What Internet-based communication methods are accessible to people with disabilities?

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Text-based, asynchronous resources, such as electronic mail, bulletin boards, and electronic discussion lists, generally do not erect barriers for students with disabilities. For example, if a prerequisite to a course or program is for students to have access to electronic mail, the instructor or program leader can assume that participants with disabilities already have an accessible email program to use. A participant who requires assistive technology to access email will have resolved any basic system access issues before enrolling in the course. His own computer system will provide whatever accommodations he needs. Email communication between individual students, course administration staff, the instructor, guest speakers, and other program participants is accessible to all parties, regardless of disability.

Real-time chat, however, is not accessible to everyone. In this communication method, participants communicate synchronously (at the same time), as compared to asynchronously (not necessarily at the same time). 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. In addition, some chat software erects barriers for individuals who are blind and using text-to-speech systems to access the text that appears on a computer screen. Therefore, if instructors or program leaders choose to use chat, they should select chat software that is accessible to those using text-to-speech systems and also plan for an alternate, equivalent method of communication (e.g., email) for communication when not all members of the group can fully participate using chat.

For more information about how Internet-based communication can be made accessible in a distance learning course, consult Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone or view the video by the same title.

Last update or review: January 24, 2013