Volume XI Number 1, August 2005

Steps Toward Making Distance Learning Accessible to Students and Instructors with Disabilities

Sheryl Burgstahler
Director, UW Accessible Technology Services and Outreach University of Washington
Bill Corrigan
Director, Distance Learning Design University of Washington
Joan McCarter
Continuing Education Specialist, Distance Learning Design University of Washington


The Internet provides unparalleled opportunities for people around the globe to gain knowledge and learn new skills. However, some people with disabilities cannot fully participate as instructors or students in existing distance learning courses because of the inaccessible design of these courses. The University of Washington (UW) Distance Learning program teamed up with UW Accessible Technology Services and Outreach in a project to identify and implement systemic changes in policies and procedures to improve the accessibility of the UW Distance Learning courses. The authors of this article define the scope of the project and discuss ongoing efforts and lessons learned so that other programs might benefit from their experiences. It is expected that such changes in policies and procedures will, ultimately, lead to programs that are more accessible to students and instructors with disabilities.

Distance learning courses have been in existence since the nineteenth century, beginning with correspondence using printed materials and postal mail, and progressing to include television and most recently the Internet. The widespread availability and flexibility of the Internet has led to an explosion of online offerings worldwide (Waits & Lewis, 2003). However, most of these courses erect barriers for some students and instructors with disabilities. For example, content within graphic images is not accessible to someone who is blind and using a text-to-speech system that reads aloud only text. The content of video presentations is not accessible to someone who is deaf unless captions or transcriptions are provided. Some inaccessible features also present barriers to students and instructors without disabilities who have slow Internet connections, use older technology, or whose native language is not the one in which the course is taught. The goal of distance learning programs to make education available to anyone anywhere at any time, cannot be realized unless courses are designed to be accessible to all potential students, including those with disabilities. Current published research and other literature in the distance learning arena rarely even address disability-related issues (Kinash, Crichton, & Kim-Rupnow, 2004; Schmetzke, 2001).

In this article, the authors share the scope of a project and ongoing efforts of a university to proactively address accessibility issues in its central Distance Learning program, with a focus on universal design and systemic change Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004). The authors also share lessons learned that can be applied in other programs that embrace the goal of making their Internet-based courses accessible to all students and instructors.


The University of Washington (UW) established its Distance Learning program in 1912. Over the years, courses were delivered using postal mail, FAX, and telephone communication. In 1995, the Distance Learning program delivered its first course on the Internet. Taught by Drs. Sheryl Burgstahler and Norm Coombs, who is blind, care was taken to assure that all course content was available in accessible formats, including video presentations, Web pages, student assignments, and exams (Burgstahler, 1997). By 2000, all Distance Learning courses were Internet-based. Now, the UW Distance Learning program offers more than 300 online courses that serve more than 10,000 students each year.

UW Distance Learning tools for discussions, assignment submission, and peer review, as well as electronic tools, strategies, and training for faculty were developed in collaboration with the central UW computing services organization, Computing & Communications, and the Educational Technology Group. The Educational Technology Group has a long history of working closely with the University’s Access Technology Lab, a campus-wide service unit within UW Accessible Technology Services and Outreach of Computing & Communications. Therefore, tools they develop include features whose application results in courses that are accessible to people with disabilities, as long as accessible design principles are applied by course design staff. UW Distance Learning course design is simple and straightforward, with few layers and links to follow.

As technology developed, UW courses that were primarily text-based were revised to include multi-media. In this process, the UW Distance Learning program became increasingly aware of the fact that many of its courses were not fully accessible to potential students with disabilities because of the inaccessible design of some content (e. g., graphics without text descriptions) and communication methods (e.g., telephone conferencing). The problem identified by the authors of this article was that current UW Distance Learning policies and procedures did not address accessibility issues and ultimately assure that courses met the University’s legal and ethical obligations to offer programs in such a way that they are accessible to students and staff with disabilities.


In response to the problem identified, leaders in the Distance Learning Accessibility Project worked together to identify and implement changes to policies and procedures that would lead to more accessible distance learning course offerings. Rather than focus on individual courses, they chose to institutionalize policies and practices in order to assure the accessibility of future courses to all potential students and instructors. Their ultimate goal was to maximize program access and minimize the need for special accommodations.

The Project was a collaboration of UW Distance Learning, the UW Access Technology Lab, and DO-IT. DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, http://www.washington.edu/doit) is a national center that promotes the use of accessible technology, sponsors the Alliance for Access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (AccessSTEM), and co-sponsors the National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education (AccessIT).

Leaders of the Distance Learning Accessibility Project were the authors of this article – Bill Corrigan, Director of Distance Learning Design; Joan McCarter, Continuing Education Specialist, Distance Learning Design; and Sheryl Burgstahler, Director of UW Accessible Technology Services and Outreach (which includes direction of DO-IT, the Access Technology Lab, and co-direction of AccessIT). Project leaders embraced universal design as a framework for their efforts. “Universal design” is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design (North Carolina State University, 1997). In the field of distance learning, when the range of characteristics of potential students and instructors is considered and universal design principles are applied, all students and instructors can fully participate (Burgstahler, 2002), just as sensors that automatically open doors in grocery stores are usable by those who walk independently, push baby strollers, are large or small in stature, use wheelchairs, experience weakness because of age or disability, or are carrying an armful if items. Universal design is simply good, flexible design.

Leaders of the UW Distance Learning Accessibility Project met regularly and, over time, identified the scope of the Project to include developing policies and procedures to assure that:


The Distance Learning director secured the support of the Vice Provost of UW Educational Outreach (UWEO), the department’s parent organization, to help determine the direction of the unit in establishing accessibility policies and guidelines. The careful review of UW policies and consultation with the University’s ADA compliance officer assured Project leaders of UW’s commitment to nondiscrimination and reasonable accommodations and to, specifically, meeting its obligations under Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). UW Distance Learning staff simply embraced accessible course design as one aspect of meeting its Section 504 and ADA obligations.

Once the commitment to accessibility was secured, there was a need to identify guidelines or standards for course accessibility. By the time the reported Project was undertaken, Computing & Communications, with the assistance of DO-IT, had developed a website devoted to guidelines and resources for making Web pages accessible (see http://www.washington.edu/computing/accessible/). Through a review of relevant legislation, state and University policies, and discussions of administrators as the site was developed, it was decided to first look to the federal Section 508 standards to use as campus guidelines and then to the more in-depth guidelines and resources provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (1999). Distance Learning Accessibility Project leaders embraced this university-wide resource as the primary resource for course development designers and instructors, focusing on assuring that Section 508 standards are met. This decision was made because of the wide adoption of Section 508 not only as standards for federal agencies, but also as standards and guidelines for other states, thus resulting in a rich set of web-based resources supporting Section 508. Distance Learning staff also wanted their efforts to be consistent with those of other campus units and to avoid the vast commitment of staff time, expertise, and effort required to adopt guidelines unique to their unit.


B efore the accessibility efforts reported in this article were undertaken, the UW Distance Learning website included a policy statement regarding the provision of reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and a link to contact information for Disabled Student Services (see http://www.outreach.washington.edu/ol/handbook/resources.asp#disability). The program did not, however, include a statement about a commitment to the design of accessible courses for students. Thus, it promoted the notion that accessibility was something to be addressed only by providing accommodations for a specific student once enrolled in course. As a result of the Distance Learning Accessibility Project, a new statement regarding a commitment to accessible design was added to the online student handbook. The statement reads: “We strive to make our online courses accessible to everyone. We specifically consider design features that make our courses accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those using assistive technology for computer access.” (http://www.outreach.washington.edu/ol/handbook/start.asp#access) A link to course design staff assigned to deal with access barriers is also provided. This wording and link provides students with a mechanism to deliver accessibility barrier reports that can be used to guide design staff.

The UW Distance Learning Director continues to work with staff outside the department that create and maintain the non-course pages, such as marketing and catalog sites, to increase accessibility on those pages. This aspect of the Project is ongoing. Efforts in this area will assure that prospective students have full access to all program information presented on the Web.


UW Distance Learning staff participated in an accessibility training session with DO-IT staff as a part of its AccessIT project. The training included an overview of legal issues, examples of course accessibility barriers faced by students with disabilities, a demonstration of an application of each of the Section 508 web accessibility standards, a review of the content provided on the UW web accessibility website, and resources for support, including the disabled students services office, disability services, UW staff training options, and the Access Technology Lab. For some, the fact that the University was legally obligated to make its courses accessible to students with disabilities was new information. Others found out the specific barriers caused by design features of some courses. The most discussion occurred during the presentation of applications of the Section 508 standards.

Follow-up and ongoing technical support was provided by the Access Technology Lab. Most of this occurs through telephone and email communication. Access Technology Lab staff continue to work with the Educational Technology Group to promote accessible tools and course materials that are used by the UW Distance Learning program. Access Technology Lab staff also continue to deliver stand-alone accessibility presentations and promote the integration of accessibility content into mainstream Web and other technology classes campus-wide; these training options are also available to distance learning designers. In response to the interest of distance learning designers as well as other web designers, a campus-wide “accessibleweb” discussion list was established for those interested in this topic. Meetings of the group are held monthly. Members of the UW Distance Learning design team participate in the list.

As part of the Distance Learning Accessibility Project, UW Distance Learning staff created accessible Web page templates and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that are used for all Distance Learning courses to assure compliance with accessibility guidelines. The use of templates standardizes and simplifies the formatting of each page; since accessibility considerations are built in, it takes the design staff less time and effort to create accessible pages. CSS-based formatting simplifies navigation, making courses accessible to screen readers and easy to navigate using a keyboard alone. The design includes skip-navigation links for site visitors using text-only browsers or screen-readers, text alternatives for graphics images, and page elements such as tables that are designed to be accessible.

Web pages for distance learning course designers now include a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, and a link to UW guidelines regarding accessibility. It reads, “We are responsible for creating Web pages that are accessible to users with visual, auditory, and/or motor impairments. People with visual impairments rely on screen readers to read Web pages aloud, and our HTML must be formatted so that screen readers can follow it. For people with auditory disabilities, transcripts of auditory files must be provided (speech to text software makes this relatively easy). Our navigation must be such that people with motor disabilities are able to follow links.”


The UW distance learning program information pages for faculty tell how to refer students with disabilities in need of accommodations to the campus unit that provides this service. They also state the program commitment to accessible design: “UWEO course materials are designed to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. Course materials are accessible to students who are blind or have low vision, who cannot navigate using a mouse, or who have a hearing impairment.” (http://www.outreach.washington.edu/teaching/online_instructor_training/InstrTraining/disabilities.html) Instructors teach from materials that have already been created with universal design principles applied by design staff. Distance learning design staff consult with instructors who want to add elements to the courses they teach, assuring that these materials meet accessibility guidelines.

During this Project, staff began to review the content of courses and assure that access issues are included when appropriate. For example, accessibility issues are now discussed in an introductory Web development course and accessible design is required in the final course project. In addition, accessibility content is included in courses and certificate programs with curricula on Web and instructional design. This effort is ongoing.


The UW Distance Learning team conducts a four-staged Quality Assurance Review including a peer or subject matter expert review, an instructional content review, a Web page review, and a final technical review. As a result of the Distance Learning Accessibility Project, this review process now includes standards on accessibility in the final three processes. Program staff assess the accessibility of course elements, and, if the course is providing instruction on Web design, determine if accessible design is being taught. Typical problems include course elements or activities such as chat or audio conferences that might not be accessible to all learners, or overly complex graphics or tables that are difficult for adaptive technologies to present.

Subsequent quality assurance tests ensure that the technology and delivery methods of the course materials are accessible. Staff use checklists developed from the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as well as automated coding validation tools to check for technical issues. Through this process the materials are vetted and revised to assure that finished products meet accessibility standards. As noted earlier, a mechanism for inviting and responding to accessibility barrier reports from students was established and will be used to make course improvements.


Although the ultimate goal for UW Distance Learning is for all courses to be accessible to students with disabilities, the reported project focused only on changes in policies and procedures that will likely move the program closer to this goal. Below, the authors of this article summarize outcomes of the Distance Learning Accessibility Project that relate to systemic changes in policies and procedures.

Accessibility Policy, Guidelines, and Administrative Buy-in: An indicator that the reported Project will have a long-term impact is the support of administrators who consider delivering accessible courses as an ethical as well as a legal obligation under ADA and Section 504. Another positive step is the program adoption of the Web accessibility guidelines of the University.

Students and Potential Students: In order for student reports of accessibility barriers to guide design staff in the future, a mechanism needed to be established to gather such input. Remaining unchanged is the original statement that tells students where to direct requests for reasonable accommodations with a link to Disabled Student Services. Together, these two statements make it clear that the program is committed to universal design, but provides access to resources for students with disabilities who still require accommodations. Program Web pages for students and potential students now include a statement about the commitment to the design of accessible courses and a link to distance learning technical staff assigned to deal with access issues.

Distance Learning Designers: The Distance Learning intranet and other documentation used by instructional design staff contain a statement of the program’s commitment to accessibility and links to UW guidelines and resources for accessible design. Discussions on accessible design practice occur regularly in staff training. Design staff routinely use accessible course templates and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Ongoing technical support to designers is provided by the Access Technology Lab. Distance Learning staff actively participate in the “accessibleweb” discussion list and monthly meetings.

Instructors: Instructors of new courses teach from materials that have already been created with universal design principles applied by design staff; UW Distance Learning staff provide consultation to instructors on accessibility of course elements. Instructor information pages tell where to refer students with disabilities in need of accommodations and encourage them to use accessible websites in their courses. A statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility and a link to campus guidelines regarding accessibility is included on Web pages for instructors.

Assessment: Routine course assessments conducted by UW Distance Learning staff include tests for accessibility. Course content is reviewed both for potential accessibility issues and to ensure that accessibility issues are addressed in the course if appropriate to the content. Through this process the materials are vetted and revised to make sure that finished product meets department standards. Older courses are monitored for accessibility through the regular revision process and the program takes actions to improve the accessibility of these courses.

Recognition: Local recognition of the accessibility efforts of the UW Distance Learning program came through a campus-wide award in recognition of its accessibility efforts. In addition, the Project was recognized nationally for its efforts in making its courses accessible by the Sloan-Consortium (2004).


Through funding from the U.W. Department of Education (grant #P333A020044), DO-IT developed The National Center on Accessible Distance Learning (AccessDL) to provide guidance and resources to other distance learning programs. This Center supports discussion lists and provides publications, videos, websites, resource centers, promising practices, and research. On the AccessDL website (http://www.washington.edu/doit/Resources/accessdl.html) are directions for joining electronic communities for distance learning personnel to communicate with their colleagues world-wide regarding accessibility issues. The website also includes a carefully-selected set of resources on accessible distance learning, under the broad headings of Overview Publications, Streaming Video Presentations, Training, Resource Centers, Promising Practices, Course Management Software, Web Editors, and Research.


Project staff found that planning for access as courses are being developed is easier and therefore less expensive than redesigning inaccessible courses or developing accommodation strategies once a student with a disability enrolls in a course. Embedding accessibility requirements into policies and procedures for designers and instructors is one step toward assuring that accessibility issues are considered as courses are developed.

Project staff also learned that creating accessible distance learning courses is an ongoing effort, not a one-time project. Therefore, it is important that, besides initial training, there is provision for ongoing technical support and resources. They also found that meetings and online communication as part of a user group focused on accessibility issues is motivating to staff and helps address some of the support issues. To assure ongoing product improvements, Project staff instituted mechanisms for input from students with disabilities and procedures for considering accessibility in its established assessment routines.

Challenges encountered in the Project include getting a diverse and large community to work together and consistently, gaining faculty and staff buy-in, and overcoming technical problems such as presenting streaming media, coding math characters, and dealing with PDF files. (Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004). The experiences of the University of Washington suggest a number of strategies to counter these challenges, including integration of accessibility issues into all training and documentation for instructors and staff and making choices on technology and software purchases that support the easy development of accessible materials. In addition, the authors suggest that to promote accessibility of courses, distance learning programs obtain buy-in and support from the administration and include key stakeholders—including students with disabilities through feedback mechanisms—in the decision-making process. As reported in Internet and Higher Education (Burgstahler, Corrigan, & McCarter, 2004) they should also address the following issues:


With an ultimate goal of the accessibility of all courses, Project staff recommend that distance learning programs include in their efforts a thorough analysis of its existing policies and procedures and incorporate accessibility issues as appropriate. Employing universal design principles as Internet-based distance learning courses are created can bring us closer to making learning accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time.


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Waits, T., & Lewis, L. (2003). Distance education at degree-granting postsecondary institutions: 2000-2001. U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 2003-017. Retrieved February 10, 2005, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2003017

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The content of this article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (Cooperative Agreement #HRD-0227995) and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education (Grant #P333A020044) and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (#H133D010306). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the federal government.

Burgstahler, S., Corrigan, B., McCarter, J. (2005). Steps toward making distance learning accessible to students and instructors with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 11(1).