Volume VI Number 1, April 1999

Distance Education and Individuals with Disabilities

Ron Stewart
Coordinator, Northwest Center for Technology Access
Oregon State University

Legal Requirements

Educational institutions are governed by a variety of state and federal laws that impose the requirement that we provide "equal and equitable access" to our programs and services (For a listing of these laws and requirements). A series of recent legal rulings have further defined the "equal and equitable" requirement to mean that we must provide the exact same level of access to individuals with disabilities as we do to the nondisabled.

The very nature of Distance Education makes this burden complex and often difficult to comply with, but this complexity does not relieve us of our obligations under the law. If an individual with a disability chooses to participate in a school's distance offerings we must provide, as much as possible, the same level and type of services that we would provide a student in one of our campus based offerings. In asynchronous offerings such as web based courses the accessibility needs to be built into the product being offered, or an alternative must be offered that is comparable in content and access options (for a more detailed explanation of these factors see the Web Access Guidelines).

Specific Programmatic Obligations

Any student with a disability who participates in the Distance Education programs of a college or university must be guaranteed equal and equitable access to the program. If the location delivery system, or instructional methodology limit student access, participation, or ability to benefit, the student has a right to reasonable alterations in those aspects of the course (or program) to accommodate their disability, as long as it does not change the nature of the course. Each request for accommodation is judged on a case-by-case basis, and the presence of a disability does not always justify the need for an accommodation.


Any publication which describes services, programs, or activities must include a statement regarding availability in accessible formats. The opportunity to request accommodations based on an individual disability must be clearly specified in all registration/information materials.

Site Accessibility:

All program delivery sites must be wheelchair accessible. This accessibility must extend into the facility in which the participant will receive the program. If required to use a computer workstation there must be wheelchair accessible workstations available. For individuals with hearing impairments assistance listening devices must be available or the room must be wired with a hearing assistance system. For individuals with visual impairments alternative access to video presentation must be available.

Program Access:

Web pages

All web pages must be constructed in an accessible format. Web pages need to be designed to be accessible across multiple platforms (speech output, screen enlargers etc.). If media is in embedded into pages an accessible alternative must be provided in the form of descriptive text or captioning. (See the Web Access Guidelines)

Video workbooks

Video workbooks must be made accessible upon request. Captioning, either post production or real time is required and the method selected is dependent on the time between taping and delivery of the course. In the instance of a teleconference real time captioning is the preferred method of accommodation for the hearing impaired.

Interactive courses

Interactive video courses must take into consideration the possibility of a number of accommodations which may effect the structure and logistics of the course, such as placement of overheads, interpreters, real time captioning of the presentation, etc. Alternative format versions of all class materials must be made available.

Required Academic Accommodations:

Taped or electronic versions of the course texts must be available upon request. This may require a significant amount of lead time if the text is not available from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic and will need to be recorded. E-text or electronic texts are preferred due to the multiple access possibilities that these versions provide. In the case of complex graphs and pictures either tactile enhancement or descriptive text versions of these items need to accompany the Braille if they provide information necessary to the course content.

Braille versions of all printed materials must be available upon request. The production of Braille can be a time consuming process due to the complexity of the material being Brailled. In the case of complex graphs and pictures either tactile enhancement or descriptive text versions of these items need to accompany the Braille if they provide information necessary to the course content.

Enlarged versions of all written materials must be available upon request. The production of these materials requires several days to process, and the availability of magnifying copiers.

Notetakers may be needed in the case of lecture based courses in which comprehensive lecture notes are not available. Real-time captioning may be an acceptable alternative to this form of accommodation. In the near future this method may also be replaced by Natural Speech Recognition.

Interpreters (sign language and oral) may be needed in the case of lecture based presentations. Real time captioning may be an acceptable alternative to this form of accommodation, except in the instance of an individual with deaf-blindness.

Alternative testing must be made available based on the nature of the individuals disability. These accommodations can consist of:

Adaptive Technologies

A wide variety of technological accommodations need to be made available for participants at the distance sites. These technologies are specific to the delivery medium being used in the distance course, and multiple technologies may be necessary in a multi-modal delivery.

Access Technologies:

These technologies consist of magnifications systems and optical scanning systems which allow a user to access printed material in the case of a profound visual disability. Another area that must be addressed is hearing enhancement systems which can be installed in a room or be of a more individualized nature depending on the structure of the course. Alternative video audio output may also be necessary, and can range from a hand held camera or video recorder to an individualized viewing station.

Captioning technology needs to be incorporated into all video programming, with the exception of ITFS programming. For ITFS delivery, captioning or a reasonable alternative must be provided upon request. The appropriate captioning method will depend on the nature of the video programming. Close captioning for broadcast video, and real-time captioning for teleconferences are examples of typical required accommodations.


Adaptive Computer Technologies:

The area of adaptive computer technologies is very complex, but through the use of adaptive hardware and software there are virtually no disabilities that can not be accommodated, with the possible exception of profound deaf-blindness with accompanying tactile degeneration. The adaptive computer technologies that are used will depend on the nature of the material being distance delivered. Technology must be available that will support a variety of computer platforms including DOS, Windows, MAC OS, UNIX, Solaris, and high performance workstations. These technologies will consist of, but are not limited to:

Programmic Recommendations


UNIVERSITY SYSTEM requirement for all publications to contain a statement regarding accessible formats and who to contact to request accommodations by a specified date. The development and implementation of standardized web accessibility design guidelines to ensure that all web pages are fully accessible by individuals with disabilities.

Site Certification:

Development of UNIVERSITY SYSTEM policies and procedure by which all sites are evaluated according to established guidelines for access for individuals with disabilities and the establishment of procedural guidelines for overcoming the access limitations found.

Program Access and Academic Accommodations:

Development of SYSTEM LEVEL policies or procedures, which require all delivery systems (web, video etc.) to be readily accessible when an accommodation is needed and the development of a streamlined procedure to insure the prompt delivery of requested accommodations.

Development of SYSTEM LEVEL guidelines for institutional responsibility for the cost of providing accommodations. Who is responsible should be clearly defined especially when courses are collaboratively offered by programs and/or institutions.

Development of SYSTEM LEVEL guidelines for video programming which will be utilized more than once and the development of a centralized office to catalog accompanying classroom materials which may need to be provided in an alternative format.

Development of SYSTEM LEVEL guidelines for the procurement of equipment, software, maintenance and repair. The development of a centralized repository of adaptive software and hardware, and the development of a mechanism for the timely delivery and installation of required accommodation equipment and software in a receive location.

The development of an SYSTEM wide committee to oversee the accommodation requirements of individuals with disabilities who are involved in the distance programs of each institution

This document is a publication of the Technology Access Program at Oregon State University. It may be distributed so long as proper credit is given to the original source. This is a working document and as such is subject to revision. Please contact the Technology Access Program if you have any comments or questions. Take me to the TAP home page

Stewart, R. (1999). Distance education and individuals with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 6(1).