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Disability Resources on the Internet: Collecting, Organizing, and Presenting in an Accessible Manner

Mary BARROS-BAILEY <barrosm@micron.net>
Intermountain Vocational Services

Pauline G. AGUILAR <copper11@aol.com>
International Center for Disabilities Resources on the Internet

Michael R. BURKS <mburks952@att.net>
Internet Society Special Interest Group for Access to the Internet for People with Disabilities


As the Internet expands and more and more resources are made available to the general public via the Internet, the resources available to people with disabilities and those who work with them have also grown tremendously.

The problem is finding the resources, organizing them, and making it easy for people to retrieve and view the ones they need. This paper will discuss what is involved in identifying, collecting, organizing, and presenting these resources in a coherent and accessible manner, as well as how the resources are collected, how they are identified, how they must be organized, and how they can be presented in a way that is usable by all.

A detailed discussion of the technology being used will include a discussion of how to store and retrieve the resources so that they can be presented in an intuitive manner preferred by the user and made easily available to all users.

The rationale behind organizing and presenting these resources will be presented as well.

A live demonstration of the storage and retrieval methods will be given to the audience. This will include a number of presentation formats and techniques.

An overall view of the working system will be presented to the audience, and they will have a chance to ask for retrieval in specific ways and using various search techniques.



The Internet as a source of information is growing at a rate, which is almost beyond comprehension. It represents the greatest and most accessible collection of resources in history. This amount of information presents general challenges to everyone. For people with disabilities this massive number of resources poses some special accessibility problems. The most prominent amongst them is presenting the information in a manner that meets the accessibility needs of people using technology as screen readers to access the Internet. These are in addition to the problems of searching out and selecting the relevant resources. The major problem is of course to make everything usable by the widest audience possible.

This paper reflects the ongoing work of Mary Barros-Bailey, Michael Burks, and Pauline Aguilar. Mary is he author of the book Internet Disabilities Resources, which is a massive collection of disability resources on the Internet. It is extensive and exhaustive. The first portion of this paper on collecting reflects the efforts and techniques Mary used to write her book. The second and third parts of this paper reflect the efforts of Pauline Aguilar who, with the help of Michael Burks is creating a database of disabilities resources on the Internet This is an effort to collect, organize and present Internet Resources for people with disabilities on the Web in an accessible manner. It is a web centered database that is using leading edge technology to allow people not only to retrieve and view the resources, but also to designate the manner in which they wish to view them. This effort is designed to produce information that the users of the database can view in the most accessible manner possible.

This paper discusses the "what" of collecting and presenting disability resources on and over the Internet. The philosophical issues involved in collecting, organizing and presenting these resources pose the greatest challenge for all of us. Therefore they are what has been highlighted in this paper. For those who are interested, an extensive specifications document of the system under development is available. This document will discuss the technical aspects of the system and the ways in which the system is being implemented.

Collecting the resources

Mary Barros-Bailey, MA

A couple of years ago, when I was beginning some extensive research on Internet resources for people with disabilities, I encountered a man with severe cerebral palsy who had just entered this cyberworld. His disability was such that he was nonverbal and immobile without assistance. He was bright and incredibly articulate with his written expression. He had at some point obtained a journalism degree, but had not worked in that field or any other field. His passion was history.

His entrance onto the Internet opened doors and allowed him to walk through them in ways he never dreamt possible. He was ecstatic about his ability to walk museums throughout the world, tour historical places, and communicate with people from Buffalo to Bangkok. This new world, which many of us without disabilities take for granted, was almost utopia. People on the other end of his electronic communications take him at face value by the merit of his written words -- his strength -- and not by the way he looks and what he cannot do. On the Internet, people do not steal uncomfortable glances at him, treat him like a child, or ignore him vis a vis others because they somehow do not know how to deal with his disability. He is on equal footing with anyone else.

Or, is he? Because of his spasticity and functional limitations, he had considerable difficulty typing. It would take him 10 minutes to write an e-mail, which might take me two minutes. From his very small town in Northern Idaho, he still had lots of accessibility issues with this medium, but had little knowledge about how to get around those issues. I referred him to the closest assistive technology center in Spokane where he could obtain help in finding better equipment to help him more comfortably stride the halls of the National Archives from his wheelchair.

The opportunities of the Internet for people with disabilities are truly amazing. Yet, we find accessibility issues still exist be they related to software, hardware, or economics.

I stumbled upon accessibility issues for people with disabilities on the Internet while doing some research for a project on resources on the medium. I am not technically-oriented, but I care about making the world as accessible to my mother with mobility impairments, my niece with learning disabilities, or my client with traumatic brain injuries as it is for me.

Often when I speak before my peers, I finish my presentation by stressing Internet accessibility. These are people who deal with accessibility issues and accommodations or retrofitting daily because of their work as vocational rehabilitation counselors, rehabilitation nurses, or life care planners. Yet, they somehow seem baffled that there are accessibility issues involving the Internet.

In collecting data on Internet disability resources, it is important to be as intuitive as possible. First, in collecting our data, we considered some of the most common disability types like traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. Within each category, it was important to think about the kinds of resources on the Internet that existed for each category. In general, there are sites dealing with the "whole ball of wax," or megasites where someone could go to get lots of information about the disability and links to other sites of interest. Then we listed general information sites that might not have lots of links to other places on the Net about the disability, but provide a lot of in-depth information about the disability type. Of course, listing advocacy organizations was important, so was listing research and treatment centers. In each category, we distinguished between sites in the United States, Canada, and internationally.

Apart from researching specific disabilities, we looked at the lifespan of someone with a disability and tried researching those major areas of their lives where they might be interested in finding information. Assistive technology, employment resources, education, leisure and recreation were the major areas we chose. Finally, we wanted to provide means where someone could find out further information related to disabilities and included sites on government, research, and statistics resources as well as a list of over 700 online publications, newsgroups and mailing lists.

Since collecting data for the initial publication, three events have occurred to convince me of needed changes. I find a level of frustration, and sometimes resentment, toward the Internet from people who feel that the information contained within it is overwhelming, and sometimes inaccessible in the form in which it is contained within the medium. Besides the three types of accessibility issues I mentioned earlier -- hardware, software, and economic -- I would add a fourth component of search accessibility. Although most people are interested in specific sites, they are also interested in how to find other sites of interest that result in relevant direct hits versus a host of related, somewhat related, and unrelated sites. In assisting people steer around this accessibility issue, my presentations tend to have a greater focus on HTML field search techniques (url, domain:, image:, title:, link:, and host:) which I have found to be a very effective way for compiling data on the Internet.

Second, continued education on accessibility uses for anyone dealing with the Internet from the programmer, to the end user, to the legislator, to the family member or care giver for the person with a disability is vitally important. Without people recognizing that there are problems, little will occur to ameliorate it.

On the merits of the Internet, shortly after the publication I was working on was released, the publisher received a call from the father of a high schooler with tar syndrome. Although not very well off, the family was having difficulty finding college scholarships for their daughter because of their income level. They had searched and researched lots of resources, but not been able to find much. Somehow, they heard about the publication and were able to find the financial aid sources they sought in the education chapter.

In a very small, direct, or indirect way allowing those who need the resources to access them quickly, effectively, and effortlessly should be our goal.

Organizing the resources

Pauline Aguilar


The process of Organizing Disability Resources on the Internet begins with gathering these resources and setting up ways for people to submit resources to the database. The next step is the organization of the resources themselves, in two parts: virtual organization and physical origination. Both are integral to collecting and presenting each of the resources. They effect both the storage of the resources in the database as well as the retrieval and presentation of the resources to the user. Since the presentation of the resources will be controlled by the user and the search engine may be masked, this part of the process is perhaps the most critical.

Virtual organization

Great care must be taken so that the techniques used to organize the resources and the organizational structure itself are not subject to change. For example, as new resources are added, and new types of categories appear, or as new presentation strategies emerge, consideration must be taken to be able to shift and add the ways these resources are organized. Resources must be stored and categorized in such a way that they may be organized in multiple ways and included in multiple categories.

To accomplish this the resources will be formatted and stored using XML or eXtensible Markup Language. A special DTD is under development to address the specifics of storage, retrieval and presentation of the disability resources. This DTD will allow for the presentation of the resources not only in a visual manner but through the use of other media as well. The use of this DTD allows for future expansion of the organization of the resources as well as allowing flexible expandable retrieval techniques.

The organization of the resources will be tied closely to both the existing categories of resources as they appear on the Internet, and the needs of the user community that will retrieve the resources. The resources that we will be dealing with fall into two general categories:

  1. Internet resource categories. These include such things as newsgroups, mailing lists, Web-based bulletin boards, Web pages and Web sites, chat groups, electronic news sources and electronic and hard-copy newsletters. These resources serve not only as focal points for users to gather information but also as the signposts for the changes occurring in the disabilities community. These are the source categories for the content and provide the basic content of the site.
  2. Content categories. The content categories provide the means by which the site is organized. The categories are supplied at the time of storage in the database by means of special tagging procedures provided in the XML DTD. This is designed such that it will be flexible and changeable. It is critical to the operation of the system. It must be able to change with the changes on the Internet and adapt to new type of content and presentation.

Physical organization

There are several issues involved with the physical organization of the system. The actual physical organization of the data is done by means of a database manager and the user of special keyword tags implemented in the XML DTD. These tags allow the data to be stored, searched, retrieved

Storage issues

Each document that is stored will be one of two types. It will either be a pointer document that will contain a link to the resource or it will be a summary document that will describe an off-line resource that is available to the disabilities community but has no other Internet presence besides the entry in the database. The keywords that are placed in the documents will be placed at storage time and will help make search, retrieval, and presentation of these resources both accessible and easy. The system will allow modification and addition of the keywords as needs arise.

Search and retrieval issues

One of the most difficult issues on the Internet today is the issue of searching resources. How do you search such that the results are truly relevant to what you have requested and how do you insure that you are not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the resources returned. The keyword storage technique is designed to allow quick and accurate searching of the stored resources and in addition a dynamic thesaurus will be developed that tracks all variations of keywords.

A second important consideration is helping the user create a search, or creating a search that does not appear to be a search. We must bear in mind that many of the people who will use this system will have accessibility issues. The search itself must be accessible or the system will lose its utility to the one of the most important segments of the audience we are trying to reach. This issue will be dealt with by means of both accessible forms based searching and searching via the means of drill down questioning. While the second method is not as flexible as the first it does offer those who have trouble with forms an easier method of conduction a search. Since all results will be dynamically produced from stored data, the resources that are presented to the user will be from the latest information available at all times.

Presentation issues

The storage and retrieval of the data is closely linked to the presentation of the information to the user. An organizational schema that is flexible enough to change and stable enough to allow the user to conduct an effective search will provide the basis for the accessible presentation of the information. If the user does not have relevant information relating to what they are looking for the presentation will make little or not difference. So this can be considered to be the solid base upon which the accessible presentation of the information will rest.

Presenting the resources

Michael R. Burks

Universal design

The presentation of the Internet resources will be based on Universal Design Principals. Simply stated these principals declare that the presentation of the information will be accessible to as many people as possible. Since it is intended that the information be presented in an international arena, these principals will be defined for our purposes as including non English speakers.

Overall issues

The user will be given the option of choosing the way they desire to have the information presented to them. In effect the user will choose the "view" of the data. This will include information format, visual or non visual forms of presentation, and eventually the choice of delivery such as fax, hardcopy, web pages or electronic format tailored to specific devices such as screen readers or devices producing Braille output. The system will be further designed such that it will be configurable and usable to produce output for devices not yet developed. Within formats such as web pages the system will be able to deliver the specific formats at the choice of the user. For example, the Web format will allow the user to choose whether or not they wish graphics, want the screen formatted for auditory output and how they want the output on the screen to appear. The initial version of the system will concentrate on producing web-based output. This output will be usable by a wide range of web browsers but as the implementation proceeds other delivery channels will be developed.

Many of the issues that we are dealing with are general presentation issues. Things such as text size and placement, practical ways for the user to choose the presentation that they desire and how to present searches in a way that does not confuse and confound the user. One of the challenges will be to present information dynamically but in a timely manner. The system must be able to produce output for existing channels and be able to evolve with the appearance of entirely new information channels The basic challenges are: usability flexibility and scale ability.

This will be accomplished by separating the content from the presentation. Information will be stored in the database. The use of XML and other technologies will allow it to be searched, retrieved and presented according to user preferences.

Disability issues

It is readily apparent that on a site dedicated to the collecting, organizing and presenting of disabilities resources on the Internet it is important that those resources readily accessible to all. As obvious as this may seem a high percentage of sites that have resources for people with disabilities are not accessible to all. Part of the mission of this system is to present these resources in such a manner.

Language issues

Just as important as presenting the resources in an accessible manner is the issue of presenting the resources in the users language of choice. Initially the site will be implemented in English, however it is planned to implement the site in as many languages as possible as soon as it is working in English translations will begin into other languages.

Implementation issues

The actual presentation of the information to the users will be as the result of a three tiered process. The resources will be extracted from the database as a result of the user's search. It will be processed into XML for those browsers that support XML and translated into HTML for those browsers that do not support XML. For those who can use them style sheets will be implemented to support the various types of presentation. There will also be a means to define the user's preferences for browsers that do not support style sheets. They will then be sent to the user's client software for final processing and presentation to the user.

As soon as is possible the resources will be translated into separate languages. This will initially be a manual process. As translation technology improves this process will be automated as much as possible. The resources are international in scope so it is important to begin present them in languages other than English as soon as possible.

User issues

There are a number of issues that are specific to the way information will be presented by the user's client software.

As much as possible the user will define the way the data is presented. This will allow them to choose the way they wish to have the data presented and the means by which it will be presented such as visual, auditory, or tactile. Some of these will have sub categories that will allow further definition by the user. It will also allow the system to implement new presentation methods as they appear.

There are several factors to be considered when processing the information for presentation to the user.

The user's software

It must be considered that the user may be using other that a "standard" web browser. There are many changes going on in technology. The system will be flexible enough to accommodate as many different types of access as possible and will be set up to add new ones as they appear.

The format the user requests

Different formats will require different types of processing. Even in the limited world of web browsers there are a myriad of different formats that can be used to present information. All of these must be taken into account from the user preferences and the output must be built to adhere to what the user has requested. This will be done using the user's preferences as they have stated them and the format and style will be built dynamically from what the user has stated as their needs.

The means by which the user wishes the data to be "displayed"

The term "display" is deceptive. In this case it does not simply refer to visual presentation of information, but presentation of requested information by any available means. This can include, visual, tactile, or auditory. It can also include a combination of these methods.

The current level of technology

As technology evolves this system will be designed to implement new and better methods of presentation as they appear. The system will be both upgradeable and scaleable to allow the implementation of new technology in as non-intrusive a manner as possible. This will allow the system to accommodate new methods of presentation with little disruption to the current user base.

The future

Developing technology offers great promise in the ways information can be presented. These advancements are being leveraged into a system that will be able to present the user with the resources they have requested in the manner they have requested them. It will seek to reach as many people as possible in the ways they prefer or need. Users will be able to view information the way that they prefer rather than the way the designers require.


There is a great need for a focused collection of Internet resources related to disabilities. While collections of disabilities resources do exist on the Internet most are not set up to present their output in the manner the user requests. For many people with disabilities and without it is important to be able to present information in the manner the user requests rather than the manner in which the designers have decided that they should be presented. There are few if any systems that are designed to adapt to rapidly changing presentation technology. The system discussed here seeks to address these issues. One of the purposes of the system used to present these resources is to give the user the control of the presentation. This will make information presented to the user accessible to the widest audience possible.


Accessibility issues

XML resources


Internet Disabilities Resources 98, by Mary Barros-Bailey and Dawn Boyd, published by Ahab Press, 2 Gannett Drive, Suite 200, White Plains, New York 10604-3404, http://www.ahabpress.com/.