written descriptions of the agencies.

Wrap Up

As has been pointed out many times by accessibility advocates, accessibility features intended for people with disabilities make a site and its content more accessible to everyone.  For instance, the only information many people want about a program is its contact information.  Therefore, the alternatives described above would be beneficial across the spectrum of site visitors.

I know there are other revisions that could be made to make the textual content of the database records easier to understand.  I have more in mind, which I will review in future posts.  Since the INDEX team and I are in the midst of creating a new design for the DisabilityInfo.org Web site, I welcome suggestions from the accessibility community.