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Web Accessibility and Use of Assistive Technology in Accessing E-Resources by Learners with Visual Impairments

Published onFeb 09, 2018
Web Accessibility and Use of Assistive Technology in Accessing E-Resources by Learners with Visual Impairments


The increasing provision of Web-based information resources has moved from a simple text interface to dynamic and interactive de­signs. While this move has provided people with a more creative and flexible experience, there are dangers that some people will be excluded because they cannot use standard methods of access. The purpose of this research paper was to explore web accessibility and use of assistive technology in accessing e-resources by students with visual impairments (VI). The specific objectives were: To establish the literacy levels of students and staff in adaptive technology (AT), to find out whether the information websites are accessible to learners with visual impairment, to describe the successes in using assistive technology on the e-platform, and to describe the training offered to learners with visual impairment on access to e-resources. The findings of this research paper would enable information managers to make informed decisions in designing information websites and in the buildup of assistive technology equipments and skills in the current information society setting where digitization is emphasized. In addition, it would be an eye opener for future researchers in the area of assistive technology and web accessibility for learners with visual impairment. The study was carried out at Kenyatta University-Post Modern Library, and the population comprised of 80 learners and 5 staff members. The study adopted the descriptive survey design. Questionnaires with both open and closed ended questions were used to collect data from the learners while structured interviews were conducted for the staff. Data was analyzed using both quantitative and qualitative methods. For Quantitative methods, descriptive statistics was used while thematic analysis approach was used to analyze qualitative data. After analysis, tables and graphs were used to present quantitative data while qualitative data was presented in textual mode. The findings were: both staff and users with visual impairment had average skills in assistive technology on the e-platform; information websites were not accessible by learners with visual impairment; use of assistive technology to access e-resources was challenged and that learners lacked adequate skills in accessing e-resources using AT. The paper concluded that: students with visual impairments lacked independence in using e-resources due to web inaccessibility, inability to use AT successfully on the e-platform and low literacy levels in e-resources by students. The study recommended that: library information managers to encourage independence of learners with VI by improving web accessibility, equipping them with self reliant skills like information literacy and AT skills. Further research in the area of web accessibility by learners with specific visual impairments (Blind, Low vision) was also recommended.

Keywords: web accessibility, assistive technology (AT), e-resources, visual impairment.


ICT have become the most suitable tool, in the field of education, to enhance independence and equal opportunities for all. ICTs and Assistive Technology (AT) are offering new opportunities for everyone but they are becoming more significant for persons with disabilities (PWDs). When using assistive technology that is adapted to the abilities of everyone, disabled end-users are able to participate in all aspects of social life on more equal terms than ever before. It is vital for students to benefit, on an equal basis, from rapid development of ICTs to enter an inclusive and barrier-free Information Society. However, if the technologies fail to match the needs of end-users, they can turn into a new barrier for PWDs. Information managers therefore have a task of ensuring that all the categories of information users are not limited in any way by the technology.

Web accessibility can make it easier for people to find a website, access it, and use it successfully, thus resulting in increased audience and increased effectiveness. Ie more users and more use. When contents and services offered by the website of a company or organization are planned to be accessible they will be available to a wider range of users.

On the other hand, assistive technology is very important tool in the life of every individual with visual impairment and more so to those who are searching for information. Today, we can say that almost everything is having “electronic” prefix and the way to access information has changed substantially because of the many factors like fast advancements in computer technology and internet which is getting more and more widespread every day. Although some people stick to printed resources, the fact that electronic resources offer innovation and irresistible options in terms of cost and time is obvious.

Reviewing the recent past, it can be seen that sharing method of resources of academic researches were printed references. However today lots of resources like; books, journals, encyclopedias, theses, scientific articles and reports, are open to access in electronic databases in digital media (Assist & Ongoz, 2010). In recent years, the information superhighway, the Internet, has become a global gateway for information dissemination with the ability to share worldwide collections of information (Ekwelem, 2013).

From a global perspective there have been some concerns about persons with disabilities. The UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, article 21 asserts that “State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice ...” (Javier & Calvo, 2014)

With the library being a key provider of information especially to students with visual impairment, there is need therefore to keenly explore web accessibility and use of assistive technology in accessing these e-resources by learners with visual impairment. Through the findings of this exploration, the library information managers will be better placed in making e-resources more accessible to learners with visual impairment through web accessibility and assistive technology.

Gap identified

Whereas accessing electronic information resources offers opportunities to obtain accurate and timely literature, observation shows that there is low usage of these resources by learners with visual impairment in Kenyatta University. In addition, they spend more time on the computer trying to retrieve a single information resource.

If this situation prevails, learners with visual impairment will continue lagging behind in the moving information world where knowledge is easily generated from the available electronic resources. They will not be able to access electronic resources which would be a rich bank of worldwide information in all fields of study. In addition, this will make them remain irrelevant in the current knowledge society.

The task of this research paper was therefore to explore web accessibility and use of assistive technology in accessing e-resources by learners with visual impairment. The ability to explore and describe web accessibility and use of assistive technology in accessing electronic information resources, would help information managers to consider ways of increasing accessibility to e-resources which would enhance access to information by this category of users.

The objectives of this paper are:

  1. To establish the literacy levels of students and staff in assistive technology

  2. To find out whether the information websites are accessible to learners with visual impairment.

  3. To describe the successes in using assistive technology on the e-platform

  4. To describe the training offered to learners with visual impairment on access to e-resources

The research questions are:

  1. What are the literacy levels of students and staff in assistive technology?

  2. Are the information websites accessible to learners with visual impairment?

  3. How successful is the use of adaptive technology on the e-platform?

  4. How is the training on access to e-resources offered to learners with visual impairments?

Theoretical framework

The study adopted the Experiential Learning theory proposed by Carl Rogers (1983). The theory distinguished two types of learning: cognitive (meaningless) and experiential (significant).

According to Rogers, learning is facilitated when: (1) the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction, (2) it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems, and (3) self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success.

In his theory, Rogers emphasized the following:

•        Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is relevant to the personal interests of the student

•        Learning which is threatening to the self (e.g., new attitudes or perspectives) are more easily assimilated when external threats are at a minimum

•        Learning proceeds faster when the threat to the self is low

•        Self-initiated learning is the most lasting and pervasive.

This theory was applicable in this paper because information seeking is part of the learning process. The process of seeking information generates knowledge by providing access to the bank of knowledge found in information resources which includes electronic resources. Web accessibility and ability to use assistive technology on the e-platform minimizes the external threats.

Learners with visual impairment also have similar information needs as the other sighted learners. They should therefore be able to search for information independently. In order to make this information meaningful to the learner, self initiated information seeking behavior should be employed. The student should participate fully in the process of searching for information and have control over the type of information sought and the entire searching process.

Information providers should only facilitate this process by ensuring that the right equipments are provided to them; assistive technology and skills on the use of assistive technology; as well as information retrieval skills. In addition they should ensure that the web sites are designed in such a way that they are accessible to this category of users. By doing this, the external threats to electronic information access are minimized.

Description of the conceptual framework

Access to information enables individuals to acquire knowledge. Online platforms like web pages are sources of information. If the web content is accessible to learners with visual impairment, then they too are able to access information, acquire knowledge, participate in the knowledge society and enjoy online inclusion. On the other hand, if the web content is not accessible, then participation of learners with visual impairment in the knowledge society through information access is limited. This study therefore seeks to explore whether the web content is accessible to learners with visual impairment and what are the implications of this accessibility on information access which further influences their participation in the knowledge society.

Literature review

The internet and e-resources

The use of the internet is becoming an essential part of day-to-day living. This has two implications for people who are visually impaired or blind. First, access to the internet using contemporary technology may present barriers, thus excluding them from fully contributing in society. Second, once accessibility barriers have been overcome, the internet offers a quick access to information that was not readily accessible before (e.g. electronic versions of newspapers, job applications). For these reasons, there has been a great deal of research into how people with visual impairment access the internet, what they use the internet for and the barriers that they face (Hewett, Torgerson, & Douglas, 2014).

With the rapid development of information technology and near-universal access to the internet, people are increasingly doing more of their reading and information gathering on computers rather than in printed books (Chia-chen & Chen, 2014). However, Research has shown that people with disabilities are most at risk of being excluded from access, and in particular people who are blind or visually impaired and who use assistive technologies such as screen readers (Brophy & Craven, 2014).

Tenopir et al. (2009) as cited in (Nández & Borrego, 2014) showed that scholars’ use of electronic information has increased substantially over time as academic libraries transit from print to electronic collections. Nandez & Borrego in their 2014 study noted that the adoption of electronic information in academic setting has been extremely successful. Doiron (2011) as cited in (Chaudhry, 2014) pointed out that reading materials in new electronic format is opening up new opportunities to bring reading to more people and suggested that schools and libraries should take advantage of this situation to promote reading.

Web Accessibility

The interface of choice for nearly all digital information centres is the world wide web (www). Although significant changes are taking place in Web technol­ogies, the graphical user interface (GUI) has rapidly become dominant and looks likely to remain so. From an accessibility perspective this has at least allowed standard approaches to be developed to try to ensure that all users are able to access all services (Brophy & Craven, 2007). The graphic display may pose several challenges hence the need to explore how users with visual impairment view them as they search the web.

As highlighted by Paul & Singh (2014) the goal of digital information centres is to provide greater access to their collections to promote research activities. However, the area of accessibility to the digital information centre by the special group of users with visual impairment has not been touched on through research. Therefore the necessity of this study was inevitable especially in this digital era of the information society.

According to Brophy & Craven (2014), “Design for all” in a information centre environment basically means that information centre information technology (IT) systems and interfaces must be designed in a way that enables them to be read and interacted easily by all users of the information centre, whether they are physically visiting the information centre itself or accessing it remotely and regardless of any disability or access preference they may have.

Various studies indicate that learners with disabilities experience unique challenges when accessing information centre resources (Byerley and Chambers, 2002; Coonin, 2002). Learners who rely on screen readers experience barriers accessing information due to their rich graphical interfaces and complex web designs of proprietary online databases.  Byerley and Chambers (2002) tested the accessibility of specific electronic databases with screen reading software and found they were not user-friendly. Horwath (2002) surveyed users who were blind or visually impaired on the usability of four databases and found that the design had the greatest impact on the accessibility of the databases. Byerley and Chambers (2002) examined the accessibility of two databases (OCLC First search and Expanded Academic) by blind learners using screen readers. Web content accessibility guidelines were used as a measurement of accessibility. They found again that design elements in both databases compromised the accessibility of the databases (Dermody, 2011).

A more recent study by Byerley, Chambers and Thohira, (2007) examined the accessibility of online databases from the database vendors’ perspectives. They found that vendors rated their products as mostly accessible. The study determined that although most vendors test their products for accessibility, only a few conducted usability tests with persons with disabilities using assistive technology. This 2007 study from the vendor’s perspective influenced the authors to conduct their own test using learners with print disabilities.

Technology is both an enabler and a barrier for learners with print disabilities. While screen readers enable learners to navigate their on-line environment, they are limited on how they can interpret a busy website. While database and website design is evolving to the benefit of users who have vision, the contradiction is that their enriched features which create greater accessibility to information also creates barriers for learners who rely on screen readers (Dermody, 2011). According to Dermody, database vendors are aware of the barriers their databases pose to learners who rely on screen readers. The 2007 study by Byerley et al., indicated that only five of the 12 vendors (EBSCO, Elsevier, JSTOR, LexisNexis, ProQuest) surveyed conducted usability testing with people who have visual disabilities. However, Byerley et al. (2007) indicated in their study that vendors are not addressing accessibility in their marketing efforts.

Assistive technology

Technology can provide the means for a blind or partially sighted per­son to overcome barriers such as the need to read print, use a computer, take notes and communicate both on paper and electronically. Video mag­nifiers and electronic readers, Optical Character Recognition software, magnification software, speech output systems and electronic Braille de­vices all have a part to play in a solution for a particular individual. These computer-related aids and equipment are commonly known as “assistive,” “adaptive,” “access,” or “enabling” technology. Often people will use a combination of the above technologies to enable them to read electronic print. For example, they may use speech output predominantly, with Braille output to verify unusual spellings or language. Magnification may be used to explore a page, with speech output to read out more text-rich parts of the page (Brophy & Craven, 2007).

Pro­vision of assistive equipment (adaptive, enabling, or access technology) will enable a user with visual impairment to access on-screen information receiv­ing output in a way that is appropriate to their needs. However, in addi­tion to this, the information provided on screen must be presented in a way that can be interpreted by any kind of access technology. This is what is referred to as “accessible Web design,” “design for all,” or “universal de­sign.”(Brophy & Craven, 2014).

A study carried out in Canada by (Dermody & Majekodunmi, 2011) established out that there is no doubt that technology has opened the door for learners with disabilities. They noted that from screen readers to augmentative communication programs, persons with disabilities can attend classes, participate in discussions, and read and write assignments independently. However the study also showed that technology can also be a barrier. For instance, the advances in Web 2.0 and the new virtual learning environment does not always take into consideration whether or not it is compatible with the assistive technology learners rely on (Dermody & Majekodunmi, 2011).

Provision of information access skills

On the basis of the cited research results, this study sought to find out the situation at Kenyatta University Post Modern Information centre, in availability of assistive technology and its use.

Saumure and Given (2004) indicated that learners with visual disabilities rely on information providers to retrieve and locate materials in the information centre. The article by Power and LeBeau (2009) supports this and suggests that academic reference information providers can provide learners who use screen readers training sessions on how to navigate information centre databases. The findings of this paper are aimed at informing policy in the provision of access literacy skills especially on an e-platform.


Research Design: The study adopted a descriptive survey research design.

Variables: The dependent variable was the access to e-resources. The independent variable was use of adaptive technology. Use of adaptive technology was investigated and its influence on access to e-resources established.

Study location: The study was conducted in Kenyatta University Post Modern Library. Kenyatta University was purposively selected since it had the largest population of students with visual impairment.

Target population: All learners with visual impairment in Kenyatta University and staff members who served or offered information literacy skills to the users with visual impairment. There were 80 learners with visual impairment and 5 staff members serving them.

Sample size: For the purpose of external validity of this study, the study population formed the sample. That is 80 learners with visual impairment and 5 staff members.

Sampling techniques: Purposive sampling technique was used to select all respondents for this study.

Research instruments: A questionnaire with both open and close-ended questions was used to collect data from learners with visual impairment while a structured interview was used for the staff.

Validity: Content validity was achieved by ensuring that the

research instrument adequately covered the area being studied. This was done through expert judgment technique. Construct validity was achieved by ensuring that all the terms used were operationally defined.

Reliability: to ensure reliability, the questionnaires were pre-tested. It was administered twice with a time span of two weeks to 4 students with VI who were purposively selected from Kenya institute of special education, a location that was not used during the main study and Spearman rank order of correlation coefficient (Rho) was computed to determine the correlation between the results of the two administrations of the questionnaires. The reliability coefficient that was obtained from the pilot study was accepted since it attained a coefficient (0.75) which the researcher considered reasonable based on Orodho (2009).

Data collection technique: for the questionnaires, personal administration with on-the-spot-collection method was used. Using a recorder, the researcher herself conducted the interviews.

Data analysis: Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used to analyze the collected data. For quantitative methods, descriptive statistics was used while thematic analysis approach was used to analyze qualitative data. After analysis; tables, graphs and charts were used to present quantitative data while qualitative data was presented in textual mode.


Literacy levels on assistive technology

Training in assistive technology

As previously indicated, awareness in assistive technology may not mean ability to use. In order to find out whether the students were able to use assistive technology, the researcher sought to find out whether the students had any training on the use of assistive technology. The findings obtained were as presented in figure 2:

The findings revealed that more than half of the students had received either formal or non formal training on the use of assistive technology. This could be attributed to the students’ background from the primary, secondary level or the parents’ ability to facilitate the training for the students in assistive technology before joining university. This could also be attributed to peer teaching on assistive technology by those who already have the skills. However a large number of students indicated that they lacked training on assistive technology. This was a significant number, close to half of the students involved in the study. This is an indication that since the library is a key facility in information seeking; the management could consider organizing formal training sessions on assistive technology either at the library or consider recommending such training through a relevant department like that of special education or through the directorate of disability services.

This is in line with findings by Carney (2003) that appropriate selection of devices and technology, and subsequent training, is crucial for ensuring proper use of such devices.

Rating of students’ AT skills

The researcher also found it necessary to find out information concerning the rating of the students’ assistive technology skills. The students were asked to rate their abilities on the use of assistive technology and the findings were as presented in figure 3:

Out of the total students who had indicated earlier that they had received training on the use of adaptive technology, majority rated themselves as having good assistive technology skills. With assistive technology being a practical skill, the ‘good’ rating could be attributed to continued usage of these skills through the available avenues like at the library. This is an indication that assistive technology is a useful skill to those that have acquired it and therefore can be specifically very useful in facilitating easy access to electronic information resources. It is therefore important for the university management through the library management to come up with a strategy of ensuring that the students who join the university without these skills benefit, and with a keen eye on improving access to e-resources as well.

Rating of staff’s AT skill

Service provision is a very important aspect in a library setting. Having enough and skilled staff in the necessary areas as per the specific needs of the library users is vital. With this background, the researcher sought to find out the rating of staff skills in AT. The findings were as presented in table 1:

The findings showed that the staffs serving users with visual impairment were rated ‘average’ in skills on assistive technology. When the rating is arranged from very good (1) to below average (4), the staff scored 3 out of 4. Considering ‘good’ as the bench mark, the staff skills in AT was not sufficient as per the findings. This could be attributed to lack of staff support through seminars and workshops on assistive technology. It could also be due to the consideration of high staff knowledge on other library operations during staff recruitment without keen interest on the staff knowledge on assistive technology for the staff serving at the section of users with special needs. This is a good policy consideration by the library management when recruiting staff to serve at the section for users with special needs in future. Further, the library management should consider taking their staff through support programs on how to serve best, users with special needs with in service trainings being apart.

Success in using assistive technology

Presence of adequate assistive technology

The researcher considered it very important to establish whether the assistive technology present in the library was adequate to cater for the information access needs of users with visual impairment. The findings were as presented in figure 4:

From the findings, there was a strong response from the students that assistive technology was not adequate to cater for their needs in accessing e-resources. The total of those who supported this by disagreeing to the statement that ‘there was enough assistive technology in the library’ was 68.1% constituting the majority. This is a reason good enough for the low usage of e-resources by students with visual impairment in the postmodern library. It is also a good policy indicator to the library management to ensuring adequate provision of screen reading and screen magnification software for use by the library users with visual impairment. As Carl Rogers indicates in his theory explained above, provision of the necessary support can achieve independence in learning for learners with visual impairments too.

The findings of this study are not different from a study conducted earlier. Assistive technologies used by individuals who are blind are costly and accessible materials, such as popular books and textbooks, are slow to be developed (Stephanie et al., 2014).

Usefulness of AT available

The researcher found it necessary to find out whether the available assistive technology at the Post Modern Library was useful to the students with visual impairments. The findings were as presented in figure 5:

Majority of the students stated that the available assistive technology was not useful. This could be due to the fact that many of the students lacked knowledge on how to use assistive technology available in the library like screen readers. A significant number indicated that the available assistive technology was useful. This could be used as a base in the provision of more assistive technology software and facilities in the library since it proved useful to those who knew how to use.

The findings contradict earlier findings by (Carney, 2003) which showed that the use of computers is particularly important to students with visual impairments, as their ability to use written communication can be enhanced and access to information improved. This is also supported by a study carried out in Canada by Dermody & Majekodunmi (2011) who stated that there is no doubt that technology has opened the door for students with disabilities. This awareness made the researcher want to find out the reason why the assistive technology could not be useful.

Reasons for AT not being useful

For those who indicated that the available assistive technology was not useful, the researcher further sought to know why they were not useful and yet AT was at least available. She asked the students to state the reasons why they found AT available not useful. The main reasons given were those given below:

  • lack of adequate training

  • Very few AT resources

The reasons given still revolve around the point of knowledge of using AT and adequacy of the available AT for use by the users with visual impairment. Many students could have the necessary knowledge in using AT and the library could be having AT present. However if the available AT present does not tally with the number of students who are expected to use, then the available AT could be termed not useful as attributed to the stated speculation. The library management should ensure provision of enough AT for use by library users with visual impairments.

Web accessibility

Ease in accessing and using e-resources

In order to explore whether the students with visual impairments found it easy to access and use e-resources or not, the researcher posed a statement that “it is easy to access and use e-resources” and the respondents were asked to indicate the level at which they agreed or disagreed to the statement. Their responses were as presented in figure 6:

The findings indicated that more than half of the students engaged in the study either disagreed or strongly disagreed to the statement that ‘it is easy to access and use e-resources’. Specifically 52.8% which constituted more than half of the sampled students indicated that it is not easy to access and use e-resources. This finding could be attributed to inaccessible web designs, low literacy levels in using electronic resources, lack of knowledge in using assistive technology and lack of motivation in using e-resources possibly caused by the above factors. However a small but significant number of students indicated that it was easy for them to use e-resources. This is a good indicator to the library management that it is possible for the library users who have visual challenges to use electronic resources and that those who are not able to use them can be facilitated and supported once their challenges of access are known.

The findings of this study suggest that there are various challenges facing students with visual impairments when accessing e-resources among which could be technological barriers like web inaccessibility. In a study carried out by Dermody (2011) the students were forced to abandon articles because of technological barriers and this limited the amount of resources they could use to write their assignments.

Training on the access to e-resources

Presence of training on e-resources to students with VI

In order to achieve the above mentioned objective the research sought to find out whether user education specific to accessing electronic resources was given to users with visual impairment. The findings were as presented in figure 7:

More than half of the students responded that they had not received any user education on how to access e-resources.

These findings confirm similar findings by Mittermeyer and Quirion (2003) and Nowcki (2003) which demonstrated that students as a general population have significant limited knowledge of the basic elements of research and database searching. However the article by Power and LeBeau (2009) suggests that academic reference librarians can provide students who use screen readers training sessions on how to navigate library databases.

Reasons for not attending the training

For those who had not received training, the researcher further sought to establish the reasons for not attending or having received user education on how to access e-resources. The findings were as described below:

  • Majority stated that they lacked awareness on provision of such training at the library.

  • Many students stated that there was no such organized training at the section for users with special needs.

  • Others stated that the user education was given using a projector and were not able to benefit since they were visually challenged.

In the light of the stated reasons of not receiving user education on accessing e-resources; the low number of e-resource access literacy could be attributed to unavailable logistical provisions in such trainings that could accommodate those library users with visual impairments. Therefore the library management should ensure that training offered to users with visual impairment be provided by a staff with adequate skills in both assistive technology and access to electronic resources.

Conclusion and recommendations

On literacy levels of learners and staff on assistive technology, the paper concluded that the skills were not adequate to explore the online platform.

On web accessibility, the paper concluded that the websites were not accessible by learners with visual impairment.

The study also concluded that the success of using assistive technology on the e-platform is challenged.

On e-resource user education, the study concluded that there were very low literacy levels to learners with visual impairments owing mainly to lack of awareness and the low skill levels in using assistive technology for both the training staff and the students being trained.

The study recommends that the library should design a AT training program for learners with visual impairments as well as conducting regular and one on one training sessions.

On web accessibility, the research paper recommends that the library and information centre managers should ensure that the library websites are accessible to persons with visual impairment.

The study also recommends that the library and information providers lays down strategies of ensuring that the use of assistive technology on the e-platform is not challenged. This can be through offering access skills, AT skills and creating accessible websites.

The study also recommends that the library users with visual impairment should be provided with awareness about the availability on request of e-information literacy trainings.


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