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The following comes from the January 2000 newsletter "F.Y.I." of the Publishers Resource Group, Inc. and is used with permission.

By Jim Allan, Ph.D., Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Accessibility of products and information has become a worldwide issue. The good news is that there is no shortage of information, tools, techniques, or professionals with the expertise to develop electronic textbooks in an accessible format. Ensuring that the electronic textbooks likely to be adopted are designed to be accessible to all students in the most logical and cost-effective manner requires collaboration among textbook publishers, media accessibility developers, software and hardware developers, teachers of students with disabilities, consumer advocates, Internet and online service providers, and state government.

Many states, such as California and Texas, are working on the development of accessible textbooks individually. Nationally, efforts include those of the American Foundation for the Blind's Textbooks and Instructional Materials Solutions Forum (, WGBH's National Center on Accessible Media (, the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Initiative Guidelines (, and the Center for Applied Special Technology's Universal Design for Learning Initiative (

The Texas Education Code defines an electronic textbook as "computer software, interactive videodisc, magnetic media, CD-ROM, computer courseware, online services, an electronic medium, or other means of conveying information to the student or otherwise contributing to the learning process through electronic means" [Sec. 31.002 (1)]. This defines only the physical delivery media (e.g., computer software, CD-ROM, and online services). However, the delivery medium itself is not inherently inaccessible to students with disabilities. The critical features of electronic textbooks are their content and method of presentation.

The method of presentation of multimedia instructional materials determines if (1) the information is accessible, (2) all students can learn from the content, and (3) materials are usable by all students. Although information on the Internet can be made accessible, the accessibility of many current materials delivered through this medium is questionable. In addition, Texas has not yet adopted an electronic textbook that is fully accessible.

An accessible electronic textbook is one that allows students who have disabilities to use the same textbook and to achieve the same intended benefits as students who do not have disabilities. Moreover, they would be able to achieve the same benefit with approximately the same amount of effort. Accessibility features should be essential design criteria for the development of any multimedia project.

Building an accessible multimedia textbook requires planning first and foremost to reduce costs and streamline the development process. For example, it is simple enough to include a keyboard interface at the design stage, during development and coding of the project. Attempts to add the keyboard interface later typically entail costly and time-consuming reprogramming.

In addition, providing accessible electronic textbooks benefits all students, not just students with disabilities. For example, spoken on-screen information helps not only visually impaired, reading disabled, or dyslexic students but also students who are bilingual, who have limited English proficiency, or who learn better by receiving multimodal (auditory and visual) input. In Texas alone, students for whom English is a second language constitute approximately 30 percent of the student population. Moreover, research indicates that multimodal (auditory, kinesthetic, and visual) access enhances comprehension, retention, and learning, possibly boosting student achievement.

No one can argue that all students have different functional abilities and learning styles. Not all students can read printed material; not all students can hear audio information; and not all students can comprehend complex diagrams. Each student requires a variety of learning experiences to maximize learning. Providing all students with instructional materials that present information in an enriched multimedia environment allows each student to interact with the materials in a manner that best fits his or her learning mode. For example, information in print can be provided in audio; audio information can be captioned and displayed in print; and complex information can be displayed as a simplified series of diagrams building to create a complex diagram. Such a multimedia instructional environment would allow students to choose the presentation mode that works best for them and would provide truly universal access to all students.

Electronic textbooks should be designed to improve and expand the user interface and navigation procedures to meet the needs of all students. Keyboard control and navigation, in addition to mouse control and navigation of instructional materials, helps students who cannot use a mouse because of a visual disability, motor disability, poor eye-hand coordination, or temporary injury. Video materials that are closed-captioned or that have descriptive audio tracks also provide multisensory input, which could enhance comprehension. When accessibility is designed into the textbook itself, learning activities can be customized, not only just for the students with disabilities but for all students. Thus, the learning benefits accrue not only for those who most urgently need these accommodations but also for mainstream learners.