Universal design originated in architecture and product design, where accommodating the widest spectrum of users increases commercial viability. Architects practicing universal design create structures that from the outset are intended to be used by all individuals, including those with disabilities. Planning ahead for diverse user needs obviates the need for retrofitting existing structures, a costly practice usually resulting in functionally inadequate and aesthetically disastrous solutions.
Although universal design has it roots in accessible design, it encompasses a philosophy that good design benefits everyone. A product that has not been designed with accessibility in mind may not be usable by a person with a disability, and also may be less than optimally usable by a person without a disability. The classic example, often cited, is the curb cut. Originally designed so that those in wheelchairs can negotiate curbs, curb cuts ease travel for people pushing carriages or riding skateboards, pedestrians with canes, and the average walker. Designing for the ostensibly divergent needs of "special" populations inevitably leads to increased usability for everyone.
Today, web designers are also becoming familiar with the term 'Universal Design'. Designers are being urged to reduce barriers to content so that information can be accessed easily by all people. Advocates of accessibility are providing suggestions about the various access features that can be built into a web site in order to make it usable not just for people with disabilities, but for all invidiuals.
CAST extends these principles to educational environments and develops technologies to support learners with different learning styles, abilities, backgrounds and experiences so that they can not only access the information easily but can also process and understand it. Whether creating a web site, designing a tool or developing curriculum materials, we try to ensure that the supports are flexible and customizable so that the needs of diverse types of learners can be met. To know more about 'Universal Design for Learning' please visit the CAST web site.
In planning its own Web site, CAST researchers wrestled with the idea of how to make the entire Web more universally designed, i.e., more accessible and useful to all people, including those with disabilities. CAST examined existing Web accessibility guidelines, recognized the improbability of Web developers sitting down and reading a handbook of guidelines, and wanted to create an online tool Web designers could use to easily implement those guidelines. CAST developed the idea of a helpful detective -- a Web-based entity that would expose barriers, encourage compliance with existing guidelines and teach Web masters about accessibility. Bobby was born.
CAST recently released a Bobby 3.1 version of the evaluation tool. This version is signifantly different since it accomodates the Web Access Initiative's (WAI) most recent Page Content Guidelines. Not only does Bobby now rate the errors according to the priorities discussed in the guidelines, but it also provides the users with a list of manual checks that they need to pay attention to in order to make their web site fully accessible. CAST has also updated the Bobby web pages to include information about Bobby Icon Guidelines, FAQs, etc. Visit www.cast.org/bobby to use the on-line and/or downloadable version of Bobby 3.1.
Universal Design for the Web does not mean boring and dull text-only web pages. It is possible to create accessible web pages without compromising on the design or quality. Two such examples are the IDEA Practice web page and the Toronto Transit Commission web page. Some of the reasons for considering them engaging is that they they contain rich media elements, dynamic content and creative navigation schemes. Both pass the Bobby 3.1 automatic checks. They do not yet pass some of the manual checks though it is fairly easy to fix those accessibility errors. For example, it is not difficult to provide transcripts for audio files, descriptions for dynamically changing content, descriptive 'd' links and LONGDESC attribute for images that require it. Bobby asks questions and in some cases makes suggestions to the web designer, thereby making it easy for him/her to implement the necessary modifications.
CAST will continue to work closely with the WAI and ensure that Bobby checks reflect the most current version of the Page Content Guidelines. We are striving to make more of these checks automatic. We are also looking at enhancing the tool so that it can interactively walk you through the repair process.