Volume XI Number 1, August 2005

Closing the Circuit: Accessibility from the Ground Up

Curtis D. Edmonds, J.D.
Marsha Allen, M.S.
Robert Todd, M.S.
Shelley Kaplan, M.S.


In its efforts to promote accessibility and universal design in education, the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) created an online learning object that can be utilized by all students, including those with disabilities. Through a collaboration between two CATEA projects, the Georgia Tech Research on Accessible Distance Education (GRADE) project and the Southeast Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC), "Federal Court Concepts" was designed to implement CATEA research findings and serve as an example of an accessible online learning object. This paper will discuss the process and different technologies used in creating and evaluating the online learning object.


The increased use of technology in higher education is rapidly blurring the distinction between distance learning and so-called “local” learning (Howell, Williams, & Lindsay, 2003). Instructors are able to utilize a variety of computer-based “learning objects” that can be used and reused in different courses (Wiley, 2000). Such learning objects may be “first-generation” elements, such as those created using HyperText Markup Language (HTML), or “second-generation” elements, such as Microsoft PowerPoint presentations or Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (Edmonds, 2004).

The use of online learning objects represents “the future of instruction design”, one factor of which is access for students with disabilities (Deubel, 2003). Designing courses to be accessible to students with disabilities results in courses that are easier to use and better understood by everyone (Nielsen, 2000). For example, courses that use accessible design principles generally have fewer graphics, resulting in a cleaner design that is faster to download and easier to use for all students. Additionally, addressing accessibility concerns at the beginning of the process when creating online materials is much easier than retrofitting after the fact (Burgstahler, 2002).


The Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) was well positioned to develop, evaluate, and disseminate an accessible online learning object. CATEA is a center located within the College of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta. CATEA is home to many research projects on accessibility and usability for all people, including people with disabilities. CATEA has two central research foci, as follows:

  1. Development, evaluation, and utilization of assistive technology (technologies or devices designed to enable or improve performance of activities of daily living or work).
  2. Design and development of accessible environments (environments, private and public, accessible to all people, including those with disabilities).

The “Federal Court Concepts” online learning object, available online at http://www.catea.org/grade/legal/, was developed as a collaborative partnership between two CATEA projects, both of which concentrate on accessibility of information technology in education. The idea for the online learning object came from the Southeast Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC), one of ten regional centers funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education (Grant #H133D010207). The Southeast DBTAC is responsible for providing technical assistance, training, and information about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), as well as promoting the need for accessible information technology in educational entities across the eight states of the Southeast Region, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The Southeast DBTAC works with colleges, universities, community colleges, and K-12 schools to improve access to information technology for students with disabilities in a wide variety of settings. The Southeast DBTAC is assisted in this endeavor by a 21-member Education Leadership Team comprised of representatives from educational institutions throughout the Southeast Region, including rural community colleges and historically black colleges and universities.

The “Federal Court Concepts” online learning object was developed by the Georgia Tech Research on Accessible Distance Education (GRADE) project. GRADE is a demonstration program funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) to provide faculty and administrators in institutes of higher education with technical assistance and professional development that facilitates and supports the skills needed to create accessible distance learning for students with disabilities. GRADE collaborates with many partners, including a leading private company, IDET Communications, to develop research and training programs to enable institutions of higher education nationwide to meet the online distance learning needs of students with disabilities.


“Federal Court Concepts” was designed as a publicly available online learning object to address two different challenges experienced by the Southeast DBTAC and GRADE projects. The Southeast DBTAC and GRADE projects routinely collaborate on training initiatives, conference presentations, and dissemination projects. The process of creating this online learning object helped to enhance ongoing collaboration efforts.

First, the Southeast DBTAC was challenged in developing training programs for its regional network of 87 affiliates in a useable and equitable manner. Since the passage of the ADA, federal courts have issued over 1,000 rulings on the interpretation of the ADA, including several important Supreme Court decisions.

To continue its mission of providing timely, accurate information about the ADA, the Southeast DBTAC needed to share information about these rulings with its affiliate network. The Southeast DBTAC operates a decentralized organization that has proven to be an effective method for disseminating information that is of sufficient quality and intensity. Partners of the Southeast DBTAC (known as “affiliates”) provide strategic linkages to the target populations desired to be reached by this project. These affiliates, including the Education Leadership Team, receive information on a routine basis and, in turn, copy and distribute it using existing information conduits associated with their respective state and local networks. Data analysis reveals that 50% of the information is disseminated by the Southeast DBTAC regional office and 50% is done by members of its affiliate network. Affiliates regard their collaboration with the Southeast DBTAC as a value-added service to the constituency that turns to them for accurate and up-to-date information.

While evaluating its training and educational materials concerning new ADA rulings from federal courts, the Southeast DBTAC discovered that many of its affiliates lacked understanding of how federal courts worked. Further analysis of evaluation forms from conferences and training efforts revealed that information about the structure of the federal courts (district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court) was also not easily understood or effectively conveyed. For example, many affiliates were unaware that the eight states covered by the Southeast DBTAC are served by four different U.S. Courts of Appeal, with North Carolina and South Carolina in the Fourth Circuit; Mississippi in the Fifth Circuit; Tennessee and Kentucky in the Sixth Circuit; and Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in the Eleventh Circuit. In order for Southeast DBTAC affiliates to be more knowledgeable about the different ADA rulings issued by different courts, they needed a better understanding of how the federal court system worked. This information needed to be clearly written and available in a format accessible to all people, including those with a variety of disabilities.

This training need from the Southeast DBTAC developed into an opportunity for the GRADE project to address a different problem. One of the partners working with GRADE is the Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT). MERLOT is a collaborative project of the California State University system, the University System of Georgia, the University of North Carolina system, the Oklahoma State Regents, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers. MERLOT is a free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students in higher education to enhance instruction through a continually growing collection of online, peer-reviewed learning materials. MERLOT is also a gateway to a national database containing web-based interactive learning materials, assignments, reviews, and projects across a variety of academic disciplines. The MERLOT database contains a number of online learning objects that can be utilized by instructors as “modules” in developing their curriculum.

MERLOT is a key partner for the GRADE project; however, GRADE was challenged with communicating to the MERLOT community the myriad concerns and issues impacting the accessibility of their contributed learning materials. In order to encourage future accessibility efforts, GRADE needed a way to convey to the MERLOT community that accessibility was important, possible, and doable. Creating an online learning object especially designed as a module for the MERLOT database that incorporated the research on accessible distance education developed by GRADE would advance the integration of accessibility concepts to this particular audience.

The Southeast DBTAC and GRADE developed the “Federal Court Concepts” online learning object on a collaborative basis to address these separate, but interrelated challenges - the need of the Southeast DBTAC for accessible training materials on the federal court system, and the need of the GRADE project for a fully accessible online learning object to serve as an example for the MERLOT community in how to create modular content for accessible online distance education. This mutually beneficial leveraging of resources will result in the creation of more online learning objects that are more accessible and usable for everyone.


Establishing Goals

The “Federal Court Concepts” online learning object, or module, was developed as a promising practice with four main goals in mind:

  1. Pedagogical Value: In order for the practice to meet the training needs for the developers and serve as an example for other institutions to replicate, the module had to effectively convey information about the federal court system, including the role of the federal courts in the federal government, the types of cases heard by federal courts, and an analysis of how cases move through the federal courts. An attorney with expertise in the subject matter conducted research on current online materials to develop the text of the module.
  2. Accessible Design: In order for the practice to effectively serve as an example for other developers, the module had to meet and exceed the two most widely-used accessibility standards available, the Section 508 standards and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG),. Additionally, the module was developed so that the accessibility was transparent - instead of hiding accessibility features, this module would reveal and discuss them.
  3. Attractiveness and Usability: In order for the practice to reach a wide audience outside the disability community, the module needed to be designed in a way to be as attractive to users without disabilities as it was accessible to users with disabilities. If the module was unattractive, or unusable by the majority of users, it would not gain acceptance or achieve replication.
  4. Putting Research into Practice: In order for the practice to serve as a “best practice”, it was important to infuse the module with research outcomes developed by GRADE. GRADE has focused its research on addressing both “first generation” barriers to accessible online learning elements - such as image maps and cascading style sheets - as well as “second generation” barriers to online learning elements, such as Microsoft PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. GRADE also has developed a free online tutorial, “Access E-Learning”, available online at http://www.accesselearning.net/, that provides guidance to educators in addressing both kinds of barriers.

5 W’s and an H

The first phase of developing the module dealt with the most basic issues:

  1. Who would develop the module?
  2. What would be the content of the module?
  3. Why choose that specific content?
  4. Where would the module be hosted?
  5. When would the module be completed?
  6. How would the module be developed?

Who: The initial person responsible for developing the module was Curtis D. Edmonds, J.D., an attorney then working with the Southeast DBTAC and serving as a co-principal investigator on GRADE. Marsha Allen, who works as a web developer on both projects, assisted in developing and monitoring the accessibility. Shelley Kaplan, executive director of the Southeast DBTAC and co-principal investigator on GRADE, served as the usability evaluator for the module.

What: As stated earlier, the general content of the module was determined by the training needs of the Southeast DBTAC. The specific content, however, was developed through a review of the MERLOT social studies database. That database contained little, if any, information about the federal court system. The content developer determined that a general overview of the federal court system would be a valuable pedagogical tool not currently available through MERLOT.

Why: Initially, the module was to focus on the federal court system as it related to the ADA. However, as the module developed, it became obvious that the content should appeal to a wider audience, which may or may not have an interest in accessibility. Creating a general overview of the federal court system would not only leverage the knowledge of project participants, but would also serve as a valuable training tool for CATEA staff and Southeast DBTAC affiliates.

Where: The module was designed for inclusion on the CATEA website under the GRADE directory, primarily so CATEA staff could track usage of the module. Having a stable, permanent Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or web address was key not only to replication but to dissemination as well.

When: Because the module was developed on something of an ad-hoc, piecemeal basis, time became an important consideration. GRADE submitted the module for consideration as a presentation at the August 2004 MERLOT International Conference. This helped to concentrate the timeline for developing the module and posting it to the CATEA website.

How: The module could have been delivered in a variety of ways, using many different forms of technology. However, to reach the maximum number of people, and to most readily meet the goals of accessibility, the “Federal Court Concepts” module was developed using a hand-coded webpage template in HyperText Markup Language (HTML). While other technologies, such as PHP and Cold Fusion, were considered, HTML was determined to be the most familiar and usable platform for this module.

Review of Existing Online Learning Objects

Before content development began, other currently existing online learning objects on the topic of the federal courts needed to be reviewed. It was important to see whether creating a new module on the federal court system was even necessary, or if it would “reinvent the wheel”. Project staff identified and evaluated three existing modules, as follows:

  1. Understanding the Federal Courts - This online module, available at http://www.uscourts.gov/understand02/index.html, is offered by the Administrative Office of the Federal Courts. It is a comprehensive, lengthy online textbook with in-depth information about the federal court system. People with disabilities can access the text of the module, but the layout is confusing and many images are not appropriately labeled, making it very difficult for people who use screen readers or text browsers to access the module independently.
  2. How Courts Work - This online module, available at http://www.abanet.org/publiced/courts/home.html, is offered by the American Bar Association. The content of this module concentrates on the different steps of a criminal trial, including arrest, pre-trial conferences, plea bargaining, and jury selection. While the content of the module is comprehensive, its focus is on criminal procedure, and not specifically on federal courts. Additionally, the module has a number of accessibility problems, including a confusing layout and several unlabelled images, rendering it difficult, if not impossible by people with visual impairments and learning disabilities to access.
  3. Inside the Federal Courts - This online module, available at http://www.fjc.gov/federal/courts.nsf, was developed by the Federal Judicial Center. The module was designed to provide training for new employees of the federal court system, and contains a detailed analysis of the different steps of a civil case through the court system. However, the module provides only basic information about many of the different courts and their functions, and does not provide definitions of many of the terms used, links to other websites, or information about legal research. Also, this module is difficult to navigate and almost totally inaccessible for people who use a screen reader.

Given the accessibility problems of the existing modules, the decision was made to create a module that would be more usable for a general audience, but also more accessible for individuals with visual, cognitive, and other disabilities.

Creating a Template

The “Federal Court Concepts” module was designed as a publicly available website using templates constructed in HTML. To design a website in this manner, the individual content of each separate page is pasted into a common template. The use of templates was a key in maintaining a common look and feel for all pages. It also saved time in the design process, as pages did not need to be hand-coded on an individual basis. Finally, the template was designed to meet all accessibility criteria, thereby ensuring that all pages would have the appropriate accessibility features.

The template used by this module employed a banner graphic and a left-hand navigation menu. In the initial design, the banner graphic was the only graphic on the page, in order to minimize loading time and improve accessibility. The banner graphic was created using Adobe Photoshop and was a collage of three different copyright-free graphics obtained from different federal government websites, with the words “Federal Court Concepts” superimposed on the graphic. The graphic was predominantly blue and gray, so the design of the module used these colors.

To provide a consistent, flexible “look and feel” that separates the content from the presentation, the template has an associated cascading style sheet (CSS) to display the various fonts, colors, and text styles used in the module. Users can create their own style sheets and apply them to the module to increase its readability or usability. One page in the module provides a detailed description of accessibility features that were used and also includes a link to an alternate style sheet, which presents a version of the page in large print, with yellow lettering on a black background.

The template also contained two key accessibility features. First, a link, called a skip-navigation link, was placed on the top of the page to enable users to skip past the left-side navigation bar to the main content of the page. Second, a link, called a d-link (named for the letter “d”, for “description”, used in creating the link), was placed next to the banner graphic to provide access to a page with a long description of that graphic. In some sites, the “d-link” and/or the skip-navigation link are not visibly displayed on the page - through the use of a cascading style sheet or other means. However, in the “Federal Court Concepts” module, these two links are made visible on the page through the style sheet associated with the template, in order to make these accessibility features more apparent to all users.

The initial template included information about the sponsoring organizations in a text format at the bottom of the page. However, subsequent versions of the template made this information more prominent, and included the logos of the different organizations.

Developing the Content

The content of the “Federal Court Concepts” module was designed to meet three student learning objectives:

  1. Understand the differences and similarities between the various types of federal courts.
  2. Identify the levels of the federal court system.
  3. State the basic principles of legal research.

In order to meet these objectives, the module uses several different ways to convey information. On some pages, information is presented using “first generation” HTML techniques. For example, one page has a chart in an accessibly formatted HTML data table to explain the circuit court system. Another page uses color-coding to help explain a typical legal citation, but with the information also easily understandable without color. Another page uses an image map designed accessibly with alternative text for each area to explain the circuit court system. Additionally, some pages use “second generation” elements embedded in the HTML pages. For example, one page employs two images that were originally slides in Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, with “d-links” to pages containing long descriptions of the images.


The evaluation process for the “Federal Court Concepts” module was conducted in two parts. The first part dealt with the accessibility of the module, which was tested against all three priorities of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and available online at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/. Additionally, the module was evaluated against the federal Section 508 accessibility standards, available online at http://www.section508.gov. Although the module was designed with accessibility in mind, there were still four Priority 2 and Priority 3 errors that required additional work to correct, as well as one Section 508 error. The process of correcting these five errors is documented in Table 1 in the Appendix of this paper.

After corrections for the errors were made, the module was re-tested for compliance with the WCAG 1.0 guidelines and the Section 508 standards. The result of the re-evaluation found that the “Federal Court Concepts” module was successful in its goals of meeting existing accessibility standards while providing a worthwhile pedagogical resource for educators.

Once the accessibility concerns were addressed, an additional evaluation was launched, focusing on the usability of the module. While the module met the existing accessibility standards, it was not clear that it was practical for all users, including those without disabilities. This second part of the evaluation was necessary because, while there are standards and guidelines that address how a site may be accessible to users with different disabilities, there are as yet no clear guidelines regarding how to make that same site usable and useful for the general public. Also, while tools are available to automatically analyze websites for errors relative to existing accessibility standards, no tool can substitute for user testing - a website can be “accessible” according to a tool but still have accessibility errors and not be usable.

To evaluate the usability of the “Federal Court Concepts” module, several users with varying experience in Internet use and different levels of understanding of the legal system viewed the module. This evaluation yielded two ideas that were incorporated into the design of the module. The first dealt with concerns that the left-hand navigation bar did not show users at first glance what page they were on. The solution involved removing the link to the current page in the navigation bar and changing the style sheet to display the current page in bold text on the navigation bar. Additionally, a comprehensive glossary was written to provide readers with access to detailed definitions of legal terms.

The third part of the evaluation process will examine how the module is used in classrooms by collecting and analyzing feedback from educators and users about the content, accessibility, and usability of the module. Presently, links to the “Federal Court Concepts” module appear in the MERLOT database, the National Council for the Social Studies website, the Federal Resources for Educational Excellence website, and several other educational websites. The Georgia Department of Education recently included “Federal Court Concepts” as a resource for Georgia civics and government educators. Also, in December 2004, the EducationWorld.com website rated the module as A+ in both content and site design.

A more concerted dissemination effort is currently underway. When the module is next updated, an additional page will be added to collect feedback from users. Also, other accessible elements, such as multimedia and interactive quizzes, may be added to enhance learning outcomes and stimulate innovation in accessible design.


In developing the “Federal Court Concepts” module as a learning object, three important lessons were learned:

  1. Making the object accessible “from the ground up” really does save time. Utilizing the template design saved time in the development process and also reduced the time spent on implementing changes. The template was designed to have minimal graphics to quicken download time, but still be aesthetically attractive for sighted users; this lessened the possibility of accessibility mistakes that could be made in the overall development process. Having a consistent, attractive, minimalist design that was tested for accessibility at every stage to make the “Federal Court Concepts” module usable to the broadest audience in the limited time that was available for development.
  2. Having another person view the object in the evaluation phase is key to achieving complete accessibility. Although the module was designed specifically to showcase accessibility, the established web accessibility standards and guidelines are still difficult for many developers and educators to understand and implement. While tools, such as the “Bobby” software, that automatically analyze potential accessibility errors on web pages are helpful, no tools are error-proof. Developers still must check their pages against the standards by hand. Having someone who knows the standards analyze the object and/or having an individual with a disability review the object are the keys to eliminating accessibility as well as usability errors.
  3. Both “first generation” and “second generation” accessibility is achievable and doable for online learning objects. By incorporating various commonly-used “second generation” elements such as PowerPoint into the “first generation” context of a website, the resulting “Federal Court Concepts” module is an example of how a similar learning object that is fully accessible and usable by all users can be created.


Online learning objects are powerful tools for educators, in both distance education and traditional classroom settings. In order for all students to succeed in educational environments that utilize such objects, the objects must be accessible to users with and without disabilities through compliance with accessibility standards and guidelines. By creating and disseminating a module that meets these standards and putting research outcomes into practice, CATEA helps to set an example for other institutions on how to create online learning objects that are universally designed with the needs of all students in mind.


Table 1: Problems Identified and Barriers Removed in the “Federal Court Concepts” Module

The original left-hand navigation bar was created with adjacent links separated only by white space. This could have been confusing for people who use text-only browsers, as their display could show the links running together, making it difficult to select a specific link. This was corrected by placing a non-linked, printable hyphen between each adjacent link. WCAG 1.0 Checkpoint 10.5 (Priority 3)
The language in which the document was written was not specified in the document header. This could have been confusing for some people who use screen readers or voice-enabled technology that modulates the output of a webpage or web-based document to a specified language, depending on the language of the document. This was corrected by modifying the code to identify the primary natural language of the document in the header. WCAG 1.0 Checkpoint 4.3 (Priority 3)
Some pages used more than one “d-link” to describe images. As a result, links that used the same text (the letter “d”) went to different destinations. This could have caused confusion for users of assistive technologies that read lists of links out of context. This was corrected by making the target of each link distinct and clearly identified, in this case, by numbering subsequent d-links on the same page (d1, d2, etc.) to avoid confusion. WCAG 1.0 Checkpoint 13.1 (Priority 2)
One page utilized different colors to provide information. This page was coded using an HTML table, with the “bgcolor” attribute used to create the colors - an attribute that was officially deprecated in the WCAG 1.0 guidelines. The use of deprecated attributes can cause accessibility problems for people who use browsers that do not support such deprecated elements. Also, using the “bgcolor” attribute “hard-codes” the color to the page; this can cause accessibility problems for people who may need to use different colors for increased readability or usability. This was corrected by removing the deprecated “bgcolor” attribute and controlling the presentation of color using a cascading style sheet, which allows users to customize the data according to their preferences. WCAG 1.0 Checkpoint 11.2 (Priority 2); WCAG 1.0 Checkpoint 11.3 (Priority 3)
One page provided a link to a PDF document on another website, but did not identify the link as a PDF document nor provide a means for users to download the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is needed to view PDF documents. This could have caused confusion and frustration for users, who may not have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed and would be unable to view the linked document without clear directions as to how or where to download the required software. This was corrected by providing a link to the Adobe website, where users could download the appropriate application. Section 508 Checkpoint (m)


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