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Lesson 11: Distance Learning

Lesson 10 | Lesson 11 | Lesson 12

Academic Accommodations for Students with Disabilities
Distance Learning Course


The purpose of this lesson is to increase your awareness of access
issues related accommodating students with disabilities in DISTANCE
LEARNING courses.

By reflecting on YOUR own course while reading the CONTENT, you will
be guided to consider possible modifications SPECIFICALLY related to
accommodating a student with a disability enrolled in a distance
learning class.

Question to REFLECT upon while reading the CONTENT

If you offered your course using distance learning modes of
communication (such as email, teleconferencing, or online courses),
what access issues for students with disabilities would you need to


In the past lessons we have concentrated on accommodations for
students with specific disabilities or impairments.  This lesson
presents issues and suggestions of accommodations related to DISTANCE
LEARNING modes of communication.

Increasing access to more students is often a reason given for
providing instruction in a distance learning format. However, these
"access" arguments usually focus on people separated by distance and
time and rarely include consideration of students with disabilities.

The following paragraphs discuss ACCESS ISSUES and present DESIGN
GUIDELINES for assuring that a distance learning course is accessible
to potential instructors and students with a wide range of abilities
and disabilities. Principles of universal design provide a framework
for this discussion.

ACCESS CHALLENGES for People with Disabilities
The rapid development of adaptive technology makes it possible for
almost anyone to access computing resources. Adaptive technology
includes special hardware and software that allow individuals with a
wide range of skills to make productive use of computers. Below are a
few examples of access challenges faced by students and instructors in
a typical distance learning course.

A student who is blind may use a computer equipped with screen reader
software and a speech synthesizer. Basically, this system reads with a
synthesized voice whatever text appears on the screen. He may use a
text-only browser to navigate the World Wide Web or simply turn off
the graphics-loading feature of a multi-media Web browser. He cannot
interpret graphics unless text alternatives are provided. For example,
his speech synthesizer will simply say "image map" at the place where
an image map would be displayed to someone using a multimedia Web
browser. Printed materials, videotapes, and other visual materials
also create access challenges for him.

A student who has limited vision can use special software to enlarge
screen images. He may view only a small portion of a Web page at a
time.  Consequently, he is confused when Web pages are cluttered and
when the page layout is not consistent from page to page. Standard
printed materials may also be inaccessible to him.

Some specific learning disabilities impact the ability to read, write,
and process information. Students with learning disabilities often use
audiotaped books. For some, speech output or screen enlargement
systems similar to those used by people with visual impairments help
them read text. People with learning disabilities often have
difficulty understanding Web sites when the information is cluttered
and when the screen layout changes from one page to the next.

Students with a wide range of mobility impairments may enroll in a
distance learning course. Some have no functional hand use at
all. They use alternative keyboards, speech input, and other input
devices that provide access to all of the Internet-based course
materials and navigational tools. Some options use keyboard commands
to replace mouse functions and thus cannot fully operate software that
requires the use of the mouse. Some students with mobility impairments
do not have the fine motor skills required to select small buttons on
the screen. Those whose input method is slow cannot effectively
participate in real-time "chat" communications.

Most Internet resources are accessible to people with hearing
impairments because they do not require the ability to hear. However,
when Web sites include audio output without providing text captioning
or transcription, this group of students is denied access to the
information. Course videotapes that are not captioned are also
inaccessible to individuals who are deaf. Deaf students also cannot
participate in TELECONFERENCING sessions that might be part of a
distance learning course.

Students with speech impairments cannot effectively participate in
TELECONFERENCES that might be part of a distance learning course.

Potential students and instructors in an Internet-based distance
learning class may have visual, hearing, mobility, speech, and
learning disabilities that impact their participation in the
class. PLANNING FOR ACCESS as the course is being developed is much
easier than creating accommodation strategies once a student with a
disability enrolls.

When designers apply UNIVERSAL DESIGN principles, their products meet
the needs of potential users with a wide variety of
characteristics. Disability is just one of many characteristics that
an individual might possess. A goal should be to create a learning
environment that allows a person who happens to have a characteristic
that is termed "disability" to access all content and fully
participate in activities. Universal Design of Education has been
defined as the design of products and environments to be usable by all
people, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

The following sections include examples of DISTANCE LEARNING TOOLS as
well as potential ACCESS ISSUES and SOLUTIONS.

Text-based resources such as Usenet discussion groups, electronic
mail, and distribution lists create no special barriers for students
with disabilities. Individuals who have visual impairments or reading
disabilities can use their own adapted systems to access course
content with these tools.

If a prerequisite to the course is for students to have access to
electronic mail, they can use any software that supports e-mail on the
Internet. Therefore, any access issues that students with disabilities
might face have already been resolved before enrolling in the
course. Their own computer systems provide whatever accommodations
they need in this area. Email communication between individual
students and course administration staff, the instructor, and other
students is accessible to all parties, regardless of
disability. E-mail can be used to deliver the syllabus, lessons,
assignments, and reminders. "Guest speakers" with disabilities can
also join the e-mail-based course discussions. Students can also turn
in their assignments and tests using this accessible tool.

Some distance learning courses employ real-time "chat" communication
in their courses. In this case, students communicate synchronously (at
the same time), as compared to asynchronously (not necessarily at the
same time as in electronic mail). Besides providing scheduling
challenges, synchronous communication is difficult or impossible for
someone who cannot communicate quickly. For example, someone with a
learning disability who takes a long time to compose her thoughts, or
someone with Cerebral Palsy whose input method is slow, may not be
fully included in the discussion. If you choose to use this type of
tool, be sure to make it optional or to provide an alternate,
equivalent assignment for those who cannot fully participate.

When universal design principles are applied to the design of Web
pages, people using a wide range of adaptive technology can access
them. If universal design principles are employed in Web page
development, people with characteristics besides disabilities will
also benefit from the design. They include people working under
environmental constraints such as in noisy or noiseless environments;
people whose hands or eyes are occupied with other activities; people
for whom English is a second language; people using older, outdated
computer equipment; and individuals using monochrome monitors. (See
also section specifically on Web Pages in the previous lesson, 10:

Some distance learning courses use printed materials to support
Internet-based instruction. Students who are blind or who have
specific learning disabilities that affect their ability to read may
require these materials in alternative formats. Making the text of
printed materials available on-line may provide the best solution. You
can also contact the campus disabled student services office to
discuss options for obtaining printed materials in alternative

Ideally, if a videotape is one of the course materials, captioning
should be provided for those who have hearing impairments and audio
description (describes aurally the visual content) provided for those
who are blind. If the publisher does not make these options available,
the distance learning program should have a system in place to
accommodate students who have sensory impairments. For example, the
institution could hire someone local to the student to describe the
visual material to a blind student or to sign audio material for a
student who is deaf. Or, they could work with the publisher to
provide, in an accessible format, a transcription of the content.

Sometimes, on-line courses include teleconferencing opportunities for
communication in small groups. This mode of communication creates
scheduling challenges for everyone. It is also inaccessible to a
student who is deaf. If you choose to use teleconferencing for small
group discussion in your course, you might want to provide it as an
option only, giving all students an alternative assignment (for
example, to conduct the discussion on-line). Or, a student who is deaf
can participate by using a relay system, where someone translates his
printed input via teletype (TTY) into speech. Consult with the student
about the best option for him.

Designed correctly, distance learning options create learning
opportunities for students with disabilities. Designed poorly, they
erect new barriers to equal participation in academics and
careers. Employing universal design principles can bring us closer to
making learning accessible to everyone, everywhere, at any time.


It is possible that you will create a DISTANCE LEARNING COURSE, or
have already created one.  In order to help your students, it is
important for you to be AWARE of the many access issues facing
students with disabilities and the solutions for providing access to
distance learning courses.


Send an email message to the group, answering the following question:

What specific features, if any have you included (or would you
include) in a distance learning course you have given (or might give
in the future), that facilitated access (or would facilitate access)
to students with disabilities?

Your email SUBJECT line should read: Accommodations 11: DISTANCE LEARNING.


You can read answers to frequently asked questions, explore case
studies, or access additional resources at:

(c) 2001 DO-IT. Permission is granted to copy material in this email
for educational, non-commercial purposes provided the source is
acknowledged. Contact DO-IT at: 1-206-685-3648, or