For hundreds of thousands of students across the United States, virtual schooling–instruction that takes place entirely online–has opened educational doors previously inaccessible. But for students who are blind, visually impaired, or who have certain other disabilities, cyber-education programs might actually create more barriers than they remove.

Bringing down those barriers was the objective addressed by a select group of special-education experts and industry executives who convened earlier this month at the National Summit on Disability and Distance Education in Washington, D.C. Their goal was to form an agenda that would help make the promise of virtual instruction a reality for the nation’s special-needs learners.

“Technology is a huge barrier for students with disabilities,” said conference leader Sarah Rule, director of the National Center on Disability and Access to Education. “Are we providing captioning for our deaf students who participate in live-video instruction? In a real-time virtual classroom, how do students with little or no use of their hands activate a microphone to participate in multi-site conversations? With increases in the use of online education, do people stop to think about how a blind student could take an online quiz or read class notes?”

In most schools across the country, the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” Although 95 percent of postsecondary institutions use the web to offer distance-education programs, only 18 percent of institutions make the content accessible to students with disabilities, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

At the K-12 level, this situation slowly is changing. Thanks in part to the No Child Left Behind Act, K-12 school systems now are charged with ensuring that mentally and physically disabled students reach the same achievement benchmarks as their peers.

The law’s effects could be felt at the college level, too, because it has provided new motivation for technology vendors (including makers of commercially available software for online instruction). Universally accessible solutions are available to more students, which broadens the potential customer base while simultaneously protecting lucrative school contracts from regulatory or policy sanctions.

Throughout the two-day conference in Washington, held May 11 and 12, stakeholders from industry and education discussed how online course materials–and the assistive technologies that often are required to access them–could be improved to accommodate all students, regardless of disability.

Experts suggested a three-pronged approach to the problem, including (a) broad shifts in public policy; (b) stronger, more ambitious professional development for distance educators and course designers; and (c) design changes to educational technology that would permit all students–including those with disabilities–to benefit from its use.

Accessibility vs. usability

To make distance-education programs fully accessible to all students, schools and their corporate partners first must address what speakers called a fundamental rift between accessibility and usability. Just because a solution adheres to a set of predetermined accessibility standards doesn’t necessarily mean the technology will make learning any easier on the student, participants said.

“The difference between accessible and usable–or easy and comfortable to use–is sometimes worlds apart,” said Norm Coombs, professor emeritus from the Rochester Institute of Technology and chief executive officer of EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), a provider of online technology training for persons with disabilities that has reached more than 4,000 people in three dozen countries since its inception in 1993.

Coombs, who is blind, said schools need to provide “direct” accessibility of hardware, software, and course materials, so that when students with disabilities log onto distance-education programs and other online learning resources, they are not required to jump through additional hoops before proceeding.

For example, frames and other elements of online course design can trip up a user’s screen-reading software. If visually impaired students must change or adjust the settings on their software each time they try to access various course materials, they’re already at a disadvantage when compared with their peers.

The answer, summit participants said, lies in the creation of distance-education solutions according to the principles of “universal design,” so materials are universally accessible to–and easily usable by–all students, regardless of their disability.

But that’s easier said than done. Distance-education providers and advocates for disabled learners are faced with several questions: Which set of standards should institutions follow when designing courseware that is universally accessible? How can schools be encouraged to adopt this practice? How can companies be encouraged to develop universally accessible ed-tech products?

Coombs was part of a working group that proposed solutions to these and other questions. Here are the group’s key recommendations:

  • Collect all existing accessibility standards in a single location for companies and schools to draw from. This collection of standards should include those spelled out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

  • Design a curriculum for schools to implement that teaches how to make web sites and online courses fully accessible. (Cyndi Rowland, project director for WebAIM, a project of Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, reported that her organization is already working on a version of this.)

  • Create a model reporting tool that students can use to inform schools of their non-compliance.

  • Persuade the accrediting institutions to consider whether a distance-education program is fully accessible before granting accreditation.

  • Create an awards or recognition program for universities that adopt best practices in accessibility, and share these best practices among schools nationwide.

Policy and funding

Funding is also a challenge, participants noted. Many argue that the time and money it takes to develop universally accessible distance-education solutions have precluded smaller vendors from entering the market. Without competition, these advocates contend, there is little or no motivation for larger providers to invest in improving their solutions. That often translates into bad news for disabled students, many of whom are forced to use tools that only loosely address their specific needs.

To raise public awareness of the issue–and influence those who hold the purse strings–summit participants called on stakeholders to take the conversation to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

“Disability access is often left out of public-policy discussions,” according to Hilary Goldmann of the Higher Education Information Technology Alliance, a group dedicated to pursuing the collective interests of libraries and colleges in matters of federal information technology policy.

Goldmann said the idea behind generating more interest in this policy strand is to connect the different revenue streams that can be used to feed disability and distance education.

That might be happening already on the federal level.

The summit took place just one day before the U.S. Senate passed a bill that aims to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the first time in its history, advocates of the bill say.

If the bill becomes law, the federal government would contribute 40 percent of the cost of educating the nation’s special-needs students–the full amount specified by the act–within the next seven years.

Lawmakers say the revised law would reduce the paperwork burden on teachers and would unite parents and schools to better meet the needs of children with disabilities. The program currently contributes $11 billion in federal money to special-education projects.

Summit participants also said they would petition lawmakers to address the accessibility of distance-education courses when Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act in the coming months.


National Center on Disability and Access to Education

EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information

WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind

Higher Education Information Technology Alliance