Internet-based distance-learning courses have the potential to make learning opportunities available to anyone. This potential cannot be realized, however, unless everyone can truly access course offerings. People in rural areas and from poor communities are among those underrepresented in the group of people who benefit from new technological developments. The rapid development of assistive technology makes it possible for almost anyone to operate a computer (2006 Closing the Gap, 2006). Yet many individuals with disabilities do not have access to these empowering tools (Kay, 2000). Some people with disabilities who have access to computers, assistive technology, and the Internet, still cannot fully participate in distance-learning courses because of their inaccessible design. For example, people who are blind often use text-to-speech systems that locate text that appears on the screen and read it aloud to the user. Because this technology cannot “read” graphics, it does not verbalize information embedded within graphic images. Therefore, people who are blind cannot access this content unless it is provided in a text-only format as well.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 mandate that no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination in public programs and services, unless it would pose an undue burden to do so. Such programs include distance-learning options offered by postsecondary institutions and other entities. A Department of Justice ruling (ADA Accessibility, 1996) clarified that accessibility requirements apply to programs offered on the Internet by stating, “Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well.” Clearly, if qualified individuals with disabilities enroll in distance-learning courses or are qualified to teach them, these opportunities should be made accessible to them. However, the inaccessible design of many Web-based distance-learning courses erects barriers to people with some types of disabilities (Schmetzke, 2001; Waits & Lewis, 2003).
If a student who is blind accesses a Web-based course that does not have text descriptions of content embedded in graphic images, he will need special accommodations in order to access the content. Similarly, if an applicant who is blind is the best candidate to teach a Web-based course that has been developed without text alternatives for content displayed using graphics, the course will need to be modified in order for him/her to teach it. In both cases, if planning for access was done as the course was being developed, costly redesign and/or accommodations would not be necessary.
Simple design decisions can be made to ensure accessibility to potential students and instructors with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Called “universal design,” this approach results in “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.” (Mace, n. d., p. 1) The concept of universal design was first applied to architecture, but has more recently been applied to the design of household appliances, Web sites, instructional techniques, and many other products and environments (e.g., Bar & Galluzzo, 1999; Bowe, 2000; Burgstahler, 2006c). By considering the wide range of characteristics of potential students and instructors during all stages of the course design process, distance-learning designers can create learning environments that are accessible to all participants, just as sidewalks with curb cuts are not only used by people who use wheelchairs, but also by people pushing delivery carts and baby strollers.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Person with a Disability: Any “person who (a) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (b) has record of such an impairment, or (c) is regarded as having such an impairment. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.” (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990)
Universal Design: “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.” (Mace, n. d., p. 1)
Information Technology: “Any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information.” Information technology includes “computers, ancillary equipment, software, firmware and similar procedures.” (Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, 2000, p. 80499)
Accommodation: An adjustment made or service provided so that an individual with a disability can access a physical environment, activity, or service. Examples include sign language interpreters, materials printed in Braille, and extra time on exams.
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML): A language used to organize and present content on Web pages, structuring text into headings, paragraphs, lists, hypertext links, etc.
Assistive Technology: “Any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” (Technology-Related Assistance, 1988). Examples of assistive technology include wheelchairs, hand controls for automobiles, communication aids, leg braces, hearing aids, and alternatives to computer keyboards.
Accessible: When a product, information, or environment can be used by a person with a disability, with or without assistive technology.