Magazine article Distance Learning

Improving Distance Education for Disabled Students: Making the GRADE

Magazine article Distance Learning

Improving Distance Education for Disabled Students: Making the GRADE

Article excerpt


According to the American Community Survey, 19.5 million or 9.9% of Americans aged 16-64 have disabilities (United States Census Bureau, 2013). The American Community Survey divides disabilities into six basic types: visual, hearing, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living (United States Census Bureau, 2008). Although legislation has transformed the lives of many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, there are still obstacles to individuals living life to its fullest. Higher education students with disabilities can not only identify with the barriers in their physical environment, but also the barriers in teaching and learning. Postsecondary schools are required to provide academic adjustments so that students are not discriminated against due to their disability.

Twenty-six percent of students with mobility disabilities accessed distance education courses more frequently than their nondisabled peers (Radford, 2011). For disabled students, online distance education programs that are committed to understanding students with disabilities will have course designers who are knowledgeable about accessibility and universal design for learning. It is important that all faculty and staff in the field of higher education have appropriate training on how to design distance education courses to be accessible and meet the needs of the disabled students who are enrolled.


The Georgia Tech Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA), through the College of Architecture, is a multidisciplinary research center that concentrates on improving the lives of individuals with disabilities through developing and implementing universal design principles and assistive technologies. Within this center a research project entitled Georgia Tech Research on Accessible Distance Education (GRADE) was funded by a grant from the Office of Post-Secondary Education (OPE) at the United States Department of Education. CATEA's features of GRADE were to enhance the lives of individuals with disabilities by providing research, technical assistance, and training on accessibility of distance education materials.


GRADE's website features include a free, 10-module tutorial on how to create accessible distance education by way of the Access elearning tutorial. Course design modules provide "how-to" models of accessible design for courses that could be challenging to individuals due to the content. As a result of this, courses were identified with accessibility issues which resulted in proposed solutions for access for those students with disabilities. Examples of these solutions included providing web-based HTML versions of courses, using consistent navigation that is logical in sequence, and the inclusion of text descriptions for PowerPoint slides such as graphics, charts, and tables. For each sound file within a course a transcript should be made available for students to access. When using videos, captions should be included, and if mathematics courses are being offered through distance education, including a Word document that contains explanations of equations and references that are needed to complete mathematical functions are needed.


Within the GRADE Project, fact sheets are provided for any individual wanting to learn more about specific disabilities accessing distance education. These fact sheets include deaf or hard of hearing (Figure 1), blind or low vision, and seizure disorders. For course designers and instructors, fact sheets on creating accessible webpages, word documents, e-mail, and Adobe PDF files are also available for free. Each fact sheet lays the foundation for accessibility problems, identifies solutions with examples, and lists additional resources. One reference that course designers and instructors are recommended to access regularly is for a more comprehensive listing of accessibilities issues and the solutions for distance education accessibility. …

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