Canadian schools collaborate on more accessible interfaces

The University of Toronto landed a $2.5-million Andrew W. Mellon grant to augment its Fluid project, which is focused on developing a library of user interfaces that will allow the differently abled and people with unique cultural backgrounds or languages to navigate Web applications more easily.

The director of University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Center, Jutta Treviranus, is leading the project. Partners include the University of British Columbia, York University, University of Cambridge, and University of California at Berkeley, along with IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo.

Web applications are the focus of the project, according to Treviranus, because adaptive considerations often get left out of emerging technologies, and retrofitting them tends not to work.

“You want as much control as possible,” said Monica Ackermann, a partner with the Toronto-based assistive technology consultancy firm Assistive Vocational Technology Associates. “You want something that doesn’t require as great a hardcoding effort.”

Said Treviranus: “We want to design a user interface where a person with a disability or alternative language or alternative cultural preference is not excluded,” she said.

Fluid is using Ajax to develop the software architecture to support the user interface library; both will be open source solutions that will be available free to interested universities (26 have already expressed interest). The software and library can be snapped into any of the main open source education software solutions, including Moodle, Kuali Student, Sakai, and uPortal.

Various interface options include a variety of chat and wiki tools, along with video and audio settings. Different languages can appear alongside English, while the hearing impaired can receive closed-captioned alerts instead of audio alerts. Buttons that are used often can be placed near the start of the page, or the display can change from horizontal to vertical. A stylesheet will unify them so that they will run smoothly together.

Rich Schwerdtfeger is an IBM distinguished engineer and SWG accessibility architect/strategist and chair of the IBM Accessibility Architecture Review Board, which is consulting on the Fluid project. “Fluid will be the first project to deliver a personalized Web 2.0 experience for people with disabilities. Although the Fluid project is targeted for the learning space, what we learn should have broader web implications in the future.”

The software architecture should take about a year to complete, while the library should be completed in two years; the project will be funded by the Mellon grant, along with $8-million from the university and corporate partners. Treviranus plans to spread the word about the Fluid project by holding usability camps for students, and discussing at academic conferences and through workshops.

Differently abled and international students utilizing these functions could reap more long-term benefits, too, according to Ackermann, as people familiar with the programs could feel more comfortable requesting more accessible technologies once they hit the workforce post-graduation. Ackermann said, “The more awareness of what their accessibility needs are, the easier it will be to come into the workplace.”

The Fluid project could have positive ramifications for the normally abled community as well. Some of the most common accessibility issues faced by Ackermann’s clients — including colour and font size — can also troubled the aged, who often suffer from some visual impairment.

John Tsotsos, a York professor and chair of the Intelligent Computational Assistive Science and Technology Network, said that a lot of the benefits of this technology are transferable and will greatly benefit the country’s aging population. This kind of universal design and user-friendliness is definitely gaining ground, according to Ackermann.

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