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Blackboard Accessibility

From: Reidy Brown <rbrown@blackboard.com>
Date: Thu, 4 Apr 2002 15:21:56 -0500
Message-ID: <A7CE11255D6D1B47A30C6C70946C24A004D943@truman.dc.Blackboard.com>
To: "Mike Scott" <mscott2@msfw.com>
Cc: <j.byrne@gcal.ac.uk>, <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>

Thanks for your detailed comments on Blackboard accessibility issues. I'm sorry to take almost a week to get back to you, but I've been working overtime on the Blackboard 6 assessment tool, and fell behind in following the WAIS listserve.

I'm particularly sorry that you've found Blackboard to be unresponsive to your accessibility requests-- I've gone back through my inbox and didn't find any emails from you, but I've been so swamped the last few months with Blackboard 6 deadlines that I've had a hard time keeping all the balls in the air.

I'll try to address your issues item by item, but please feel free to email me if you have additional questions or clarification requests. First of all, if you haven't already, take a look at http://access.blackboard.com. We've posted detailed information about our accessibility status there. Additional resources, such as screen reader tutorials, or guides on creating accessible content are available from that page as well.

To address your issues directly:

1.) Framesets. You'll be happy to know that Blackboard 6 reduces the number of nested frames-- we're still working on getting rid of them entirely, but the reduction should make it easier for screen reader users and people who navigate primarily with a keyboard. Blackboard frames *should* all have human-readable, expressive titles (if any are missing, that's a bug, and I'll enter it into our bug tracking software). Unfortunately, many screen readers don't actually use the title attribute (as indicated by the WAIS guidelines), but use the name attribute instead. Since the name of the frame has to conform to certain name-space requirements (no spaces, must be safe for client-side scripting, etc.), we weren't able to update the frame names. We've tried to work around this issue by providing additional information in our screen reader tutorial (linked from http://access.blackboard.com, or accessible directly at http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/screen_reader_tutorial.htm). Norm Coombs of EASI co-wrot this tutorial, and it's main purpose is to help screen reader users navigate the Blackboard application.

2.) Assessments. I've spent the last several months working on the Blackboard 6.0 Assessment UI, and it will undergo beta testing with our Web Accessibility In Mind (WebAIM) partners, including EASI. Hopefully, we'll have addressed the majority of your concerns by then. If you have any additional suggestions or feedback on the assessments, please let me know-- most users reporting difficulty with assessments have had trouble switching between standard and form modes with their screen readers, and this has been our primary focus for Assessment accessibility review.

3.) Links. "Click Here" should not appear in Blackboard 6 from system-generated text. It sounds like we may need additional documentation for instructors, however, and I'm glad you brought it to my attention. You can see the existing course content creation accessibility guidelines online, linked from http://access.blackboard.com, or directly at http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/508coursebuilders.cgi.

4.) Alt tags. The missing alt tags and redundant icon alt tags should be flagged during our quality assurance testing-- I'll make sure that our QA team makes a special note of the issue. It's always tough to reach 100% compliance in such a large and complex application, and I know that our developers tend to err on the side of using alt tags when they are not certain they should be skipped. (Thanks to great WebAIM accessibility training.) But I'll work with our beta testers and QA team to make sure we address this in the future.

5.) High-contrast labels. Blackboard 6 is continuing the trend of moving away from images and toward text labels where possible. In addition, all linked graphics should have functional alt tags, so in a worst-case scenario, using the alt tags instead of the images may be helpful. I'll make sure that we spend time accessibility testing this functionality, and forward the issues we find to our requirements manager for future versions, and if necessary, we'll document workarounds for users. 

6.) Uploaded content. In most cases, this is a usage issue, and we've done our best to help instructors understand how to provide accessible content. You'll find this documentation on our website, linked from http://access.blackboard.com, or directly at http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/508coursebuilders.cgi. In addition, our Learning Solutions team has been trained on accessibility issues (by Paul Bohman of WebAIM, and by working with Norm Coombs and Dick Banks of EASI), and they raise this issue in every training session. Blackboard allows users to upload rich HTML documents, including images and linked files, but it sounds like we should add documentation to our accessibility website covering this feature in more detail. Thanks for pointing this out.

In addition, Blackboard 6.0 will include an accessible chat tool. We spent a lot of time during the design phase of this tool conferring with the University of Toronto's ATRC group about how to make it as accessible as possible. (Any remaining accessibility issues are, of course, our fault rather than theirs--we're very grateful for their advice!) We'll be beta testing this tool with WebAIM very soon for any additional accessibility functionality that may be needed.

Finally, the Blackboard Building Blocks program (http://buildingblocks.blackboard.com) is a really exciting new way to extend the accessibility of the application. We're working with WebAIM to create a prototype accessibility plug-in for the application, and we're looking forward to working with more 3rd party software developers to add even more accessibility functionality into the application soon.

Again, thanks for your detailed feedback-- it's information like this that helps us make future versions of Blackboard more accessible. Please feel free to address any other accessibility questions to me at rbrown@blackboard.com.

Reidy Brown
Reidy Brown 
Accessibility Coordinator/Sr. Software Engineer 
Blackboard, Inc. 
(202) 463-4860 x236 
Blackboard 5.5 Fully Implements Section 508 Accessibility Standards! 
Learn more:

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Scott [mailto:mscott2@msfw.com]
Sent: Friday, March 22, 2002 1:03 AM
To: j.byrne@gcal.ac.uk
Cc: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
Subject: Re: Accessibility problems with Blackboard?

Sorry to jump in a little late on this question, but for what it's worth...

In a project with a local community college, I have been working to provide 
Blackboard-based on-line courses to students with disabilites. In a 
nutshell, the accessibility of the Blackboard 5.5 system has been extremely 
disappointing. Of six blind students who began the course this January, all 
but two have dropped because of the extreme difficulties they found in 
attempting to use Blackboard with a screen reader. (The remaining two are 
having to rely heavily on sighted assistance to continue.) In addition to 
the Blackboard-acknowledged issues of the inaccessible third-party chat and 
whiteboard application, we have run into a frustrating array of 
accessibility issues throughout the system, for example:

(1) A complex, frames-based layout with frames that are ambiguously 
named/titled. (Additionally, the deeply nested framesets appear to be 
invalid and intermittently cause the screen reader to lose focus (JAWS 4) 
or fail to render the page (HPR 3.02).)

(2) System-generated forms-based quizzes that do not use label tags and use 
layouts that are extremely cumbersome to operate with a screen reader. 
(The "matching" question construct is impossible to use, and we have had to 
direct instructors to avoid it completely. Students had to be trained on a 
work around for true/false and multiple choice question types.)

(3) System-generated content (e.g. announcement of content or quiz posting) 
that uses ambiguous and/or repeated link text (e.g. "click here" and system 
generated/modified filenames) making it useless for screen reader users 
to "tab" from link to link or use screen reader "link list" utilities. (We 
were able to help instructors to manually re-name the system generated 
links whenever possible.)

(4) Missing alt text on image links in some (admittedly rare) occasions and 
regular use of unnecessarily redundant alt text on purely decorative images
(e.g. "announcement icon" on the every single image used for a bullet in a 
pseudo- bulleted list of course announcements).

(5) Use of images of text in navigation/header menus that hinder the 
effectiveness of "high contrast" display settings for students with low 

(6) A content posting system that appears to cater to and foster the use of 
non-HTML content, i.e. Word and Power Point documents. (A large part of our 
initial task was assisting instructors to convert all their Word and Power 
Point-based content to accessible HTML documents. However Blackboard's 
document posting process made the posting of HTML documents, especially 
those with links to other internal documents/files, far more difficult than 
posting Word or PPT files.)

In Blackboard's defense, I will admit that it is unclear how much the local 
implementation of the system may or may not have contributed to the 
accessibility problems we've found. (If anyone has had more positive 
experience with a Blackboard system that might suggest that our experiences 
are not typical, I would be very eager to hear about them.) However, it was 
especially disappointing to find Blackboard (the company) largely 
unresponsive in addressing these issues when we brought them to their 

As part of the project (funded by a US Dept of Labor grant), we will be 
writing a thourough findings report including our experiences with 
Blackboard -- I'll be happy to share it when it is completed.  

Received on Thursday, 4 April 2002 15:22:05 UTC

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