Distance Learning

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 do not always 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. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and 2008 amendments require that people with disabilities have equal access to public programs and services. According to this legislation, 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. 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 him.

But, what is required to ensure that a distance learning class taught over the Internet complies with the ADA? 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. Described below are examples of access challenges faced by students and instructors in typical distance learning courses.

Visual Impairments

A student or instructor who is blind may use a computer equipped with text-to-speech 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 multi-media web browser. He cannot interpret graphics unless text alternatives are provided. For example, his speech system 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 web page at a time. Consequently, he is confused when web pages are cluttered and when page layout changes 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 and process information. Students with learning disabilities often use audio recorded 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 web sites 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 video presentations 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.

Universal Design

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 ensure 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" 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 product developers, architects, environmental designers, and engineers established a set of principles of universal design to apply in the design of products, environments, and communication and other electronic systems. 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; and the design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.

When universal design principles are applied, 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, native language, ethnicity, and gender. All of the potential characteristics of participants should be considered when developing a distance learning course. Just as modern sidewalks and buildings are designed to be used by everyone, including those who use wheelchairs, distance learning designers should create learning environments that allow all potential students and instructors to fully participate.

The next sections of this publication provide examples of strategies for making distance learning courses accessible to everyone. Be sure to include a statement on all program promotional materials about how to obtain materials in alternate format and how to obtain disability-related accommodations.

On-Site Instruction

The interactive video sessions, proctored examinations, and retreats for students in some distance learning courses require place-bound meetings. In these cases, the facility should be wheelchair accessible, the furniture should be flexible enough to accommodate wheelchair-users, and 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 read aloud and describe text and other visual materials for those who cannot see them.

Internet-based Communication

Some distance learning programs employ real-time communication in their courses. In this case, students communicate synchronously (at the same time), as compared to asynchronously (not necessarily at the same time). Besides providing scheduling challenges, synchronous communication is difficult or impossible for someone who cannot communicate quickly. For example, a student with a learning disability who takes a long time to compose her thoughts or a student whose input method is slow may not be fully included in the discussion. In addition, some communication software erects barriers for individuals who are blind. Instructors who choose to use such tools for small group interaction 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 in a group can fully participate using a planned tool.

Text-based, asynchronous resources such as email, bulletin boards, and email-based distribution lists generally erect no special barriers for students with disabilities. If a prerequisite to a course is for students to have access to electronic mail, the instructor can assume that participants with disabilities already have an accessible email program to use. Email communication between individual students, course administration staff, the instructor, guest speakers, and other students is accessible to all parties, regardless of disability.

Web Pages

Applying universal design principles makes web pages accessible to individuals with a wide range of disabilities.

There are basically two approaches for making web page content and navigation accessible. Certain types of inaccessible data and features need to be avoided or alternative methods need to be provided for carrying out the function or accessing the content provided through an inaccessible feature or format. 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 using development tools, such as Blackboard™, can employ product accessibility tools to create accessible courses.

Printed Materials

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. Making the content of printed materials available in an accessible web-based format may provide the best solution for students who cannot read standard printed materials.

Video Presentations

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 distance learning program should have a system in place to accommodate students who have sensory impairments. For example, the institution could hire someone local to the student to describe the visual material to a blind student or to sign audio material for a student who is deaf. Real-time captioning (developed at the time of the presentation) or sign language interpreting should be provided for videoconferences when requested by participants who are deaf.

Telephone Conferences

Sometimes, online courses include telephone conferencing opportunities for discussion in small groups. This mode of communication creates scheduling challenges for everyone. It is also inaccessible to a student who is deaf. Instructors who use telephone conferencing for small group discussions should allow alternative communication (e.g., email) that is accessible to everyone in a specific group. Alternatively, a student who is deaf might be able to participate in a telephone conference by using the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS), where an operator types what the speakers say for the deaf student to view on his text telephone (TTY) and translates his printed input into speech, however this system might be too slow to allow participation in lively conversations. Another accommodation approach involves setting up a private chat room on the web. A transcriptionist types the conversation for the deaf student to view. The student can also type his contributions into the chat room and they can be voiced by someone in the group who is monitoring the chat room. Various options should be discussed with the student for whom the teaching tool is inaccessible.

Benefits of Accessible Design for People without Disabilities

People without disabilities may have temporary and/or situational constraints that are similar to those imposed by disabilities. For example, people who cannot access graphics due to computer system limitations are in a similar situation as students who are blind. A noisy environment that prohibits the use of audio features imposes constraints similar to those faced by students with hearing impairments. Those for whom English is a second language experience reading difficulties similar to those experienced by people with some types of learning disabilities. Individuals using monochrome monitors face limitations like those who are colorblind. People who need to operate a computer but whose hands are occupied with other activities face challenges similar to those who use a hands-free input method because of a disability.

Ten Indicators of Distance Learning Program Accessibility

Based on a review of the literature, experiences creating distance learning courses that are accessible to potential students and instructors with disabilities, and work with distance learning administrators nationwide, ten indicators of accessible distance learning programs were identified. The Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators (DLP Accessibility Indicators) can be used as a checklist for documenting programmatic changes that lead to improved accessibility of the courses of any distance-learning program. In an iterative process, the Indicators were shared with and refined with formative feedback from disabled student service and distance learning staff at sixteen postsecondary institutions as part of the DO-IT Admin project.

For Students and Potential Students

Distance learning programs committed to accessibility assure that students and potential students know of the programs' commitment to accessible design, how to report inaccessible design features they discover, how to request accommodations, and how to obtain alternate formats of printed materials; the distance learning home page is accessible and all online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

__ 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 websites along with contact information for reporting inaccessible design features.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 3. A statement about how distance learning students with disabilities can request accommodations is included in appropriate publications and web pages.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 4. A statement about how people can obtain alternate formats of printed materials is included in publications.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 5. The online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

For Distance Learning Designers

Distance learning programs that are committed to accessibility assure that course designers understand the program's commitment to accessibility, have access to guidelines and resources; and learn about accessibility in training provided to course designers. 

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 6. Publications and web pages for distance learning course designers include: a) a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 7. Accessibility issues are covered in regular course designer training.

For Distance Learning Instructors

In distance learning programs committed to accessibility, publications and web pages for distance learning instructors include a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, guidelines regarding accessibility, and resources; and training for instructors includes accessibility content.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 8. Publications and web pages for distance learning instructors include: a) a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 9. Accessibility issues are covered in training sessions for instructors.

For Program Evaluators

Distance learning programs committed to accessibility have systems in place to monitor accessibility efforts and make adjustments based on evaluation results.

__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 10. A system is in place to monitor the accessibility of courses and, based on this evaluation, the program takes actions to improve the accessibility of specific courses as well as update information and training given to potential students, current students, course designers and instructors.

Related Links 

More Information

Explore DO-IT Publications, Knowledge Base articles, and websites on this topic at Accommodation Resources: Distance Learning. For a comprehensive list of resources nationwide, consult our resources for making distance learning accessible. To learn about accommodations for a specific disability, select from the list below.


The content of this web page was adapted with permission from Burgstahler, S. (2012). Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone. Seattle: University of Washington.