From one perspective, online learning has democratized higher education. Students in the military who are stationed overseas can pursue an education while deployed, and working professionals can take advanced courses and earn a degree while still providing for their families. In this way, online learning has made education overall more accessible.
Because online learning does not require students to physically travel to and sit in a traditional classroom, there can be a misconception that it is also inherently more accessible to students with disabilities. While this may be the case in some instances, if accessibility is not explicitly addressed by the course designer and/or instructor, it can quickly run afoul of ADA regulations and make learning more difficult for students with disabilities like vision impairment.
It is easy to gather from the publications below that even elite universities have work to do in order to make their online courses fully ADA-compliant and accessible to all students. Following are summaries from some of the leading research and opinion on developing and implementing ADA-compliant online courses that are accessible to all.
Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD Affiliate Professor, College of Education and Founder and Director, DO-IT Center and UW Access Technology Center at the University of Washington
A highly respected and published voice in disability rights as they pertain to higher education, in 2017 Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler wrote an article exploring why accessibility is so critical in online learning. According to the piece, more than 16 major universities, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and MIT have faced lawsuits due to the inaccessibility of their institutions’ technology, including the learning management systems used to deliver online course content. Dr. Burgstahler goes on to outline some important terminology in learning accessibility, and give actionable tips to educators who are developing online course content.
In addition to her publications, Dr. Burgstahler founded and directs the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center and the Access Technology Center (ATC) at the University of Washington.
ADA Compliance for Online Course Design
Jane K. Seale, PhD Professor of Education, The Open University
Dr. Jane K. Seale has published two editions of her leading book in the area of online learning and accessibility: E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice. In the second edition of her book, Dr. Seale addresses questions around which stakeholder voices are truly being heard in the development of accessible online learning technology and which remain silenced. From Dr. Seale’s perspective, it is only by continuing to critically examine how these stakeholders (disabled students, lecturers, learning technologists, student support services, staff developers and senior managers) think about compliance and solutions that institutions can shift the status quo in favor of accessibility.
E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research & Practice
Tali Heiman, PhD
Professor, Department of Education and Psychology, the Open University of Israel
Catherine S. Fichten, PhD
Professor, Dawson College & Adaptech Research Network
Dorit Olenik-Shemesh, PhD
Professor, Department of Education and Psychology, the Open University of Israel
In their article for Education and Information Technologies, Drs. Heiman, Fichten, and Olenik-Shemesh explore the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) by students with disabilities. Here it is important to note that the term ICT can be applied broadly to the use of various types of communication technology, including email, instant messaging, and online learning management systems. The article compares the availability and use of ICTs in both a traditional classroom setting and an online learning context. As noted, the majority of clinicians recommend that students with learning disabilities in particular can benefit from the use of ICTs in their education. The comparison finds that in an online learning context, students report a higher instance of use of ICTs, both by themselves and by their professors, and increased accessibility to these important technologies.
Access and perceived ICT usability among students with disabilities attending higher education institutions
Jessie Male PhD Student, Ohio State University
While not a traditional academic article, a recent interview from Inside Higher Ed points to Ohio State University PhD student Jessie Male as an important voice in online learning and accessibility. In preparing to teach an online course aptly titled Introduction to Disability Studies, Male has made it her goal to develop an accessible course from the ground up, documenting her “access moves.” As Male points out, online courses can be accessible but only if the course designer deliberately makes them so by captioning videos, giving students options as to how to engage with content, and lowering the costs of course materials, amongst other things. Male’s course strategy is based on the idea of universal design, which as the label implies, means a course designed for everyone. Says Male, “I am very interested in ideas of universal design and not only building an online curriculum specifically for students with disabilities, but for students who might not be able to access an on-site education space for an array of reasons, whether it’s child care, temporary illness, disability or any other circumstance. It’s interesting to think about how many different students can be further accommodated by an online curriculum.”
‘Access Moves’: How One Instructor Seeks Accessibility
Kaela Parks Director of Disability Services at Portland Community College
In 2016, Kaela Parks, the Director of Disability Services at Portland Community College, was interviewed for the site Disability Compliance for Higher Education. In her role, Ms. Parks has determined a few key directives that can help institutions ensure the accessibility of their online courses, including:
- Offering ongoing accessibility training to faculty that is specific to their field
- Engaging the entire campus, including faculty and staff outside of the disability services office, in the pursuit of accessibility
- Giving students multiple technology and communication options to fulfill the needs of all types of learners
Arguably, every place of higher learning should have an office devoted to accessibility and accommodation for students with disabilities, but it is only when that office is able to influence policy across campus, as Ms. Parks has done, that learning can start to move towards total accessibility.
Being truly technologically accessible starts with engaging whole campus
Katherine Terras, PhD
Associate Professor, Special Education Program, Department of Teaching and Learning, University of North Dakota
Joseph Leggio, PhD
Amy Phillips, PhD
Fargo Site Coordinator, Minot State University, Department of Addiction Studies, Psychology, and Social Work
In their article for the Journal for Postsecondary Education and Disability, Drs.Terras, Leggio, and Phillips explore how essential self-advocacy in online learning is for students who face disabilities. While some accommodations, such as larger text for the visually impaired, are baked into online learning, others need to be put into place by instructors, particularly when courses do not adhere to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. One of the more important insights from this study is that while self-accommodation is important for students facing disability-related challenges, it is also critical that instructors be approachable and amenable to making accommodations in their online courses in order to allow all students to succeed.
Disability Accommodations in Online Courses: The Graduate Student Experience
Lucy Barnard-Brak, PhD Associate Professor, Educational Psychology & Leadership, Texas Tech University
Tracey Sulak, PhD Clinical Associate Professor in Educational Psychology, Baylor University
Online learning, particularly when delivered in an asynchronous format, can be naturally more accommodating to students with disabilities who may need more time on assignments, more time to process lectures, or have trouble concentrating for extended periods. In their study, Drs. Barnard-Brak and Sulak examine whether higher education students are better able to request the accommodations they need for success in an online or a classroom format. While both formats proved accomodating in this case, students who had a visible disability were more comfortable requesting the accommodations that they needed in an online modality.
Online Versus Face-to-Face Accommodations Among College Students With Disabilities