Visit Modern Campus

Creating an Institutional Culture that Embraces Accessibility and Supports Online Student Success

Educators and administrators must overcome the belief that a disabled student may never enroll in their courses and create high-quality programming that is open-access across all delivery formats. Image by Peshkova.

More than 1 billion people in world today have a disability (World Health Organization, 2011). In the United States, 54 million people have a disability representing 19 percent of the civilian non-institutional population (US Census, 2010). Within higher education, it is reported that 11 percent of students report having a disability (GAO, 2009). Disability percentages can be further broken down into physical, mental, and communication domains found in extensive tables and charts online and in reports. However, educational leaders must not simply view these percentages as data sets. A paradigm shift is needed and higher education institutions must collectively begin to see these percentages as individuals.

Accessibility and online student success requires an institutional commitment that begins with the first point of contact a potential student has with a college or university through marketing, admissions, matriculation, and graduation. Accessibility must go beyond legal compliance because of concerns about possible litigation. It must also not simply default to faculty teaching in online programs. There needs to be a transition from the underlying question of “What are the chances of having a student who is blind or deaf in one of our online courses?” to the collective question of “How can we ensure as an institution that all of our courses and support services are accessible to all students regardless of delivery format?”

An institutional commitment to accessibility must become part of the institutional culture with a commitment across all divisions, offices, services, and programs.

The Office of Disability Services, Marketing & Communications, and Legal Counsel are often the most well-versed in the area of accessibility across most colleges and universities. Concurrently, other parts of an institution may have a limited understanding of federal regulations and/or how their division or office can proactively support online students with disabilities directly and indirectly. The article “ADA Compliance Is a ‘Major Vulnerability’ for Online Programs” (2010) states “Many universities may be vulnerable to complaints about accessibility issues in online courses because of the decentralized way they handle compliance with a federal law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination” “(Parry, n.p.). The reality is that is all courses and programs, regardless of format (online, hybrid/blended, on campus), can make an institution vulnerable.

Who is truly responsible for course content and delivery in regards to accessibility? Does this responsibility fall under faculty, instructional designers, program chairs, Deans, Academic Affairs, Office of Disability Services, Office of Information Technology Services, Center of Online Learning, Institute for Faculty Development, etc.? Is it a shared responsibility? Recognizing that the ubiquity of technology has and will continue to transform course content and delivery, accessibility must be embraced with the same passion, intentionality, and commitment as innovation. Colleges and universities must develop policies, guidelines, and best practices that become part of the institutional culture to support accessibility and student success starting with the hiring process and further supported through professional development and collaborative initiatives.Randy Bass’ article “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education” (2012) challenges educators to expand the concept of teaching from a Traditional Support Model to a Team Based Model. As shared by Bass, the Team Based Model brings together instructional experts from across the campus to collaborate with faculty so “not all of the burden falls on the instructor” (p. 30). It is this Team Based Model approach that is needed to create and sustain an institutional culture that embraces accessibility and supports online student success.

Online education is now a part of the fabric of higher education. Enrollments in online programs grew from 229,363 to 2,139,714 between 2001 to 2009, representing a 832 percent increase (Burnsed, 2010). Projections indicate online enrollments will continue to increase reaching 25 million by 2015 (Nagel, 2011). A growing percentage of these online enrollments will include students with disabilities. As shared by Sean Zdenek (2009), “Students with disabilities are in danger of being either excluded from the new media revolution  or accommodated as after-thoughts of pedagogies that fail to anticipate their needs” (n.p.). How colleges and universities move forward with accessibility and online student success relating to academic programming and student services will be critical.

As described by Bass (2012), disruption of higher education comes “not from the outside but from our own practices….” Therefore, colleges and universities should consider how a Team Based Model can be developed to support accessibility and online student success from a cultural approach. It has been said that “It takes a village to raise child.” It can also be said that “It takes a campus to graduate a student.”

Kristen Betts will be presenting “From Compliance to Culture: Building an Effective Infrastructure to Support Accessibility and Online Student Success on October 11, 2012 at the Annual Sloan Consortium Conference on Online Learning. To learn more about the issue, please visit the Sloan-C Special Interest Group for Integrating Accessibility into Online Higher Education here.

– – – –


World Health Organization. (2011). World report on disability. World Bank. Malta. Retrieved from

US Census. (2010, May 26). Profile America Facts for Features: 20th Anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

US Government Accountability Office. (2009, October). Education needs a coordinated approach to improve its assistance to schools in supporting students . World Bank. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Parry, M. (2010, November 12). ADA compliance is a ‘major vulnerability’ for online programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Bass, R. (2012, March 21). Disrupting ourselves: The problem of learning in higher education. Retrieved from

Burnsed, B. (2010, September 22). Online degrees: Learn more before you enroll. US News & World Report.

Nagel, D. (2011, November 26). Online learning set for explosive growth as traditional classrooms decline. Ambient Insight. Retrieved from

Zdenek, S. (2009) College students on the margins in the new media classroom. Accessible Rhetoric. Retrieved from

Note: Eduventures Roundtable:

Part I: Understanding the Law – Online Higher Education and Accessibility

Part II: Working Towards Good Practice – Integrating Accessibility into Mainstream and Next Generation Online Higher Education