The Accessibility of Distance Learning


"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." -- Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web



Go to NBC.com and close your eyes.  Have a friend read just the text (no images) on the web page to you.  Try navigating the site with just verbal commands.  Difficult? Now open your eyes.  Was there information on the site that you did not "hear"?  If you found this exercise a challenge you have just joined the 1,100,000 blind people living in the United States who encounter these barriers every time they go online.  You have also gotten a good introduction to the issue of web accessibility 


This E-Learning Knowledge Brief  will provide you with an overview of the issues relating to use of the Web by those with disabilities and how these issues relate to distance learning.  Whether you are a disabled student, online course designer or school administrator you should find this information useful as you become more involved in the world of e-learning.


The Web Paradox: Doorway or Barrier?

The Web and all of its thousands of applications hold great potential as an equalizer for those with disabilities.  Being able to access your bank account without having to navigate a sidewalk or communicate with a friend without using special text telephones are major revolutions for those who cannot walk or hear.  Possibly the most significant revolution is taking place in the area of education.  The opportunity to attend college or obtain an advanced degree online will have a lasting and long term positive impact on the disabled as well as society at large. 


The revolution is no less significant than the ramps and handicapped-accessible entrances that now provide the disabled with physical access to libraries, schools and other public facilities.  But what if, in our rush to put in the ramps, we had made them too steep to be used or the entrances to narrow to fit through?  Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened with the Web and, in some cases, distance learning courses.


Those with disabilities use a range of assistive technologies such as screen reader software, Braille displays, and alternative pointing and clicking devices to interact with computers and the Web.  These devices can provide the disabled with access to all of the powerful applications that the Web has to offer.  The only catch is that the web pages have to be designed with the disabled in mind to ensure that the assistive technologies they use will work.  For example, screen reader software can do a great job with text but cannot read or interpret images.  Therefore, web pages that rely heavily on images to convey information can present a major barrier to those who are visual impaired.  By simply designing the web page to include "alternative text HTML tags" along with the images it is possible to include text descriptions of the images right on the page.  The screen reader software can then use this information to explain the image to the user.  You can see how this works by placing your mouse pointer over the image of the women in a wheelchair above.  Leave the pointer on the image for a few seconds and you will see the "alt text" appear in a small box.  This shows that by applying simply design standards to web pages it is possible to make them accessible to all, including the disabled.


Web accessibility standards and testing

Although they are gaining more recognition, standards for ensuring that a web page is accessible to those with disabilities have not been in the "dot.com" spotlight over the past few years.  One of the most well known and highly developed is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 created by theWorld Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to provide web page developers with guidelines for web accessibility issues.  The W3C is an organization of over 500 member groups that develops common protocols which promote the Web's evolution and ensure interoperability.  The guidelines are rather technical in nature but in general suggest:

Images & animations. Use the "alt text" attribute to describe the function of each visual.


Multimedia. Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.

Hypertext links. Use text that makes sense when read out of context. For example, avoid "click here."

Scripts, applets, & plug-ins. Provide alternative content in case active features are inaccessible or unsupported.

Tables. Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize tables when possible.


U.S. government organizations have also developed web accessibility standards in order to ensure compliance with new laws (see next section).  The Section 508 Standards , for example, have been developed to implement Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  These standards are much more general than the W3C guidelines but provide a minimum level of accessibility under this particular law.


Developing these types of accessibility standards is clearly the first step towards addressing the problem.  Now that they are available, it is becoming increasingly important that users and organizations have a way of testing or evaluating how compliant their web page may or may not be.  There are a range of software tools and Internet services that can be used to conduct this type of testing.  The W3C maintains a fairly comprehensive list of these tools , many which are free to use.  One of the most well known testing tools is called Bobbywhich will evaluate a site based on either the W3C guidelines or the Section 508 Standards.  A free "web scan" tool on their web page allows you to evaluate a specific web page; a useful tool for those evaluated online course sites for accessibility.  That said, it is important to note the limitations of such automated tools as they are far from being 100% accurate.  They are best used to identify general problems and help designers catch oversights.


What does the law say?

There is unfortunately no quick answer to this question.  At present, there are three laws which have significant bearing on the issue of accessibility and in particular in how it applies to distance learning programs.  Since these are relatively new laws, there are more questions than answers as to how they may be applied and the ultimate ramifications they hold for the distance learning community. 


One of the most well know laws that deals with disabilities is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 .  This law prohibits discrimination based on disability by public entities, including public education institutions.  Under this law public entities must furnish aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or create an undue burden.  Although the courts are still interpreting the implications of this law, there have been several cases concerning access to the Internet.  These seem to indicate that public education institutions (e.g. state universities, community colleges, etc.) must ensure that students with disabilities have access to the Internet that is as effective as the access provide to non-disabled students.  This clearly has major ramifications for disabled distance learning students who are enrolled in public institutions as it requires that they have  "effective" access to the web-based educational content being offered.  Whether this means that institutions will be forced to implement standards such as those developed by the W3C is something that is still unknown.  Over the next few years precedent setting court cases will decide the issue. 


There are two additional laws that have bearing on the issue of web accessibility and distance learning.  These are Section 504 and the amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Section 504 basically prohibits the same discrimination based on disability as the ADA Act but extends it to any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.  This includes public as well as private colleges, universities or other postsecondary institutions of higher education.  The implication is that any college or university receiving Federal funds must also make their programs, including distance learning courses, accessible to those with disabilities.  Since most private colleges and universities receive Federal funding, many but not all, must adhere to this law.


Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is probably the most directly related to distance learning.  This amended section requires all federal agencies to give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.  The law specifically applies when agencies develop, procure, maintain or use electronic and information technology.  What does this all mean?  Basically, all federal agencies must ensure that the technology-based products and services that they purchase, develop or maintain are accessible to those with disabilities.  This include an online learning services or products.  Why is this important?  Although the law does not directly impact organizations outside the federal government it will force those who sell products and services to federal agencies to address accessibility issues.  The hope is that this will draw attention to accessibility issues through a wide range of industries and speed the movement to provide access to all.


Final thoughts

Many web designers and web-based organizations question the cost in time and effort of adhering to web accessibility standards.  These are the same financial arguments that were made against the installation of entrance ramps and handicapped-accessible facilities over the past decades.  What those who pose these arguments fail to see is that the cost of leaving resources, such as education, inaccessible is actual many times greater than the small investment needed to make them accessible to all.  As it is through these resources that the disabled are able to become part of society rather than requiring its support.

As Tim Berners-Lee noted in the quote at the beginning of this brief, the power of the Internet is not the technology itself but its ability to connect people and their knowledge in our ever growing global society.  The Internet thrives on diversity but starves on discrimination.  By providing accessible on-ramps to the Information Superhighway we are ensuring that the technology is used to its fullest potential; not just by the disabled but by everyone.



Author: Joshua Baron is the Director of Academic Technology and eLearning at Marist College. Joshua has been both a student of distance learning as well as a developer of online content and an online instructor.