Accessibility Tools for Specialized Content
MathML and Flash and Office (Oh My)
Text and meta-data are the keys to accessibility. Text is the most flexible medium since it can be made accessible to a wide spectrum of disabilities by enlarging it, reading it, converting it to Brail and aloud. Meta-data helps define what the text is used for and how it should be interpreted. Tagging is one form of meta-data that can give clues to what text means, such as the ACRONYM tag. MathML is a markup language for tagging text so that it can be interpreted as mathematical equations. Other ways to associate meta-data with text exist, but many are application specific. One example is database fields, but the more common is wrapping text with tag like information in a binary file. This is how Word and other Office products format text.
Accessibility relies heavily on standards and assistive technology to work. Standards like HTML have evolved rapidly to allow and in some cases even require features that make assistive technology possible. MathML is another important standard that has been much slower to arrive. Accessibility for other types of media, such as Flash, rely on vendor standards. As demand and awareness of diverse needs arise these assistive technologies become more prevalent. It is important to always provide feedback to the vendors of your technology of how important accessibility is to you and your institution. When presented with a new technology it is always prudent to open a dialog with the vendor to find out if and how the technology is accessible. There are often requirements that must be met for accessibility to be possible. If technology is not accessible put pressure on the vendor to make it accessible. NC legislation has made section 508 compliance a legal reality in the university arena. Work with vendors and make smart choices, and make accessibility an opportunity, not a liability.
Accessible Mathematical Equations
MathType is a program that can be used stand-alone or as a plug-in to MS Word. It features a tool bar that can be used to construct equations inline with other types of content and will export the entire document to an MathML xml file. IE users will need the free Math Player plug-in. Mozilla users just need the free set of math fonts available at the Mozilla site. Other than this the only other required file is a style sheet which should be placed on the web site. The following URLs should be enough to get you started:
http://chem2.chem.ncsu.edu/~hennesse/ : An Excellent Tutorial and explanation by Glenn Hennessee
http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathtype/ : $100 per seat tool (Academic Price). Works inside MS or as a standalone application
http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathplayer/download.htm : The Free MathPlayer plug-in for IE
http://www.mozilla.org/projects/mathml/fonts/ : The Free Fonts needed for Mozilla
http://chem2.chem.ncsu.edu/~hennesse/pmathml.xsl : A copy of the Style Sheet courtesy of Glenn
Accessible Animations and Interactivity
Macromedia Flash is a widely adopted format for presenting rich media in and out of the browser. Now in Flash MX 2004, Macromedia is starting to get serious with accessibility. Currently the limitation is that assistive technology relies on the use of IE for windows to expose Flash's accessible material. The hope is that Macromedia will continue this move forward and succeed with other vendors to make Flash accessible in other browsers, such as Mozilla, and on other operating systems.
Flash can make a variety of accommodations for accessibility. In the past these all had to be hand-designed, making the creation process for accessible Flash infeasible. Now Flash has several built in mechanisms that work with Microsoft standard APIs (MSAA) to expose accessible alternative content to assistive technologies. Simple animations can be made accessible simply by associating meta-data such as description, long description, tab-order, and short-cut keys. Not much extra work is required. More complex interactive animations can be made accessible by hiding content that would cause problems for users of assistive technology and exposing alternative methods and media. For example, some looping animation might repeat information. It is possible to hide the offensive content in Flash and use action scripts to expose alternative content on demand.
The main limitation of Flash accessibility, other than reliance on IE/MSAA, is that Flash animations often rely on key presses as alternatives to mouse interaction. Many screen readers "gobble up" most of the useful key combinations that the operating system and browser leave for interactivity. Technology specific testing, such as testing for JAWS, is required to understand what key-presses can be used.
The following URL's are a good starting point for learning Accessible Flash:
http://www.unc.edu/cit/softspot/accessible-flash.pdf : A description by Jason Morning Star of the basic problem and solution
http://www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/ : The hub of accessibility information at Macromedia
Another important facet about making accessible content a reality is working with content creators in an environment they feel comfortable in. Lift is an excellent tool for people who like to work in Dreamweaver and HTML, but not everyone is so inclined. Tools like courseGenie allow the content creator to work in tools they already know and use regularly and still produce accessible content with a low learning curve. Tools of this nature may limit creativity, but the trade off is well worth it for the majority of users who want a simple tool to produce simple, effective, and compliant content.
http://www.coursegenie.com/ : A Word Plug-in that allows the user to create an accessible site from a single Word document. Ideal for breaking up a lesson into a navigable site.
http://www.webaim.org/techniques/powerpoint/ : Details how a commercial plug-in can make Power Point files accessible. This product does not produce accessible HTML.
http://cita.rehab.uiuc.edu/software/office/download.html : The plug-in detailed in the above tutorial for Power Point, this tool also works for other Office applications.