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Clearing Up Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators: The Spirit of the Law and Online Learning Environments

Clearing Up Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators: The Spirit of the Law and Online Learning Environments
It is required by law for higher education institutions to remove “readily achievable” barriers to accessibility for disabled students, and the online learning environment is an excellent resource from which to remove barriers to adequately serve this group of non-traditional students.

There are three reasons why it is in your best interest to proactively ensure all distance education and online learning environments are accessible to all students. First and foremost, it is the law. Second, we have the tools and the know-how. Third and finally, a well-designed online learning environment, pedagogically engineered to support best practices, is synonymous with an accessible learning environment and, like curb cuts, such an environment has advantages for all learners.

This is the first of a three-part series exploring those aforementioned issues. In this article, I will discuss reason number one, the law.

The Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that if you are building a new environment that provides services to the public, you need to design that environment to be accessible to people with disabilities, in anticipation that the public you serve will include people with disabilities. The law also states that if there are inherent barriers in currently existing environments or spaces, you need to remove the barriers that are “readily achievable.” A failure to take such steps is against the law.

We are all familiar with how the law applies to physical spaces. Every time we use a curb cut or punch the button on an accessible door so it will open hands free, we are taking advantage of the regulations laid down by the ADA. But it is becoming more and more critical that Distance Education administrators understand the law also applies to educational spaces that are delivered online or through other distance methods such as video conference. Online education is one of the fastest growing learning environments in education. Online credit programs are seeing an average of 25 percent enrollment increases per year while their face-to-face counterparts are seeing enrollment remain essentially the same or, in some cases, decline. Given the broad definition of disability in the ADA and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, it is clear that you will have students with disabilities enrolled in your online programs. The question becomes, do you want to be proactive or reactive to that inevitability?

Disability is defined by the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, a record of such impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment.”

Major life activities-major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The ADA states, “Any place of education, open to the public is considered a public accommodation. All public accommodations must be equally accessible to individuals with disabilities as are they are to individuals without disabilities.” (Title III, 301, (7) (J)).

Recent complaints filed by students with disabilities with the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights against three major universities cite lack of access for students with disabilities in online learning environments as being an unfairly discriminatory practice. The most recent complaint highlights the foundation of the problem. In September, 2012, a student with visual impairment at the University of Montana filed a complaint because online courses and courses with online components in the school’s Learning Management System (LMS), Moodle, were not accessible to him. Specifically, the student cited inaccessible documents, live chats, and discussion board functions, as well as, inaccessible videos, and videos that were not captioned. What this case points out is that the University of Montana built a learning environment, using Moodle as the foundation, and that learning environment was not accessible to students with disabilities.

There were two reasons for the lack of accessibility:

  1. The LMS did not have the appropriate built-in software to make the necessary components within it accessible
  2. The professor was not sure how to compensate for that lack of tools within the learning environment, so he/she designed the space without considering they might need to find tools to make the environment more accessible.

If you are going to build new learning environments in technology supported spaces such as online environments, you must consider making them accessible from the inception. It has to be a priority, just as when you are building a building from the ground up, you must ensure that the building is accessible to students with disabilities. Learning environments are no different under the law.

In other words, we need to proactively build “curb cuts” in our online learning environments, whether the environment is part of a course that is on-campus or whether it is distance delivered. A proactive approach would ensure that all students will have equal access to the materials and content, making it more likely that an inability to connect with the course materials and activities is not a function of a poorly designed learning environment, and leaving little room for potential litigation.

The spirit of ADA, 1990, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, is a call to any entity serving the public to make reasonable, readily achievable accommodations for all members of the public, including those who may have a disability. If “readily achievable” is a burden, only then can the entity consider alternative methods. Asking students with disabilities to complete an extra step that you are not asking of the rest of the class is a common practice, but not best practice, according to the law. By doing so, we are treating every accommodation as a “burden” and putting the burden on the student to bring the necessary accommodation to our attention. In our current reactive/retrofit mode, we ask students with disabilities to take the extra step of going to the Disability Support Services Office to report their disability, before we make the learning environment accessible to them. We also effectively exclude students with disabilities from participation if they have to wait for materials to be provided in a different format, while the rest of the class moves on. This is problematic and discriminatory, but the best we can do in a reactive mode.

However, even in reactive mode, we can get into trouble. In 2011, Strayer University was found to be out of compliance because it did not have standard procedures for providing accommodations to students with disabilities; it did not provide an accommodation to a student with a visual impairment such as eReaders and mp3 descriptions of graphs and charts, and it had an inaccessible website and online portal. This student was locked out from the beginning, given that many of her classes were offered online or had online components.

It is true that we can do our best to ensure that all of our environments are accessible to all students, and still there will be the one or two students whose needs were not anticipated. For these unique students, we would need the assistance of specialists to help us find the most appropriate way to accommodate them. That is why it is critical to have strong collaborative relationships with the office of Disability Support Services. Every campus has one and too often, the Distance Education Director is not familiar with their services, and visa versa. In 2010, a student enrolled in online courses at Florida’s American Intercontinental University filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights because her online professors were not aware of her need for accommodations, even though she had filed with the office for students with disabilities on the main campus. Further, the college did not provide the accommodations because they did not think the student would need them in an online course. They did not activate the interactive process whereby they obtain information from the student regarding the student’s needs.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Distance Education Director to determine how to ensure that all online environments will be accessible to all students. It is also their responsibility to ensure faculty understand the guidelines for building accessible environments, and students know the process and procedures for accessing accommodations when those accommodations are not built in to the learning environment.


  1. Complete an assessment of your online and distance delivered learning environments to ensure they are accessible or that faculty is aware that they should be accessible.
  2. Collaborate with your Disability Support Services Office to determine how you can proactively meet the needs of students with disabilities in your learning environment. Be sure you have an obvious path or signpost showing students how to access the Disability Services Office from your web pages and your courses.
  3. Work together with your Disability Support Services Office whenever choosing a new learning environment such as an LMS or any component tools of your learning environments.

Keep your eyes open for the second part of this series, “Clearing Up Accessibility for Distance Education Administrators: Accommodating the New Students”.

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