A for Access-ibility

Open Access Technologies LogoA few months ago, I was interviewed for a new podcast series: A is for Access-ibility. Created by Open Access Technologies, the series spotlights accessibility experts making technology more inclusive for people with disabilities.

Watching the series is a wonderful way to learn about accessibility, and about how I think artificial intelligence will play an important part in its future.

Join me and host, Portland Helmich, for their third installment of A is for Access-bility.

I thank Howard Berke for inviting me to be interviewed.

Good, Basic Internet Skills Foiled By Confusing Content

Anne uses her computer almost solely for e-mail and finding information. This is typical of many people, even those without intellectual disabilities. Perhaps unlike them, Anne has significant difficulty with content she receives and finds.


Anne understands e-mail messages from people who know her. She has been using basic functions of e-mail for years, but still gets confused with them because she is distracted by spam. It is especially difficult for her to differentiate it from legitimate messages and to determine its intent.

Finding Info

Anne has been using Google to learn about medications, and to look up definitions of words within their descriptions.  This indicates finding such information is simple enough for her, but the content she finds is not.


It is bad enough that Web content is not written in plain language. Worse is e-mail content designed to deceive. Content comprehension problems put Anne at a significant disadvantage despite her facility with e-mail and Google.

I do not know how anti-spam efforts could be particularly helpful for people with cognitive disabilities. I do know that designing simple Web content is a much easier proposition.


Web Accessibility Insights from 6 Women with Intellectual Disabilities

Last night, I met with a focus group formed to help me with the Clear Helper project.  It consists of people who are self advocates, who are interested in learning about computers, and who want to help me design a Web site accessible to them.  Each has an intellectual disability.  I know this blog post won’t sufficiently describe all I learned from them, but the following are some of the highlights.

Backgrounds and Interests

Joanne, Donna, Val, Nora, Mary and Jeanne are capable people.  The majority live in their own apartments and have jobs in the community.  Even so, only two have computers in their homes.  Another uses a public-library computer exclusively to exchange e-mail with her family.  The remaining four have little experience with computers.  Of all the ladies, one reported using the Web.

The main reason for the lack of computer experience is cost.  Despite ever-falling computer prices, the group members can’t afford them.  Of course, buying a computer is only a small part of the real cost.  Significantly beyond their means are: obtaining assistance for computer set up; purchase and integration of assistive-technology devices and software; and especially training.

All reported knowing of the Web, and that they want to learn about computer technology to access the Web’s many resources.  From most to least, they are interested in: learning to use e-mail; looking up recipes; determining local movie schedules; and finding contact information for state-government representatives.

Demonstration of Web Sites Designed to be Accessible to People with Intellectual Disabilities

I showed the group various Web sites intended to be accessible to them.  I started with Self Advocacy Online. The site-registration page has a fun video that takes users step-by-step through the registration form.  It pauses so users can complete each field, and prompts them to play the video to receive the next set of instructions.  The first set about creating a user name, and particularly the second set about entering an e-mail address, really confounded the group.  Members reported the instructions were too long, with too many steps and too much information.  Had the prompts been something as simple as “type a user name” and “type your e-mail address”, they told me, they would have understood what to do much better.

I showed them Easy You Tube and the BBC’s Us 5 video player.  For each, the group members reported confusion about the purposes of the control buttons.  Only two of the group members accurately reported the play button’s purpose.  They agreed that, if it had audio- and textual prompts that said “Play!” triggered by hovering the cursor on it, they would have understood what it was meant to do.

Demonstration of Clear Helper Test Pages

I showed them my recent experiment with designing features accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.

Because two group members told me at the start of our meeting that they found the text size of computers too small, I demonstrated my recent text size switcher.  The group acted surprised and pleased that a Web site / “the computer” could enlarge text.  Two said they thought the switcher was easy to use.  I also showed my instructions on how to use a Web browser to enlarge text size.  The group consensus was they were too confusing.  Even though the instructions begin by explaining the two-key combination to enlarge text, and show images of the keys, the group en masse asked, “What’s a control key?”

Switching between standard- and plain language versions was the next feature I showed them.  I pointed out the length of the standard version’s first paragraph.  I showed them the “Easy” link, and clicked it to reveal the plain language version.  Unprompted, immediate comments included approval of the short sentences and of the spacing between them.

My recent text-to-speech (TTS) experiment was next.  Group reaction was positive.  One lady explained in her own words that she is illiterate, and would need TTS to use a computer.  There was general agreement the voice narration should not announce the page content’s structural elements.

outline of a house: 2 windows, front door, A-frame roof, little chimneyI asked the group if they knew the purpose of my test home page image (pictured). One lady explained it was for the site’s home page,  the same lady who said she uses the Web.  Another guessed it meant that people lived there.  The rest of the group was silent.


This was an enlightening experience for me.  I learned that features on Web sites designed to be accessible for people with intellectual disabilities, features about which my impression was favorable, were not accessible (at least to this small group).  I am chagrined at my surprise that one of the ladies recognized and volunteered she found text most understandable when it was presented in small chunks.  I was equally impressed by another lady’s comment that making a Web site accessible to them means it would be easier to use for everyone.  This is a point the accessibility community continually makes.

Finally, I was again confronted with talking about Web accessibility to people who don’t have even basic computer skills.  All said they wanted to learn how to independently turn on a computer, and use its keyboard and mouse.  Acquiring and retaining these skills are going to be very difficult for these ladies simply because they don’t own computers, let alone their intellectual disabilities.

I plan to meet with this group again.  We agreed to think about what I could help them learn.  I know they have much more to teach me.


  • It is coincidence (not by design) that all the group members are women.
  • I don’t know how easy or difficult the group would have found the features I demonstrated had each been controlling her own computer.  Such activity will be part of the testing I do for the future Clear Helper Web site.

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.

Tutorial Suggestions from a Self Advocate & a Person with ID

I met today with Anne, a self advocate, a co-founder of Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong (MASS), and a person who uses the Web daily.  Anne is also a person with an intellectual disability.

Popular Request

When I started working with Anne to resolve some issues with her computer, the very first action she asked me to take was to increase its font size.  This is a common request amongst other people with intellectual disabilities.

Increasing a computer’s font size will be the subject of the first tutorial for the future Clear Helper Web site. I could set up the site so it auto-detects the operating system of a visitor’s computer and displays the relevant instructions.  This would be more useful than asking visitors to choose a set of instructions based upon which operating system they use.  Many people do not know what an operating system is, let alone which version their computers use.

Anne’s Suggestions for Tutorials

For future tutorials, Anne suggested instructions on how to:

  • increase the font size of operating systems and/or Web browsers;
  • save for future use the Web site links sent via e-mail;
  • save files, such as attachments, into folders; and
  • find the contact information for state legislators.

Note: The last suggestion is one Anne has in common with Mary, another self advocate I interviewed.


Anne also asked me to show her how to find information using The Massachusetts Aging and Disabilities Information Locator (MADIL). I designed the site to meet accessibility standards of the time. However, it has become clear to me it is not as accessible as it could be for people with intellectual disabilities.  Its purpose and how I might improve its accessibility will be the subjects of a future blog post.

Good Info from a Self Advocate & a Person with ID

Today, I received good information from Mary, a self advocate, an active member of her community and an occasional Web user.  Mary is also a person with an intellectual disability.

Success & Suggestion

Mary told me she had used Google with success to find the mailing address of her local state representative.  She explained many people she knew would like to find similar information, and suggested I create a tutorial on how to do so.  That is a great suggestion for the future Clear Helper Web site.

Challenge & Resolution

She reported trouble using the DisabilityInfo.org Web site.  The home page, she said, was too full of choices.  I designed that site, and I agree with her.  Since I have been designing sites back when the Web was born, people have insisted that everything must go on the home page.  This makes for a very cluttered, confusing page that does not convey the site’s core message, and does not enable visitors to access its information easily.

When I first designed the DisabilityInfo.org Web site a few years ago, it met accepted accessibility standards (WCAG 1.0 AA compliance) and was given a good accessibility review by testers who were blind.  It is not perfect.  For instance, it does not use headings as well as it should.  Yet, most importantly to my current awareness, it has no accessibility features specifically intended for people with cognitive disabilities.  I will be redesigning it next year.  I will apply to its new design the accessibility- and the usability lessons I learn with the Clear Helper project.

Focus Group

Next month, Mary is hosting for me a focus group of ten people with intellectual disabilities.  I will be asking them the questions I outlined in my blog post on Interviewing People with ID about Web Accessibility.  I am sure they will have a lot of good ideas for me.  I will report them in a future post.

Note: Mary told me she wanted to learn American Sign Language to communicate with coworkers, but was unsuccessful finding on the Web such a training program.  (The agency that serves Mary found a local one geared for people with intellectual disabilities.)  If anyone knows of a Web resource listing training programs intended for people with intellectual disabilities, please tell me.  If there is not one, it may have to be a future project for me.

Interviewing People with ID about Web Site Accessibility

I will soon be conducting more interviews with people with intellectual disabilities.  I have three primary areas of interest:

  1. the sites they find inaccessible and accessible, which I am conveying as “easy to use”;  (I will explore the reasons.)
  2. which site features do they find helpful or not, “like and dislike”; (The answers may help me choose for which sites I should create tutorials.) and
  3. what they would like to learn about using the Web.  (This is to help inform me about the subject matter of future tutorials.)

These are the questions I will be asking of people:

  • Which sites are hard to use but you really want to use?
  • Which sites do you find easy to use?
  • Which parts of Web sites do you like, and which do you dislike?
  • What would you like to learn to do on the Web?

To obtain this information, I am visiting self-advocacy groups, and meeting in person with people with intellectual disabilities.  I anticipate having a computer available at each interview so people can show me as well as tell me.  I will be recording responses in narrative form.

Later in the project, as I design the site, I will need people to test it regularly and give me feedback every step of the way.  I have not yet figured out how best to organize that, but I am open to suggestions.

Note: The W3C has a good article about Involving Users in Web Projects for Better, Easier Accessibility.  I shall rely upon it to help guide my project.