Accessibility in Online Education

ASCCC Online Education Committee Chair
ASCCC Online Education Committee Member

Beginning in 1999, when the Chancellor’s Office first created The California Virtual Campus to support development and delivery of online learning in California community colleges, community colleges have increasingly dedicated time and resources to online education.  Now, in the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act, community colleges have an obligation to grapple with challenges regarding ways to deliver an accessible classroom environment to all students, including students with disabilities.  

Over the years Disabled Student Programs and Services professionals have tried to support students with disabilities in an online environment without the necessary tools, supporting policies and procedures, or local supports for training instructors in the online classroom.  However, in the last few years the Office of Civil Rights has stepped in and taken a national scan of what providing an accessible environment means, who is responsible, steps to ensure compliance, and a close examination of the tools used to deliver instructional materials. In examining these issues, the Office of Civil Rights has discovered the following deficient areas:

  • Inaccessible class assignments and materials on the learning management system
  • Inaccessible live chat and discussion board functions in the learning management system
  • Inaccessible documents that are scanned images on webpages and websites
  • Inaccessible videos that are not captioned
  • Lack of alternative text on all images
  • Inaccessible course registration through a website
  • Inaccessible student enrollment systems

All of these areas can impede or prevent the creation of an accessible environment for students, and colleges must therefore work to address these problems in order to truly offer full access to all.

In recent settlements with universities and community colleges across the country, a clear definition of “accessible” has been developed:

“Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. A person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.--Resolution Agreement – OCR Docket #15-13-6001

This definition emphasizes the need to allow students with disabilities to engage in all class activities and to access all course materials and resources to the same degree as students without disabilities.  If colleges wish to create fully accessible educational environments for all, then such a definition must be the foundation of instructional design.

In the early years of online education, accessibility seemed very simple: the classes were predominantly if not entirely text based, and thus online classes were accessible to virtually all students.   Students with vision impairments could access the text with screen readers. As technologies improved, the interface became more graphical and more tools became available for faculty to use.  The needs for accessibility therefore changed. Unlike face-to-face classes, where accommodations such as note takers for students with visual impairments or interpreters for hearing impaired students are provided in the classroom, faculty in online classes frequently found themselves in the position of trying to identify accommodations for students without proper support or resources.

The results of this situation were, as one would expect, frustrating, and accommodations were difficult to provide in a timely manner.   Faculty scrambled to figure out ways to make text more useful for screen readers or to caption videos that they had used for years in both their face-to-face and online classes.  In many cases faculty were simply not able to provide accommodations and therefore could not use the technologies and resources they had discovered; the absence of close captioning, for example, doomed many videos that would have otherwise been a resource for students.  The absence of assistance or accessibility solutions became a genuine reason for not teaching a course in as robust a manner as it could otherwise have been.

The Online Teaching Conference held in San Diego in June 2015 demonstrated that these issues are being addressed. A series of questions were asked of the audience as a way to determine what steps were being taken at their colleges to ensure the college’s legal requirements were being met. The event revealed that progress has been made in many areas.

However, some of the concerns are yet to be addressed.  Many online faculty are part-time, which can inhibit their ability to make use of the resources that exist at their colleges or in some cases to even be aware of what resources exist.  And ultimately, many faculty are unaware of what needs to be done to make their courses accessible and ADA compliant.

Increased scrutiny from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has made online accessibility an issue that must be addressed.  Colleges must have policies on student authentication, regular and effective contact, and ADA compliance.   In order to ensure true accessibility, colleges have to look at their local processes with additional support from the system.  Some campus cultures may need to be tweaked in order to address accessibility.  The discussion should begin at the top leadership tier. College Board policies and procedures should reflect the institution’s commitment to accessibility.  Those policies and procedures should have been reviewed by the local academic senate.  Accessibility issues might also be addressed in the college’s current educational master plan, distance education plan, district technology, student equity plan, and student success and support program plan. These planning documents should work in concert to support student success and outline areas of responsibility on the campus.

Colleges have a legal obligation and responsibility to ensure that courses being provided are accessible to all students, regardless of disability or issue.  As such, colleges should have in place disability resource specialists or other professionals who can assist faculty in ensuring that their courses are ADA compliant.  These individuals might be part of the Disability Resource Services Center, the Faculty Resource Centers, or under the direction of the distance education coordinator, dean, or other administrator who oversees online instruction.  The support may even be under technology departments.   

If a college does not have these individuals in place that can ensure compliance, then this issue becomes both pedagogical and legal.  Faculty should have all available resources necessary to teach their classes, regardless of modality, and as such should have access to all necessary support through which to offer their courses.  If that means closed captioning videos, providing screen reading software, or transcribing lectures on podcasts, those services need to be available.  For captioning the state funded DECT grant can be found at

Faculty should also have regular access to professional development opportunities to learn about not only the services available but the types of materials that they can use in their online courses to make these services work even better for their students.  For example, a faculty member might be more likely to construct his or her syllabus using Microsoft Word in order to better facilitate a student’s ability to read the syllabus if the faculty member is aware that many of the extant screen reading software programs can read Microsoft Word documents but cannot easily read PDF files unless tagged for accessibility. Likewise, learning how to implement some basic accessibility skills, such as creating alt tags for images, might enable a faculty member to construct a text lecture with pictures in a manner that is more accessible to students who use screen readers. Ultimately, being familiar with what is required for an accessible course will help faculty ensure that their courses are compliant.

All colleges should review the 2011 Chancellor’s Office Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines, found at  College professional development committees should consider offering workshops on accessibility to allow faculty to become familiar with the requirements of accessibility and the types of resources that exist at the college.

The Online Education Initiative is working with pilot colleges in all phases to ensure that accessibility requirements are met and, when possible, exceeded.  Ultimately, however, accessibility is the responsibility of the college’s faculty, staff, and administration, and it is a responsibility that needs to be consciously addressed and supported at every college in the system.