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Guidelines exist for making application software more accessible to people with disabilities.

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Sheryl and Universal Design: A Case Study in Applications to a Distance Learning Course

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler was asked to teach a three-credit Internet-based distance learning course at the University of Washington. The topic of the course was issues and strategies regarding computing access for people with disabilities, content she had taught many times in a traditional class setting. She anticipated that individuals with a wide range of disabilities would enroll in the course. Her goal was to employ universal design principles to make the course accessible to everyone, regardless of abilities and disabilities, language skills, and learning styles.

Dr. Burgstahler selected a textbook, making sure it was available on tape from Learning Ally. Students who are blind or who have learning disabilities that impact reading ability can order a copy of the text on tape, while other students use the standard printed copy.

To give the students examples of adaptive technology that provides access to computers for people with disabilities, she selected a series of videos produced by DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). These tapes are open captioned, making them accessible to students who are deaf and to students for whom English is a second language. They are also available in a form that has audio description, a feature that describes aurally the visual content in the tape. This version is used by students who are blind.

Lessons for the course and course discussions took place over e-mail, a fully accessible medium. Assignments and the final exam were also submitted via e-mail. Course Web pages were designed using universal design principles, assuring access to all students.

As a prerequisite for the course, students were required to have access to electronic mail and the World Wide Web. As a result, the University did not need to provide computer equipment, including adaptive technology, for those with disabilities. The course can, however, be taken by using campus computers and adaptive technology as required by students with disabilities. The key is to offer to students with disabilities the same services offered to others.

The course has been taught for five years. Students from all over the world and with a variety of disabilities have enrolled. As there are no in-person meetings and the course is designed to be fully accessible, there is no way to know how many students with disabilities have completed the course. Some students with disabilities have disclosed their disabilities voluntarily, but no one has needed a special accommodation. Disabilities disclosed include learning disabilities, spinal cord injuries, Cerebral Palsy, and blindness.


This case demonstrates how:

  1. Universal design concepts can be incorporated into the design process to create an accessible distance learning course.

  2. Employing access features in the design of a course can minimize the need for a student to disclose a disability and to request an accommodation.