Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone


After this presentation, faculty and administrators will be able to:

  • list potential barriers to distance learning courses for students with disabilities
  • summarize their institution's legal responsibilities for ensuring equal access to online courses
  • discuss universal design guidelines for developing accessible distance learning courses


Approximately 60 minutes.


Department chair, faculty, staff, TA, student, or other department member who has an understanding of technology used by students who have disabilities and of key elements of online courses. This presentation may be co-presented by a staff member of a campus unit responsible for providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities and a website developer.


  • Select the presenter(s).
  • Develop presentation outline and activities using the "Sample Script" provided in this section and the ideas listed in the Presentation Tips section of this notebook.
  • Create presentation slides from provided templates.
  • Add the contact information for campus resources to the "Resources" slide and to printed publications as appropriate.
  • Photocopy the handout templates Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, and World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design. Create alternative formats as necessary.
  • Photocopy the presentation evaluation instrument to distribute at the end of the session or create your own.
  • Add a link on your department's website to The Faculty Room at and to The Center for Universal Design in Higher Education at

Equipment and Tools

  • DVD player and monitor
  • Video projector, computer, and presentation slides; Internet connection (optional)
  • Videos (open captioned and audio-described version of Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone and World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design)
  • Handout (Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone, Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning, and World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design)
  • Presentation evaluation instrument

Presentation Outline

  1. Distribute handouts.
  2. Introductions.
  3. Begin presentation.
  4. Discuss accommodations and universal design.
  5. Introduce and play videos as noted in the script.
  6. Discuss distance learning tools.
  7. Discuss department or campus issues.
  8. Note campus resources.
  9. Distribute and collect completed evaluation instruments.


For further preparation resources for this presentation, consult

Sample Script

Today we'll be discussing how to make distance learning accessible to everyone.

The objectives of today's presentation is to

  • list potential barriers to distance learning courses for students with disabilities.
  • describe faculty, staff, and institutional roles and responsibilities for ensuring equal access to distance learning courses.
  • discuss universal design guidelines for developing accessible distance learning courses.

Increasing numbers of postsecondary courses are online. Reaching out to larger audiences and offering anytime, anywhere learning options are common arguments for developing online distance learning courses. However, rarely do these arguments explicitly address access issues for students with disabilities.

Legal Issues

Ensuring that individuals with disabilities have access to computing resources can be argued on ethical grounds. Some simply consider it to be the right thing to do; others are more responsive to legal mandates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that people with disabilities be given the same access to public programs and services, including educational programs that are offered to people without disabilities.

The ADA is civil rights legislation that reinforces and extends the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that "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 any program or activity of a public entity." When people think of the ADA, they often think of elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on busses. However, the ADA accessibility requirements apply to people with all types of disabilities and to all programs and resources offered at our institutions, including those offered using computers and the Internet.

Disabilities covered by legislation include, but are not limited to, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, visual impairments, speech impairments, specific learning disabilities, head injuries, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, cancer, and AIDS. The conditions listed may limit people's abilities to perform specific tasks. Some of these conditions are readily apparent; some are invisible. Some affect computer use; some do not.

Additionally, some students who have the same diagnosis may have very different abilities when it comes to performing specific tasks. For example, one student who has cerebral palsy may have difficulty walking. For another student, cerebral palsy may result in no functional use of his or her hands or voice. Ultimately, a student who has a disability requires accommodations only when faced with a task that requires a skill that his or her disability precludes. This may include computer access.

The ADA accessibility requirements also apply to programs offered on the Internet. As the United States Department of Justice clarifies, "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 or him.

Some technical requirements for ensuring that a distance learning class is accessible to people who have disabilities have already been resolved for many students before they enrolled 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 course 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.

Accommodation vs. Universal Design

Usually, when we think of providing access to a service for a person with a disability, we think about providing appropriate accommodations. In contrast, universal design means that we consider the broad range of students who might enroll in a course at the design phase.

An example of an accommodation for a person who uses a wheelchair to open a door is to provide a wheelchair-height, large button for them to press in order to activate the automatic door opener; the solution does not work for a wheelchair user with no functional arm use; this solution is appropriate only for a narrow range of the population and is an "add on" to an existing product, the standard door. An example of a solution that employs the principles of universal design is a supermarket door that opens when it senses an individual in front of the door. A person can roll a wheelchair to the sensor, regardless of ability to use his or her hands; so can a person using a walker; so can a person who walks; so can a small child or a large adult. It is the standard way to enter the building, not an add-on to the standard.

Universal design has been 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 the center, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers collaborated to establish a set of principles of universal design to provide guidance in the design of environments, communications, and products.

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.

When universal design principles are applied to the design of distance learning courses, students and instructors with a wide range of characteristics can fully participate. Now we'll watch a video that tells us how to design an accessible distance learning course.

Let's discuss further some of the tools typically used in a distance learning course and how they can be made universally accessible. These tools might include email, websites, social networking tools, chat, teleconferencing, print materials, and videos.

Asynchronous Communication

If a prerequisite to the course is for students to have access to email, 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 course 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.

Other asynchronous communication tools include blogs and social networking sites, like Facebook. The accessibility issues discussed in the next video apply these tools when used in a distance learning class.

Synchronous Communication

Some distance learning courses employ online chat and other synchronous communication in their courses. In this case, students communicate synchronously (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 his or 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 provide an alternate, equivalent assignment for those who cannot fully participate.


The most common tool used in distance learning classes is the Internet. We will now watch a short video, World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design, which demonstrates web access challenges that people with disabilities face and solutions for meeting these challenges.Guidelines for making webpages accessible to everyone are included in your handout of the same title.

Your webpages should be designed to be device-independent. Device-independence means that a person may interact with webpages using a wide variety of input and output devices (e.g., mouse, keyboard, voice). If, for example, a selection can only be made with a mouse or other pointing device, someone who is using speech input or a keyboard alone will not be able to activate the function. Following this guideline benefits people with a variety of system configurations.

Webpages used in 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. 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 the HTML validator programs listed in your handout.

If, in some cases, it is not possible to make a specific feature of your website accessible, be sure to develop an accommodation strategy. For example, provide text-only information for a student who is blind if a particular part of your website cannot be made accessible to him or her. The key is to assure that the student has full access to the content of your course.

If universal design principles are employed in webpage development, people with characteristics other than disabilities will also benefit from the design. They include people working 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.


Sometimes, online courses include teleconferencing opportunities for students to communicate in small groups. This mode of communication creates scheduling and access 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 or give all students an alternative assignment if appropriate (for example, to conduct the discussion online.) Or, a student who is deaf can participate by using a relay system, where someone translates his or her printed input via TTY into speech. Consult with the student about the best option.

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 [include campus-specific information here].


Ideally, if a video is one of the course materials, captioning is available for those who have hearing impairments and audio description (which aurally describes the visual content) is provided for those who are blind. If the publisher does not make these access 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 visual material to a blind student or sign audio material for a student who is deaf. Or you could work with the publisher to provide, in accessible format, a transcription of the content.

When universal design features are employed in developing and applying tools used in distance learning courses, you will minimize the number of special accommodations that will be needed by students with disabilities who enroll in your class.

Discussion Questions

[Ask participants the following or similar questions for discussion.]

  1. What are the ethical and legal issues related to providing students with disabilities access to distance learning courses?
  2. In our institution, who should be responsible for ensuring that distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities?
  3. What are the benefits of employing universal design principles in distance education rather than focusing only on disability issues?

Case Study

[Consider discussing a case study from the Presentation Tips section of this notebook. Case #6 on page 73 would be appropriate.]


As our program comes to an end, what was the most significant insight or question you had today? Please feel free to share a brief comment with the group.

I hope this program has given you a clear understanding of the impact that the combination of computers, adaptive technology, and electronic resources can have on the lives of people with disabilities. Faculty and administrators have a legal responsibility to ensure equitable access to resources and services. The information provided in this program gave you tools to begin implementing universal design principles in developing and updating your distance learning courses. Applying these guidelines will help level the playing field for people with disabilities.


Here are some resources that might be useful to you as you work to maximize the accessibility of your distance learning courses. [Elaborate.]

For comprehensive information on accommodations, a wide range of case studies, frequently asked questions, and general resources, visit The Faculty Room at This resource was developed at the University of Washington as part of a nationwide project to provide resources to faculty and administrators so that they can make their courses and programs accessible to all students. You can link to this resource from ____. [Arrange to provide a link from your campus' disabled student services website before the presentation.] Consider linking to this website from your department's faculty website.

A website specifically for content related to making distance learning courses and programs accessible to students and instructors with disabilities is AccessDL at

Thank you for your time today and for your interest in finding ways to ensure that all of the students in our programs have equal opportunities to learn, explore interests, and express ideas.