Distance Learning

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

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.

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities can participate in distance learning courses can be argued on ethical grounds. Some simply consider it to be the right thing to do. Others are more responsive to legal mandates. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 require that people with disabilities have equal access to public programs and services. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in these programs. Besides elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on buses, the ADA accessibility requirements also apply to Internet-based programs. As the United States Department of Justice clarifies ("ADA Accessibility," 1997), "Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well." Specifically, if a qualified person with a disability enrolls in a distance learning course offered via the Internet, the course must be made available to her.

The following paragraphs discuss access issues and present design guidelines for ensuring that a distance learning course is accessible to potential instructors and students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The field of universal design provides 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.

Visual Impairments

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 Web or simply turn off the graphics-loading feature of a multimedia 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, videos, 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 webpage at a time. Consequently, he is confused when webpages are cluttered and when the page layout is not consistent from page to page. Standard printed materials may also be inaccessible to him.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Some specific learning disabilities impact the ability to read, write, or 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 websites when the information is cluttered and when the screen layout changes from one page to the next.

Mobility Impairments

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.

Hearing Impairments

Most Internet resources are accessible to people with hearing impairments because they do not require the ability to hear. However, when websites include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, this group of students is denied access to the information. Course videos 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.

Speech Impairments

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. Simple steps can be taken to assure that the course is accessible to those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. People without disabilities also benefit when "universal design" is considered in the course development process.

Universal Design

Universal design is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University 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." At this center, a group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers established a set of principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products. General principles include:

  • The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  • The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

When designers apply these 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. Others include height, age, race, ethnicity, gender, and native language. All of these characteristics, including disability, should be considered when developing a distance learning course. 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.

Electronic Mail

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 email 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. Email can be used to deliver the syllabus, lessons, assignments, and reminders. "Guest speakers" with disabilities can also join the email-based course discussions. Students can also turn in their assignments and tests using this accessible tool.

Real-time "Chat"

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 webpages, people using a wide range of adaptive technology can access them. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an industry group that was founded in 1994 to develop common protocols that enhance interoperability and guide the evolution of the web, has taken a leadership role in this area. The W3C is committed to assure a high degree of usability by people with disabilities. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) coordinates W3C's efforts with organizations worldwide to promote accessibility. Its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines tell how to design web pages that are accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities.

The WAI guidelines address two general themes: ensuring graceful transformation, and making content understandable and navigable. Pages that transform gracefully remain accessible despite constraints imposed by physical, sensory, and cognitive limitations; work constraints; and technological barriers. Content can be made easy to understand and navigate by using clear and simple language and providing simple mechanisms for navigating within and between pages.

To create pages that are accessible, webpage developers must either avoid certain types of data and features or create alternative methods for carrying out the functions or accessing the content provided through the inaccessible feature or format. For more information about making webpages accessible, consult the AccessSTEM website section that provides guidelines for making web pages accessible.

Webpages for a distance learning class should be tested with a variety of monitors, computer platforms, and web browsers. One of the test browsers should be text-only, such as Lynx, a web browser developed at the University of Kansas. If a webpage makes sense with Lynx, then most people with sensory impairments can read it, too. Another good accessibility test is to determine if all functions at a website can be accessed using a keyboard alone. A website can also be tested for accessibility using an HTML validator program such as "Bobby."

If universal design principles are employed in webpage 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.

Printed Materials

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 online may provide the best solution. You can also contact the campus disabled student services office to discuss options for obtaining printed materials in alternative formats.


Ideally, if a video 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 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 accessible format, a transcription of the content.


Sometimes, online 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 online). Or, a student who is deaf can participate by using a relay system, where someone translates his printed input via TTY into speech. Consult with the student about the best option for him.

Benefits of Accessible Design to People Without Disabilities

People without disabilities may have situational limitations that are similar to the limitations imposed by disabilities. For example, those for whom English is a second language experience reading challenges similar to those experienced by people with specific learning disabilities. Individuals using monochrome monitors face challenges like those who are colorblind. People who need to work in a dark environment, people needing to watch the road while driving a vehicle, and people who cannot access graphics due to computer system limitations are in a similar situation as students who are blind. A noisy environment or older, outdated computer equipment that prohibits use of audio imposes constraints similar to those faced by students with hearing impairments. A noiseless environment imposes limitations like those faced by people who are deaf. People whose hands are occupied with other activities face challenges similar to those who have no use of their hands because of a disability.

Using clear and simple language and navigational mechanisms on web pages facilitates use by people with visual and learning disabilities besides benefiting people whose first language is not the language in which the course is taught. Captions provided on web pages and videos assist people who are deaf as well as those working in noisy or noiseless surroundings and people for whom English is a second language.

Besides those who are blind, people using older computers or slow Internet connections or who have turned off support for images on their browsers in order to maximize access speed benefit when multimedia features provide text alternatives for the content. Similarly, people operating computers in the dark and those who cannot view the screen because they must attend to other tasks benefit from speech output systems designed for people who are blind. Providing multiple formats of information also address differences in learning styles. Making sure that information conveyed with color is also available without color benefits those who cannot perceive color because of color-blindness or simply because of system limitations such as monochrome monitors.

Distance learning course developers should consider all of the potential characteristics of instructors and students and of the environments within which they work. If universal design principles are used in creating a distance learning class, it will be accessible to any student who enrolls and any instructor who is hired to teach it. Considering disability-related access issues during the design process often leads to a better course for everyone.


The necessity for special accommodations for individuals with disabilities can be reduced when simple universal design principles are applied beginning at the earliest stages of development. Some solutions are difficult to implement, but most require simple adjustments in class materials and/or assignments while planning the course.

Designed well, 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.

For more information consult the DO-IT publications World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, Universal Design of Instruction: Definition, Principles, and Examples, and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.