Accessibility in eLearning Environments

Accessibility in eLearning environments has several components – 1) legal requirements of ADA, 2) best practices in instructional design, and 3) use of assistive technologies.

The philosophy of Universal Design for Learning is one of the most comprehensive in order to meet the needs of diverse learners.  Courses designed to integrate UDL philosophies go beyond the legal requirements of accessibility, and provide a richer learning experience for all students.  Technically, an online course that is entirely text-based can be considered to be legally “accessible.”  However it is not a good learning experience for students.  Engaging richly with content, with fellow students and with faculty, can be supported by multimedia and technology tools.

Affective networks - the why of learning. Engagement, for purposeful, motivated learners, stimulate interest and motivation for learning. Recognition networks: the what of learning. Representation, for resourcesful, knowledgeable learners, present information and content in different ways. Strategic networks: the how of learning. Action and expression, for strategic, goal-directed learners, differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.

The primary laws that are involved in compliance for online accessibility are sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA), and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, or IDEA, does not apply to institutions of higher education (Thomas, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2011; U.S. Department of Justice, 2014; Waddell, 2007).

Though there is a lack of understanding in within higher education institutions about what the specific requirements are for accessible online courses, recent consent decrees have made the expectations more explicit.  All online courses, and indeed any content posted online for any course as well as Learning Management Systems and other technology systems are subject to the expectations of the communication standards from Title II and Title III.  Functionally, this means that learning materials have been determined to be “communication” and therefore must be accessible previous to any requests for accommodation (Office of Civil Rights Compliance Review, 2014).

(1) access the same information, (2) engage in the same interactions, and (3) make use of the same services regardless of their disability.

The functional definition of accessibility is that courses enable students to (1) access the same information, (2) engage in the same interactions, and (3) make use of the same services regardless of their disability.

Chronologically, the RA was the first explicit law protecting students with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability for recipient institutions – those receiving Federal financial assistance.  Title II of the ADA explicitly extends this to state and local governments, including all public colleges and universities.  Both 504 of the RA and title II of the ADA do not provide any funding support (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).   The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) enforces both of these laws (Thomas, 2002).  The OCR responds to complaints and can also proactively audit institutions.

The definitions of what individuals qualify as disabled are similar in both laws.   Under both RA and ADA, an individual with a disability is defined as having a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as learning), has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment” (Thomas, 2002, p. 30-31).  Though section 504 includes the use of the term “otherwise qualified”, this has no substantive difference in how the laws are applied (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights; U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, n.d.; Thomas, 2002).

Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities that receive federal funding. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all public entities, including public colleges and universities, regardless of whether they receive federal funding. Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation,including private postsecondary institutions.

Consent Decrees and What They Teach Us About Legal Accessibility Obligations

Recent consent decrees have been far more explicit about expectations for online, blended/hybrid, and web-supplemental courses.  Chief among these has been the interpretation that online course materials and even Learning Management Systems are subject to the expectations of the communication standards from Title II and Title III.  Functionally, this means that learning materials have been determined to be “communication” and therefore must be accessible previous to any requests for accommodation (Office of Civil Rights Compliance Review, 2014).

In a settlement between Pennsylvania State University and the National Federation for the Blind in 2011, online educational materials were explicitly noted as part of EIT.  EIT “electronic and information technology” includes “internet and intranet websites, electronic books and electronic book reading systems… course management systems, classroom technology and multimedia” (Office of Civil Rights, n.d., para. 8).

In 2013, an agreement was reached between the U.S. DOE and Louisiana Tech University for violations of Title II of the ADA regarding an online practice and testing product created by Pearson Publishers that was inaccessible to a blind student (U.S. Department of Justice, 2013). The result of a recent compliance review in 2014 with the University of Cincinnati binds that university to creating and implementing a procedure to “ensure that EIT and information obtained through EIT provided or developed by third parties is accessible” (Office of Civil Rights Compliance Review, 2014, p. 3).  It goes on to state that all future EIT purchases or use of “third-party websites, services, or products will provide equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology” (Office of Civil Rights Compliance Review, 2014, p. 3).  This requires higher education institutions to not only ensure that the technology and online learning systems that they use are accessible, but that future technology purchases are accessible, and any publisher content or use of third-party resources are also accessible.

The following resources about legal settlements in higher education are linked below.  Keep in mind that as many of these are news articles, some links may be broken.

So how do you ensure that online courses are accessible?  With help of course!  There are many institutions that have been discovering and sharing best practices for how to design online courses to be accessible from the ground up.

View this great presentation by Colleen Fleming shares some ways in which you can ensure accessibility in your online courses. Be sure to also read the accompanying notes.

There are also many checklists and guides that colleges and universities use to guide faculty when designing and developing online courses.  

Web Accessibility

Web accessibility is another concern in online courses.  Because the materials and interactions are online, there are standards across websites that are necessary to meet in online education as well.

World Wide Web Consortium logoThe World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is a community of developers worldwide that develops open source standards for web development.  The standards they publish for accessibility are widely used when evaluating the accessibility of websites.  You can find W3C’s explanation of web accessibility guidelines here.

Accommodations in Online Environments

It is important to note that accommodations can be used if internet media cannot be made accessible proactively (Patrick, 1996; U.S. Department of Education, 2011).  Where accessible technology is not available, colleges and universities can still comply by providing  “accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner” (U.S. Department of Education, 2011, p. 7).  Note that the accommodation or modification can be provided “where accessible technology is not available” – it does not refer to cases wherein accessible technology is available but is simply not utilized.

Throughout the field there are some common accommodations that are used in online courses.  This 2 page document from Sam Houston State University that explains what common accommodations are within the field.

JAWS is a type of screenreader; screenreaders are a common accommodation used for learners with sight challenges.  Wonder what experiencing a website or an online course is like for someone who uses a screenreader?  This video example that shows what it’s like to navigate the internet through the use of JAWS.

What roles are involved in ensuring accessibility?  Typically, learning experience designers (LXDs) or instructional designers (IDs) will pro-actively address accessibility in newly designed and built courses.  There is often a department previously built to address accessibility on-campus that often addresses accessibility in online environments.  Examples of titles of these departments are Office of Accessibility Services, like at Emory University, Disability Services at Rio Salado, and Southern New Hampshire University’s Disability Resource Center.  Here is an example of an organizational chart for the Office of Accessibility Services at Texas State:

Office of Disability Services Organizational Chart from Texas State
Office of Disability Services Org Chart from:

Many roles exist, from directors, to assistant directors, down to personnel responsible for closed captioning.  Building accessibility into online environments is complex.  Retrofitting learning experiences after they have been designed is far more time intensive and expensive than creating experiences to be accessible up-front.