One of the most common arguments in favor of distance learning is to increase access to more students. However, these "access" arguments usually focus on people separated by distance and time; they do not always include consideration of students with disabilities.
Denying access to individuals with disabilities is not only unethical, it may also be illegal. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and its 2008 amendments require that people with disabilities have equal access to public programs and services, including Internet-based programs. This means that, if a qualified person with a disability enrolls in a public, Internet-based distance learning course, the course must be made available—and accessible—to her.
Identifying the Problem: Access Challenges for People with Disabilities
The rapid development of assistive technology makes it possible for almost anyone to access computing resources. Assistive technology includes special hardware and software that allow individuals with a wide range of skills to make productive use of computers. Yet even with assistive technology, many students with disabilities still face access challenges in typical distance learning courses.
Access Challenges by Disability
Students who are blind may use a computer equipped with text-to-speech software and a speech synthesizer, to read aloud whatever text appears on the screen. They may use a text-only browser to navigate the web, or simply turn off the graphics-loading feature of a multimedia web browser, which means they cannot interpret graphics unless text alternatives are provided. Printed materials, videos, and other visual materials also present access challenges.
Students who have limited vision can use special software to enlarge screen images, but they may be able to view only a small portion of a web page at a time Standard printed materials may also present access challenges.
Specific Learning Disabilities
Specific learning disabilities impact the ability to read, write, and process information. Students with these learning disabilities often use audio books, and they may use speech output or screen enlargement systems to read screen text. They often have difficulty understanding websites when the information is poorly organized and when the screen layout changes from one page to the next.
Some students with mobility impairments have limited use or no use of their hands. They use alternative keyboards, speech input, and other input devices. Some of these input devices use keyboard commands to replace mouse functions, and thus cannot fully operate software that requires the use of a mouse. If the input method is slow, students cannot effectively participate in real-time "chats".
Students with hearing impairments can access text, but they cannot access audio output or video presentations without captioning or transcription. Deaf students cannot participate in teleconferences.
Students with speech impairments cannot effectively participate in teleconferences.
Accessible to Everyone: Applying Universal Design to Distance Learning
Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Applying universal design principles to a distance learning course means considering the needs of students with disabilities and planning for access as the course is being developed, which is much easier than creating accommodation strategies after a student with a disability enrolls.
Simple steps can be taken to ensure that a course is accessible to those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.
If the course requires proctored examinations, retreats, or meetings that are place-bound, the facility should be wheelchair accessible (e.g., furniture should accommodate wheelchair-users, accessible restrooms and parking should be available nearby). Standard disability-related accommodations, such as sign language interpreters, should be provided when requested. Instructors should speak clearly, face students when speaking to facilitate lip-reading, and verbally describe text and visual materials for those who cannot see them.
Some distance learning courses use real-time communication. In this case, students communicate synchronously (at the same time), as compared to asynchronously (not necessarily at the same time). Synchronous communication is difficult or impossible for someone who cannot communicate quickly. For example, a student with a mobility impairment whose input method is slow may not be fully included in the discussion. In addition, some communication software erects barriers for students who are blind. Instructors should select chat software that is accessible to those using screen readers, and plan for an alternate method of communication (e.g., email) when not all students can fully participate
Text-based, asynchronous resources such as email, bulletin boards, and email-based distribution lists generally erect no special barriers for students with disabilities. Email communication between individual students, course administration staff, the instructor, and guest speakers is accessible to all parties. By making access to email a prerequisite, the instructor can assume that participants with disabilities already have an accessible email program to use.
There are two basic approaches to designing accessible web pages: Either certain types of inaccessible data and features need to be avoided or alternative methods of access need to be provided. For example, a distance learning designer can avoid using a graphic that is inaccessible to individuals who are blind, or he can create a text description of the content that is accessible to text-to-speech software. Course designers can use development tools, such as Blackboard, to employ product accessibility tools and create accessible courses.
Students who are blind or who have specific learning disabilities that affect their ability to read may require that printed materials be converted into Braille, large print, or electronic formats. The best solution is to make all printed materials available in an accessible web-based format.
Ideally, whenever a video presentation is used in a distance learning course, captioning should be provided for those who have hearing impairments and audio description (that describes aurally the visual content) should be provided for those who are blind. If a video publisher does not make these options available, the program should have a system in place to accommodate students with sensory impairments. For example, the institution could hire someone to describe the visual material to a blind student or to sign audio material for a deaf student. Real-time captioning (developed at the time of the presentation) or sign language interpreting should be provided for videoconferences upon request.
Sometimes, online courses include telephone conferencing. This mode of communication creates scheduling challenges for everyone. It is also inaccessible to students with hearing and speech impairments. Instructors who use telephone conferencing should allow alternative communication (e.g., email) that is accessible to everyone in the group.
Program and Promotional Materials
Be sure to include a statement on all program and promotional materials about how to obtain materials in alternate formats and how to obtain disability-related accommodations.
Ten Indicators of Distance Learning Program Accessibility
The 10 Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators (DLP Accessibility Indicators) can be used as a checklist for documenting programmatic changes that lead to improved accessibility in distance-learning programs and courses.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 1. The distance learning home page is accessible to individuals with disabilities (e.g., it adheres to Section 508, World Wide Web Consortium or institutional accessible-design guidelines/standards).
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 2. A statement about the distance learning program's commitment to accessible design for all potential students, including those with disabilities, is included prominently in appropriate publications and web pages, along with contact information for reporting inaccessible design features.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 3. A statement about how students with disabilities can request accommodations is included in appropriate publications and web pages.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 4. A statement about how students can obtain printed materials in alternate formats is included in appropriate publications and web pages
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 5. The online and other course materials are accessible to students with disabilities.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 6. Publications and web pages for the course designers include: a) a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources for learning more about accessibility issues.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 7. Accessibility issues are covered in training sessions for course designers.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 8. Publications and web pages for the course instructors include: a) a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources for learning more about accessibility issues.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 9. Accessibility issues are covered in training sessions for instructors.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 10. A system is in place to monitor the accessibility of courses and, based on this evaluation, to improve accessibility as well as update information and training given to potential students, current students, course designers and instructors.
- Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone
- Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning
- World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design
Consult the AccessCSforAll Knowledge Base
The AccessCSforAll Knowledge Base contains Q&As, Case Studies, and Promising Practices.
The content of this web page was adapted with permission from Burgstahler, S. (2012). Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone. Seattle: UW.