Among students with certain disabilities, distance learning is often preferable to brick-and-mortar courses for a variety of reasons. For one, those with social disorders don’t have to interact with others in person. And those with mental health problems who fear being stigmatized if others learn about their conditions don’t have to worry as much when they take online classes.

As institutions see their enrollment in online courses and programs swell, it’s imperative that they pay attention to online accessibility issues to avoid alienating students with a wide range of conditions, from attention deficits to traumatic brain injury, common among student-veterans.

Plus, students in traditional classes are increasingly finding that at least some course content is online. That content must be accessible as well.

A recent webinar by the Sloan Consortium addressed the issue of designing courses with accessibility in mind.

If your institution offers online courses or face-based courses with online components, the presenters’ strategies could help you ensure that content is accessible to the students your unit serves.

The issue of online accessibility often frightens faculty members and those in charge of designing online courses, said Kelly Hermann, the director of the Office of College Disability Services at Empire State College. She’s also a co-chair of an online and distance education special interest group at the Association on Higher Education And Disability.

Hermann’s co-presenters were Michel Miller, an assistant professor in special education at Drexel University and the co-chair of that institution’s accessibility committee; Keith Jervis, a disability services specialist for Penn State’s myriad campuses and the interim director of Penn State’s Office for Disability Services; and Cyndi Rowland, the director of WebAIM at Utah State University and the technology director of The National Center on Disability and Access to Education.

Address need for online accessibility

Because Empire State’s student population tends to be older, Hermann explained that many of its students have gone their entire lives with undiagnosed disabilities. Others may be struggling with identity issues related to what it means to have a disability and are not comfortable disclosing and seeking accommodations, she said.

That’s a point you should share with your instructors and curriculum developers.

Hermann explained that universal design doesn’t just help students with disabilities; it also makes the online learning environment more usable for all.

Finally, Hermann tries to create excitement around the issue of online accessibility by explaining that incorporating universal design principles into online courses is an opportunity for faculty members to exercise some creativity and to experiment with new strategies and technologies.

Provide strategies for accessible design

At Penn State, an online, self-paced course for faculty members helps them understand the accessibility issues distance learners may face, Jervis said.

Meanwhile, Rowland tells instructors and course designers to think about their own online experiences. For her, inconsistent navigation schemes in websites are a major source of frustration. Forms that return “error” messages when filled out incorrectly but don’t explain where the error is or reload completely blank are also frustrating.

“Know your students and forget the label,” she added. “Think through the unique problems each may face.”

She suggested creating a multi-modal learning experience so students can access course content in whatever way works best for them.

“Make sure users can fully take control of your content and transform it in a way that is not going to break and that will not result in losing content,” she said.

Other strategies she promoted included making content explicit, chunking content, using plain language, reducing distractions, and keeping assistive technology in mind. On the more technical side, using form labels, alternative text, table headers, and logical heading structures are among the many accessibility-minded design standards promoted by groups like the World Wide Web Consortium.

However, Rowland also reminds faculty members that there isn’t a set of things that they can do in designing courses that will make their content accessible for all students.

For example, a strategy that poses a solution for one student can create a problem for another student, she said. That’s why it’s important to ensure instructors understand that no matter how accessible their courses are, some students will still need formal accommodations.

For more information, you may contact Kelly Hermann at; Keith Jervis at; Michel Miller at; and Cyndi Rowland at

Personas put faces to needs of distance learners with disabilities

Faculty members and instructional designers often think that building universal design strategies into online courses is a time-consuming task that helps very few students.

Michel Miller, an assistant professor in special education at Drexel University and the co-chair of that institution’s accessibility committee, tries to personalize the need to create online accessibility on the front end, when courses are being designed, by creating a set of “personas” to represent students.

“In the field of product design, the concept of user-centered design or products has emerged as a way to always be thinking of the needs of every person who will ever use the product,” she explained. “We don’t often consider the end user until one of our students is having accessibility issues in one of our courses.”

In those cases, it then becomes necessary to make materials accessible on the spot, which is a hassle for everyone and can be problematic from a technical standpoint.

She developed five different personas, or imaginary students. Two of those have invisible disabilities. For example, Jenny is a 21-year-old, third-year undergraduate business administration student who has difficulty with reading and linguistic and verbal comprehension.

A profile of Jenny includes her picture and a quote about her educational preferences: “I prefer to take classes on campus rather than online. That way, if I have difficulty understanding an assignment or lecture, I can ask my professor for clarification. I often find online course content confusing.”

The profile also includes a long and detailed list of educational strategies that work best for Jenny. Those include content that is structured with headings and bulleted lists; page layout that is simple, without distracting images and animations; and navigational elements that are in the same place on every page.

Matt, on the other hand, is a 24-year-old graduate engineering student who takes courses exclusively online. He has an autism spectrum disorder and says, “I like online courses because I don’t have to socially interact with other people in the class as much as in face-to-face classes. Also, online helps me avoid the sensory overload I experience in some physical environments.”

Some of the strategies that help him work best include when instructors provide information on how to get started and navigate courses; explain their expectations for discussion board interactions and group assignments; and refrain from the use of slang or sarcasm in audio content.

Miller encourages faculty members and instructional designers to hang posters with these personas on their walls when designing courses, so they always keep the needs of students like Jenny and Matt in mind. She’s also in the process of converting personas’ “works best” list of strategies into a checklist, so course designers can check things off as they build accessibility features into courses.