Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

Steps toward Making Distance Learning Accessible to Students and Instructors with Disabilities

Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

Steps toward Making Distance Learning Accessible to Students and Instructors with Disabilities

Article excerpt

Distance learning courses have been in existence since the nineteenth century, beginning with correspondence using printed materials and postal mail, and progressing to include television and most recently the Internet. The widespread availability and flexibility of the Internet has led to an explosion of online offerings worldwide (Waits & Lewis, 2003). However, most of these courses erect barriers for some students and instructors with disabilities. For example, content within graphic images is not accessible to someone who is blind and using a text-to-speech system that reads aloud only text. The content of video presentations is not accessible to someone who is deaf unless captions or transcriptions are provided. Some inaccessible features also present barriers to students and instructors without disabilities who have slow Internet connections, use older technology, or whose native language is not the one in which the course is taught. The goal of distance learning programs to make education available to anyone anywhere at any time, cannot be realized unless courses are designed to be accessible to all potential students, including those with disabilities. Current published research and other literature in the distance learning arena rarely even address disability-related issues (Kinash, Crichton, & Kim-Rupnow, 2004; Schmetzke, 2001).

In this article, the authors share the scope of a project and ongoing efforts of a university to proactively address accessibility issues in its central Distance Learning program, with a focus on universal design and systemic change Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004). The authors also share lessons learned that can be applied in other programs that embrace the goal of making their Internet-based courses accessible to all students and instructors.


The University of Washington (UW) established its Distance Learning program in 1912. Over the years, courses were delivered using postal mail, FAX, and telephone communication. In 1995, the Distance Learning program delivered its first course on the Internet. Taught by Drs. Sheryl Burgstahler and Norm Coombs, who is blind, care was taken to assure that all course content was available in accessible formats, including video presentations, Web pages, student assignments, and exams (Burgstahler, 1997). By 2000, all Distance Learning courses were Internet-based. Now, the UW Distance Learning program offers more than 300 online courses that serve more than 10,000 students each year.

UW Distance Learning tools for discussions, assignment submission, and peer review, as well as electronic tools, strategies, and training for faculty were developed in collaboration with the central UW computing services organization, Computing & Communications, and the Educational Technology Group. The Educational Technology Group has a long history of working closely with the University's Access Technology Lab, a campus-wide service unit within UW Accessible Technology Services and Outreach of Computing & Communications. Therefore, tools they develop include features whose application results in courses that are accessible to people with disabilities, as long as accessible design principles are applied by course design staff. UW Distance Learning course design is simple and straightforward, with few layers and links to follow.

As technology developed, UW courses that were primarily text-based were revised to include multi-media. In this process, the UW Distance Learning program became increasingly aware of the fact that many of its courses were not fully accessible to potential students with disabilities because of the inaccessible design of some content (e. g., graphics without text descriptions) and communication methods (e.g., telephone conferencing). The problem identified by the authors of this article was that current UW Distance Learning policies and procedures did not address accessibility issues and ultimately assure that courses met the University's legal and ethical obligations to offer programs in such a way that they are accessible to students and staff with disabilities. …

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