Improving the quality of life and work of elderly and disabled people by using distance learning and virtual applications


Ileana Hamburg

Institut Arbeit und Technik, Wissenschaftszentrum Nordrein-Westfalen, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

Herbert ten Thij

I.E.R., Eindhoven, Netherlands

Adina Ionescu

Octav Onicescu  High School, 29, Trivale Street, Bucharest, 4, Romania




1. Introduction


The increasing diffusion of the Internet and other new information and communication technologies into almost every aspect of our working and domestic lives represents a social and economic trend.  It concomitantly seems to have personal implications for individuals acquiring the necessary awareness, skills and access to fully participate and take advantage of the anticipated benefits including those of virtual, digital applications. Results of recent studies, however, have identified the growing evidence of the continued exclusion of groups and individuals as a result of age, ethnicity, disability and income, so a “digital divide” arises between those who are able to exploit the potential of the new technologies and those who remain socially and economically unconnected to the “network society” (NTIA, 2000). Seniors (of 50 and over), are the most under-represented group of Internet users in relation to age and this fact can have consequences on their qualification level. In order to overcome “their age” elderly people have to be better qualified than the younger ones if they want to remain “employed”. And this more over, since their younger competitors are also a lower priced commodity to the employers. In many Western European countries like Germany (RD NRW of BA, IAT surveys 2004) the number of unemployed seniors increases every year. This situation is even more dramatically with (elderly) people who are limited in their mobility or have other impairments.


Many seniors may not only be afraid of introducing themselves to today’s technology but also still perceive the Internet as a medium with content tailored to the interests of younger people and so they do not expect to find there interesting information. But virtual, Internet-based forms of communication, interaction and learning can support the maintaining participation of elderly people and particularly of disabled ones in work and social life despite their handicaps and age.  So it is necessary to demonstrate them the possibilities of the Internet and virtual applications and to provide them with opportunities to gain media competences and use the Internet and virtual applications. Many initiatives have been developed and especially devoted Societies have been founded in Europe during the last years concerning to introduce seniors in the Information (Knowledge) Society. There are but a few innovative approaches aimed at the development of virtual learning applications that are accessible for disabled seniors and are oriented to their (re)integration into work environments.


In this paper, a short presentation is given of innovative initiatives and actions based on the use of the Internet, distance learning and virtual applications supporting the training of seniors and that are also accessible to disabled ones. We begin to mention the interests in dealing with disabilities and impairments and also the main resources that are needed by the aged or disabled  to make use of personal computers and virtual applications.


In the concluding part of the paper some examples of these initiatives and actions are given. One of these, a recently started project in the GRUNDTVIG programme of the European Commission with the participation of the authors, is the project “IECUVADVLA - Improvement of Employment Chances of the Unemployed and the Visual and Auditive Disabled by using Virtual Learning Applications”. IECUVADVLA is initiated in the frame of a Learning Partnership of five participating countries: Romania, Germany, Hungary, England and the Netherlands. The main goal of the project is to improve the chances of employment of the senior unemployed, especially of the unemployed with visual or hearing impairments. This aim will be reached by investigating the existing situation in the countries represented in the partnership concerning the educational assistance by electronic means that is given to the senior unemployed often having a moderate level of education. In the next phases of the project informative assistance will be provided based on the results of the investigations and also general models of virtual learning applications and some specific demonstration courses will be determined, developed and produced in order to improve the employment application techniques of the target groups concerned, their awareness and knowledge about their rights. The main focus of the project’s activities is on development or improvement of employment chances of these target groups in Eastern Europe.



2. The interests in dealing with difficulties of disability and the elderly people


Any action taken to deal with or to remove the disadvantages experienced by disabled people depends on what is believed what approach should be emphasised. The regular approach is trying to help the person concerned the way he or she can function as much as possible according to what is taken or considered as the norm. Quite differently is another approach in which society or a community takes into account that some members have difficulties in some degree for which provisions are needed or that possibilities to participate need to be adapted to the benefit of all. A recent example of such an approach are the guidelines that are developed for the access for all to web sites and web pages. More light on this will be thrown later on in this paper. However, still much has to be improved as well in the virtual world as in matters of daily life.


In referring to disability and elderly people, it is known that the majority of disabled people in Europe (70%) are also older people. But elderly people’s interests have been under-represented within both the academic literature of disability studies and in disability policy making (which have tended, probably for economical reasons, to focus on the needs of  people that are best for use in labour and spending money and so especially of younger adults and to a lesser extent on the needs of the children). Conversely, while there has been a great deal of recent academic and policy interest in issues of the aging the moment the awareness arose fully about their growing numbers and so their positive as well as their negative economical forces and their voting capacity, there is but little evidence of an active interface with disability issues and theory. So projects are needed like the ESRC project about building bridges between disability and old age ( that identifies areas of common ground in contemporary social thinking and policy making on disability and ageing, and provides an initial exploration of the potential for increased political collaboration between all social movements concerned. ESRC findings suggest that there are many policy issues of common concern to disabled people’s organisations and those representing the claims of older disabled people, but that there remain cultural barriers on both sides to the identification of commonality between older and disabled people. There was evidence of the potential benefit of disability equality training with older people’s organisations and medical institutions, which might lead to greater collaborative advocacy or tactical alliance between different movements concerned.



3. Reasons for using distance learning and new technologies


It is known that most elderly and/or disabled people often still derive tremendous satisfaction from their professional activities. However, there are sometimes certain work environment conditions that constitute insuperable constraints for elderly people or people with particular disabilities, while others could put them up against serious difficulties. The continuous work rhythm imposed on everyone on the work floor or in the office, but also the many chances nowadays in the organisation and lay out of the work to be done, can cause problems to someone who has a treatment to carry out or to someone who need some extra time in performing his or her duties due to his or her impairment or to someone who’s common learning abilities are diminishing because of ageing problems. The labour market is sometimes quite unreceptive to disabled people and particularly so when they are also aged. To illustrate this situation, in Germany only 40% of handicapped people still at working age have a paid job, compared with 66% of the total population. A situation that can also be discerned in other countries as well. Distance education by using new technologies and virtual learning applications can partly help to overcome the obstacles that the aged and the handicapped often encounter in social contact with the younger generation, in learning or in ordinary work situations. Indeed, distance education and virtual learning applications play also an important role in strengthening the social integration of the disabled and the elderly:

·        by enabling people in some cases to break their isolation,

·        by restoring a social identity and, of course,

·        by facilitating access to new work areas and to knowledge.


Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) enable access to new services from any place at all, provided one has access to a telecommunications network and the necessary equipment. Traditional obstacles bound up with the reduced mobility of disabled or elderly people and with the difficulty in using public transport can be overcome with the help of them.

Distance education enables people to find a new social identity by giving them access to work or helping them to maintain a job. It helps all disabled people to develop professionally by toning down the negative perception they sometimes meet in a traditional educational or work environment.

Distance education can help the elderly and the disabled to feel less isolated. In most cases, the access to ICTs is an additional means of communication and a way of breaking their isolation. Training has to be done in order to train elderly and disabled people to use the Internet.


The new services offer numerous advantages. But there are certain conditions that must be ensured if disabled and elderly persons are to get the very most of the opportunities that such learning methods and applications offer.

For each of the different needs of the various situations, there are different tools available and this applies all the more in the case of people that have different types of handicap or deficiencies (visual, hearing, etc.). This is than also the reason why distance learning projects or experiments offer different ways of approaching distance education, notably by combining different pedagogical methods and technical means.






4.  The ways the new technologies are used by people with special needs


The main technology resources used at present to enable the use of computers and virtual applications by aged and disabled people and so in distance education for them are the following:

·        Voice synthesis,

·        Braille displayer,

·        The virtual keyboard and contactor systems,

·        Infra-red control and the turbo mouse for physically handicapped people,

·        Eye Access ocular monitoring.


In some platforms or client operating systems, like Windows -for which an hand (mouse)- eye  coordination is essential-, already a few means to improve the access to the regular software used or needed are included for people with limited eye-sight. Characteristic sound signals can be added to the opening or closing of operating functions. The resolution of the screen can be lowered and the contrast of the screen or only the cursor or its size can be altered and the graphics and letter types used can be magnified. The size of the letter types themselves can be changed and also only a selected part of the screen can be magnified. There is also special ‘magnifying’ software available that can make graphical information as images, icons, numbers and letters better visible. The manner of enlargement can be adjusted in several ways, for example as a loupe or as a part of the screen, according to the limitations of sight concerned. Also colours (hues) or contrasts of the screen can be adjusted with this software or just colours or contrast without changing the size of the letters and also the regular black and white contrast can be converted or the cursor can be made better visible, to mention a few of the possibilities. Some examples of these changes can be publicly experienced on the Internet for example at, especially with regard to colour-blindness, or, more in general, with the Lynx Viewer at

There is also software that introduces special cursors with extra functions. And if one cannot see the keys of the keyboard well enough, or is not able to type ‘blindly’ ( ), than special stickers can be glued on the keys with enlarged letters and enlarged contrast. Keys can be made palpable with so-called 'bump-ons' (marking caps) or with a marking paste.

Also some software can be applied to covert text to speech. Reading enlarged texts do slow down the speed of reading or can be very wearing or tire-some after a while. Than speech synthesis can help out, as it does also for blind people who cannot read Braille. With this type of software an artificial voice ‘reads’ the content of the screen and it can than also be used, for instance, with books, newspapers or magazines in digital form, but also documents themselves can be scanned and than converted into artificial speech. There can be a problem, however, when all texts are not in the same language and the artificial voice is connected with a database of only one of the texts concerned. Than the other language can hardly be heard properly.

Who does read Braille and can type ‘blindly’ can use a Braille display. With the Braille display texts can be ‘read’ with the fingers, because this machine converts the data shown on the screen into Braille signs on a Braille reading line. Often a Braille display is used in combination with speech synthesis, and this moreover when the ability to read Braille is weak, as it is so difficult to learn Braille at an old age.


braille leesregel onder een laptop

close-up van een braille leesregel



Braille displays


Some of the programmes in use that ‘translate’ the monitor output into either audible or palpable information do integrate these conversions immediately in the applications. Most of them, however, do use screen readers that take the screen content either from the screen output of the application programme (software solutions) or directly from the graphical driver without taking notice of the active applications. Because a blind computer user reads line by line the so acquired information from the screen content directions are also needed to express in what context the presented information is given; only that way this user can discern, for instance, a menu-option from written text. For this reason Braille displays have extra keys or buttons that produce status information as colour or cursor position and with which they can navigate on the screen. Braille displays are still costly, but in some countries the expenditures for the purchase of these machines are compensated.


Further initiatives, also with the participation of the European Blind Union, to improve computer access of visually impaired people, and by that to improve their success at the labour market, have also been taken in projects of the European Commission (Information Society Technologies Programme). One of them is called the Video Interface and Signal Analysis or VISA project, that aimed, simplified summarized to the aspect concerned now, to convert information of the graphical interface into letters ( As a result, also software has been developed that is called ‘Blindows’. An obvious alternative to this does also exists and is called ‘Blinux’(, but it is at present still rare in use in most countries. Perhaps this situation could change the moment also an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) package for text versions of Linux is available. In another project an apparatus has been developed, called SoundTablet, that produces sound the moment the cursor crosses, for instance, an icon and so it changes the hand-eye into a hand-ear coordination. A mouse placed on this tablet signalises objects the same way as a cursor on the screen, but now the object will be described by a specific sound (acoustical navigation). The sound signals produced are as well based on common speech as also on musical concepts attached to the common computer actions and that have been practically tested in the developmental phase of the tablet.


Blind people cannot have successfully access to the Internet without some help. A software programme such as ‘webformator’ is often used. This programme ‘translates’ a web page into text. ‘Webformator’ allows also a more comfortable navigation in the web page with the use of the key-board. Another way for the visually impaired to have access on the Internet is, for example, HPR – Home Page Reader of IBM; a programme that uses speech and is at present available in nine languages.


These examples, however, indicate only one side of the access problems of the visually impaired to overcome when trying to enjoy the world wide web information. Web pages themselves need to be (better) accessible for the visually impaired. Too often links are not clear or not properly described in web pages, or the navigation or the lay-out of a web page is not consistently designed, or an application is started without any warning. The use of texts that are not meaningful outside their contexts, but also frames, columns, pop-ups and not textual supported hot-spots, diagrams and graphics and even forms (and especially JavaScript sustained forms or flash menus) and the lack of contrast, scalable text or support of keyboard navigation are often problematic for visually impaired visitors of web pages and of course all animations and images that are not (functionally) described or textual explained or transcribed either in an ALT-tag or in the ‘title’ instruction in the HTML. In trying to improve the entertainment value of virtual applications and web pages more and more the use of animations, images and dynamic attributes are emphasised, as also can be seen, for example, in the development of the new ‘Longhorn’ platform (and the supporting XAML, ‘Avalon’, Longhorn SDK , ‘Indigo’ and WinFS) of Microsoft. So, more than ever web site designers will have to be much more or better aware of the accessibility of their designed informative web pages, also for the visually impaired.

The authority in defining standards and recommendations for good, informative web pages, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - has especially taken into account the accessibility of web pages for the people with dissabilities in their ‘Guidelines Web Content’. The (chapter) titles of these guidelines:

provide already a good first idea about what is necessary in order to ensure good accessibility of web pages. It is only a small effort to comply with these guidelines when designing web sites and web pages or editing web pages, building web content management systems (CMS) or manage web content. More and more countries are adopting legislation to compel good accessibility of the Internet as based, in most cases, on the guidelines of the W3C.

The W3C guidelines are divided into a number of check points that are divided themselves according to three priority levels:

Priority 1: A Web content developer must satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it impossible to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement for some groups to be able to use Web documents. Priority 2: A Web content developer should satisfy this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers to accessing Web documents.

Priority 3: A Web content developer may address this checkpoint. Otherwise, one or more groups will find it somewhat difficult to access information in the document. Satisfying this checkpoint will improve access to Web documents.

Some checkpoints specify a priority level that may change under certain (indicated) conditions. There are 16 check points of the first priority level, 30 of the second priority level and 19 of the third priority level. The checkpoints, the terms used and all that is needed to understand them, are explained in the guidelines.

Every web site designer, web site developer, web site editor or web site manager should apply these check points which can be regarded as the standard for web pages and web sites. They also can execute a test on the Net to see in how far the web pages designed or managed are obeying this standard at, for instance Furthermore, the techniques or skills needed to comply with these priorities are also made available with the guidelines.



4. Some initiatives and actions that have been taken to improve the use of computers and

    virtual applications by elderly or disabled people


Internet for the aged

During the last years many of initiatives and Societies have been developed in Europe concerning seniors in the Information (Knowledge) Society (,,, etc).

Since 1997, the working group “Seniors” of the Information Society Forum ( is concerned with the interests of seniors in the Knowledge Society. Following a suggestion from the working group, in April 1998 the “Senioren und Seniorinnen in der Wissensgesellschaft” association was formed to foster the development of activities for seniors in the Knowledge Society ( The association activities are aimed, amongst others, at initiating and supporting the acquiring of media competence by seniors and reducing and overcoming access barriers to the Internet for seniors. In summer 1998, the association organized a national information campaign to allow seniors a first encounter with ICT. In 1999 the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, organized the German Multimedia Prize for Seniors. In the realm of this competition, among others, special Internet introduction courses for seniors were developed. Further actions shall follow. In Saxony, the initiative “Senioren ans Netz” (Seniors on the Net) ( brings together seniors and pupils for an intergenerational learning approach. In 1998 and 1999, several courses were conducted where pupils taught seniors how to use the Internet. In Bremen, the “Bremer Heimstiftung” (‘Bremian Home Foundation’) runs several Internet Cafés in its old-age homes, which are not only open to residents, but also to people from the neighborhood, which also facilitates an intergenerational learning approach.


EUSTAT (Empowering Users Through assistive Technology)

EUSTAT aims to empower people with disabilities to make choices in assistive technology (AT), and to improve the skills of peer counsellors and professionals. The project will consist of an analysis of critical factors in transferring the knowledge of assistive technology directly to end-users; an inventory of existing experiences in the EU and in North America, with examples of good practise in user empowerment through education about AT; and a set of guidelines for training curricula. These guidelines aim to help in the design of courses for end-users and in the integration of assistive technology within more comprehensive educational initiatives all over Europe.


IECUVADVLA  (Improvement of Employment Chances of the Unemployed and the Visual and Auditive Disabled by using Virtual Learning Applications)

IECUVADVLA project was initiated by Romania in the year 2004, in the framework of the SOCRATES programme of the European Commission, in collaboration with other four European countries previously mentioned.

The project offers free training of the unemployed and disabled persons by open and distance learning, contributing to the improvement of the training process where the use of the Information Technology is already applied. IECUVADVLA project promotes intercultural education, including in the target group unemployed from marginalized categories of people (gypsies, migrants and/or refugees). In order to improve the chances of employment for the mentioned target group, demonstration courses and virtual learning applications models on basic computer skills and employment techniques will be produced, developed and adapted to the specific needs of the senior unemployed and the visual and auditive (unemployed) disabled. The training modules will be available in a variety of formats, including web, CD and hard copy. Specific software and hardware for training of the people with disabilities will be used, such as text-speech conversion and screen magnification packages, mouth and eye control devices, video and audio teaching and learning materials. The feedback will be obtained from the participants in the learning process by on-line tests and questionnaires, synchronous and asynchronous virtual communication, using the web site of the project. An informative web site of available jobs, project progress and activities will be set up and updated regularly during the lifetime of the project.


ISAEUS (Speech Training for Deaf and Hearing-Impaired People)

ISAEUS will develop hardware and software tools for the speech training of hearing-impaired people in French, German and Spanish, helped by the consortium's long experience in this field, as well as in automatic processing of these languages, and in foreign language teaching. Speech education and/or rehabilitation with computer-assisted techniques are often adapted to children under the guidance of a teacher. For adult people, the concept of individual training is of prime importance, especially for hearing-impaired people who have reached a reasonable oral language level, or people impaired by acquired deafness and whose speech may get worse. In this project, the computer would intervene either to confirm or to warn and correct in instances of voice deterioration.


MULTIPLE (Multimedia Education and Training System)

The project will develop a prototype for a marketable multimedia education and training system to meet intellectually disabled adults' individual learning needs, helping them to reach basic standards of personal skills for their daily life, improve their social integration, and be a productive member of the economy.
The users are intellectually disabled adults in sheltered industrial workshops, supplying products e.g. for the automotive industry. The software uses the Detmold Learning Path Model (
Das Lernwegemodel von Detmold) and the system will be application-oriented using multimedia. This open system will enable the trainer to create or adapt new methods to meet the demands of the sheltered workshop, and provide a learning phase for the student, including a self-tuition possibility with continuing assessment throughout.


European Social Fund (HORIZON projects)


The project aims at the development of a package on distance learning for deaf people and people with impaired hearing in the area of computer use and application. The aim is to set-up a training package on distance learning. Distance learning facilities suited to the needs of deaf people and people with hearing difficulties did not exist up to now. Another innovative aspect is that the training package will be developed along multimedia lines. 


The objective of the project is to increase employment opportunities for deaf persons and improve their prospects of employment, to alleviate social, psychological and functional problems that have resulted from unemployment and prevent exclusion. Deaf persons will be trained as employment agents who will support the job placement of the deaf and ensure availability of existing employment services in sign language. Deaf persons will be provided with job search clubs, courses in the changing working life, entrepreneurial courses and Deaf Vision-video and multimedia training. The project will also develop cooperative activities for the deaf. In addition, the project will create teaching materials in sign language and disseminate correct information on the deaf to employers.


The implementation of the scheme provides for the developing of a data bank in collaboration with business firms, institutions and trade associations, thereby ensuring that job demands by disabled meet the offer and that they are rehabilitated in a working environment. Moreover, the scheme plans to provide disabled persons with training in informatics and multimedia with the ultimate goal of setting up a social cooperative of training, production and services within the same sectors.

This is a European distance learning and telework project aimed at promoting close co-operation among European partners, especially in exchanging methods and practices in the use of new technologies, with a view to building up a European network.


Several organisations have conducted experiments in different areas within the framework of this project:

Bradford Council ; Bradford & Ilkley Community College
The college is developing a philosophy based on the integration of handicapped people into a normal educational environment. An experiment is under way in the field of open learning and the use of informatics.
The project consists in promoting access of the handicapped to information and employment through the use of information and communication technologies. A "virtual" centre would be created for handicapped people for training, employment and social support. A total of forty students have received specific training in fields in which they lack skills, especially in computer and electronic production techniques.
This "virtual" centre will be connected to other partner centres in the European Union and to already well-established networks in the United Kingdom through the use of ICTs. The project will focus on the difficulties bound up with access to training through open and distance learning and on problems such as:

-         impaired sight

-         impaired hearing

-         reduced mobility

INSUP and GIHP in the Aquitaine Region

A joint project has been designed by these organisations aimed at improving the social and professional integration of handicapped people (with impaired sight and physical disabilities) by the use of telematics and new information and telecommunications technologies. The project will enable handicapped persons seeking employment to receive qualifying training through distance learning. Once qualified, they will become professionally active through telework (notably, through the creation of telework platforms).
Among the innovative measures contained in this project, the following may be mentioned:
          -  creation of telework platforms (professional integration)

          -  building up of a close partnership with the economic fabric of the community

    - oriented towards the promotion of telework
    -  creation of an employment observatory
    - development of distance learning in the pedagogical practices of educational and

             training bodies.
Several measures involve the international partnership:
    -  an exchange of methodologies and the design of telework platforms based on the

        practices of economic players in the organisation of certain telework-related users
    -  setting up of an observatory for placing course participants
    -  designing of modules and common tools for distance learning and training of distance

        education trainers

    -  an exchange of trainers
    -  compilation of a methodological guide for spreading the adoption of measures on a

        global scale.


Action for blind People

Action for Blind People is an organisation funded by private donations and European grants. It runs 4 training centres, 3 hotels and 5 special accommodation units. Its work towards the integration of handicapped persons concerns employment, accommodation and leisure activities. Training involves the multi-handicapped and is carried out in a disadvantaged district of London.

The project is aimed at building up a trans nationally developed distance training structure for handicapped persons, focused on business and marketing skills and consumer services.



5. Conclusion


The number of people that is denied easy access to the use of computers and virtual applications or the information on the Internet is despite all already undertaken initiatives and actions still considerable. The unawareness of this easy access denial is to the general public perhaps even more substantial than supposed and therefore probably than also to programmers of virtual applications and web site developers, as accessibility tests of 100 web sites that recently have been performed in the Netherlands, for example (100 Dutch Public web sites tested on their accessibility, see Eindrapport Accessibility Monitor 2004, Stichting Bartiméus Accessibility, 2004, download at /, have proven. Although many provisions have been realised in the mean time and also the awareness of accessibility difficulties of people with disabilities has been raised in the past years, still the access to computers, virtual applications and the world wide web is far from ideal and could be improved. Especially the access to the information on the Internet should be made easier for people with disabilities and considering the number of people concerned that have not the freedom to the world wide web information as they should have, developers, builders and owners of web sites  should count it to their regular duties to see that the best access as possible of their web sites and web pages is realised and guaranteed.




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