Sheryl and Her Distance Learning: A Case Study in Making a Course Accessible to a Blind Co-Instructor

Date Updated


My name is Sheryl Burgstahler and I work at the University of Washington in Seattle. I wanted to develop an Internet-based course offered through the Department of Education and the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine. I wanted to coteach the course with a colleague who is blind and who was a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I wanted to know how we could efficiently collaborate and share the workload. We had delivered similar content many times in on-site courses and presentations.

Access Issue

Dr. Coombs's computer is equipped with screen reader software and a speech synthesizer. Basically, this system reads with a synthesized voice any text that appears on the screen, including text found on the Internet. Dr. Coombs uses a text-only browser to navigate the World Wide Web. 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, videotapes, and other visual materials create access challenges for Dr. Coombs. We decided to use electronic mail for most correspondence as we developed the course. We also used e-mail to communicate with students in the course. This included the delivery of class lessons and assignments and course discussion. Assignments and tests were also turned in via electronic mail, making it possible for each instructor to share the workload. Web pages used in the course were designed in an accessible format. We also made sure that the Web pages selected as course references were also accessible.

The course was supported with a textbook and other printed materials. Before the final selection, we made sure that the textbook was available in recorded form from The videotapes used in the course were open-captioned and audio-described by the publisher DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). Audio-described videotapes include an extra voice to describe key visual content. DO-IT also provided electronic forms (on the Web) of handouts that accompanied the videotapes.


Drs. Burgstahler and Coombs successfully created and delivered this course. This case demonstrates that:

  1. A distance learning course can be created in such a way that development and implementation can be accessible to instructors who have disabilities themselves.
  2. Accommodations for an instructor with a disability can benefit students with disabilities as well.