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Accessible Learning: German Test for All

Screenshot: www.goethe.deCopyright: Goethe-Institut
Sign language interpreter von Pappenheim: “Opportunities for further education are limited” (Screenshot: Goethe-Institut)

18 September 2009

Whether blind, deaf or motor-impaired – people with disabilities want to fully take part in public life, and as self-determined and independently as possible. The same applies to the Internet. Now, the Goethe-Institut offers online preparation for its German examinations – as a worldwide forerunner. By Barbara Galaktionow

Lowered kerbs for wheelchairs, furrowed edges of station platforms for the blind, spacious lifts in public buildings – a number of smaller and larger measures increasingly ensure that people with disabilities in Germany can take part in public life without barriers. Yet in one of the chief parts of modern life there are still considerable obstacles: access to the Internet.

Since 2005, the law has prescribed that the websites of public facilities must be easily accessible to the disabled, nevertheless very few are to the fullest extent.

Now, the Goethe-Institut is doing pioneering work with accessible online training for German tests. One of the latest innovations on its website is a sample test for level C1 according to the European Framework of Reference (CEFR) (advanced), which can also be used by visually impaired, deaf or motor- impaired individuals – without any outside assistance. “As far as I know, this offer is one-of-a-kind worldwide,” says Evelyn Frey, head of Language Courses and Examinations.

The Internet exam preparation is programmed so that people with diverse physical abilities can practice and check their language skills in the test – often decisive for passing the tests – and become familiar with the test format. Using the special JAWS software for instance, the blind or visually impaired can have the contents of the page read aloud by their screen reader.

Navigation via speech output

The speech output device and a Braille display are part of the basic configuration for visually impaired PC users, explains Martina Haidl of the Bavarian Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Braille display below the keyboard presents the screen contents in Braille. The speech output device describes the structure of pages verbally and reads their contents. Practiced users set the screen reader at a speed at which the non-visually impaired “can only perceive frequencies, but can no longer identify successive phonemes,” says Frey (cf. audio example).

Page navigation using the keyboard rather than a mouse is also important for the visually impaired as well as for motor-impaired people. This feature was consistently implemented for the online language training of the Goethe-Institut. Those with minor visual impairment profit from the ability to change the program’s font size as they please while the visual design is left largely unchanged.

Audible reading comprehension

Blind people often read with their ears. With special software they can prepare for the German test by having the texts read aloud. They can choose not only different voices of both genders for the automated audio output, but also the speed. They often choose speeds that sighted people can hardly understand, or not at all.
This is an example from the Reading Comprehension section of exercise set 01 for the C1 advanced certificate. Listen to the fast version first!

You need the Flashplayer to hear this audio.
You need the Flashplayer to hear this audio.
An interesting effect: once you’ve heard and understood the text, listen to the fast version once again and you’ll see how what seemed to be a confusing succession of sounds can be comprehensible words.

The test section for Listening Comprehension was instead equipped with videos in German sign language – an important tool for people who are hearing impaired or deaf. “Sign language is the basic language of the deaf,” says Cornelia von Pappenheim, who works for the Association of the Hearing Impaired in Munich and surrounding areas and translated the texts and can be seen in some of the videos herself. For the deaf, each spoken language and their written form is first just a series of letters, since they cannot hear them. Therefore, for non-German deaf people, the German vocal and written language is perceived far more as a foreign language than German sign language.

In addition to language conversion, a clean and, where possible, international keyboard layout and the videos for the deaf, the online exam preparation by the Goethe-Institut also features other special programming. “One of the chief things is the special requirements for programming,” says Felix Brandl. The graphic designer implemented the project for the Goethe-Institut in cooperation with Klaus Lofing, a specially trained programmer. For instance, the exam preparation set has a strictly linear structure – submenus would be very difficult for the visually impaired to detect.

For the same reason, each page is portrayed on the screen in its entire width making horizontal scrolling unnecessary. In addition, each image has a description. With a nice side effect: accessible programming makes it possible for anyone to download and use the entire sample exam interactively on any web-enabled mobile phone.

”Supply will generate demand”

The large number of points reveals that making a truly barrier-free website – 95 percent accessible for people of all types of physical abilities – involves a considerable amount of work.

As a matter of fact, the demand for such appears relatively low. In recent years, the Goethe-Institut’s conventional, printed materials for the disabled have been in continuous, yet not especially great demand compared with the exams for the non-disabled. “So far, every year 30 to 40 blind persons have prepared for their German test using the Goethe-Institut’s existing Braille sets and successfully passed them with the matching test sets,” relates Frey. In a pilot project in Schwäbisch-Hall, ten deaf persons completed their beginner-level language test with the assistance of a sign language interpreter.

Nevertheless, the associations for the disabled appreciate the special efforts made by the Goethe-Institut. Today, the Goethe-Institut is the only provider that offers its examinations for the blind in Braille and for the visually impaired in large type. In addition, the sign language videos will soon enable the deaf to take any Goethe-Institut exam.

Haidl, as representative of the blind and visually impaired, calls the new online exam preparation a “great offer.” On behalf of the hearing impaired, von Pappenheim points out that although ostensibly there has not been great demand, this is certainly due to the supply for the deaf, which has been deplorable – particularly outside of the Goethe-Institut. “There are hardly any German courses. For deaf adults, the opportunities for further education are very limited.”

Frey is therefore optimistic that “supply will generate demand.” Moreover, for such a project the priority is not the economical aspects for the Goethe-Institut, but its public value. The accessibility of the online exam on C1 level is therefore only the beginning. In time, the preparatory tests for other language skill levels will be added in the same way. Who knows? Someday perhaps even the real exams can be taken – without barriers – online.
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