Web Accessibility Policy for Students with Disabilities in U.S. Postsecondary Distance Education

Web Accessibility Policy for Students with Disabilities in U.S. Postsecondary Distance Education

Heidi L. Wilkes (Northeastern University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-782-9.ch022
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Abstract

“Web accessibility” is the ability to access information online. In distance education, most instructional material is located online, and anything that prevents a person from accessing these materials becomes a barrier to distance education. Demand for distance education is growing, and the Web is the most common mechanism for its delivery. Not all Websites are accessible, despite the availability of design guidelines. The purpose of this chapter is to inform Web accessibility policy decisions at U.S. postsecondary institutions by increasing the awareness of Web accessibility issues in distance education, examining societal implications, and discussing methods for improvement. This chapter also reviews the current U.S. legal context and provides alternative cost-justification and cost-benefit frameworks for consideration by policymakers.
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Introduction

Distance education combines technology and pedagogy to break down the barriers of time and place, enabling students to enroll in and complete coursework from any location with a computer and an Internet connection. The flexibility provided by distance education is a substantial benefit to students who cannot, or prefer not to, travel to a physical campus. However, one group of students—those with disabilities—is overlooked when it comes to distance education at many postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

“Web accessibility” is the ability to access information on the World Wide Web, or the Internet. In distance education today, most instructional material and related information is located online. Anything that prevents a person from accessing this content becomes a barrier to distance education. It is possible to reduce these barriers, but it is a challenge to gain attention and support for Web accessibility policy because it involves technology that can be difficult to comprehend, and students with disabilities represent a relatively small portion of the population.

Why are Web accessibility measures needed in U.S. postsecondary education, and what are the policy consequences in U.S. postsecondary distance education? Web accessibility measures are needed because they reduce barriers to distance education for students with disabilities. Demand for distance education is growing, and the Web is the most common delivery mechanism for distance education. However, not all Websites are accessible, despite the availability of design guidelines. Web accessibility policy provides increased opportunities for learners and is consistent with the social justice principles of equal access and nondiscrimination. Web accessibility policy can be better understood through models of disability, alternative cost-benefit frameworks, and can be cost-justified using metrics such as social return on investment (social ROI) (Wilson & Rosenbaum, 2005). U.S. postsecondary institutions need to be aware of recent legislative changes, such as the reauthorization in 2008 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides the legal basis for a broader interpretation of disability and sets the stage for increased requests for accommodations by students with disabilities.

Web accessibility policymakers at U.S. postsecondary institutions face a myriad of challenges, including increased demand for distance education, alternative models of disability, unsympathetic socioeconomic paradigms, competing social theoretical perspectives, lack of technological understanding, and a changing legal environment.

This purpose of this chapter is to inform Web accessibility policy decisions at U.S. postsecondary institutions by increasing awareness of Web accessibility issues in distance learning, examining societal implications, and discussing methods to improve Web accessibility. This chapter also reviews the current U.S. legal context and provides alternative cost-justification and cost-benefit frameworks for consideration by policymakers.

Key Terms in this Chapter

DDA: Disability Discrimination Act, enacted by the U.K. Parliament in 1995

WCAG: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG 1.0 published in 1999 and WCAG 2.0 published in 2008.

Universal Instructional Design: A method of designing course materials, content, and instruction to benefit all learning styles. The principles of Universal Instructional Design promote equal access to learning for students from a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles. Similar to Universal Design and Universal Design of Instruction for Learning (UDI)

Models of Disability: Various models of disability are frameworks applied to understand and help classify disabilities and can also be used to determine service level provisions. These include The Medical Model, The Charity Model, The Administrative Model, The Social Model, and the Service Provision Model

Web Accessibility: According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, it means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging (World Wide Web Consortium, 2009)

Communitarian: Of or relating to social organization in small cooperative partially collectivist communities. communitarian (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009)

Universal Design: The process of creating products (devices, environments, systems, and processes), which are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, opera ting within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions, and circumstances). Universal design has two major components, first, designing products so they are flexible enough that they can be directly used (without requiring any assistive technologies or modifications) by people with the widest range of abilities and circumstances as is commercially practical given current materials, technologies, and knowledge and, second, designing products so they are compatible with the assistive technologies that might be used by those who cannot efficiently access and use the products directly (Trace Center, 1996)

Assistive Technology: devices (software or hardware) that help people with disabilities use computers and information technology. Also called adaptive technology.

ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act.

Accommodation: Something supplied for convenience or to satisfy a need (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009)

CRPD: United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

ADAAA: Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008.

Distance Education: Teaching and learning involving accessing information, communicating, collaborating, and completing course work online. Students and instructors are remotely located to each other and may communicate asynchronously, synchronously (in real-time), or by a combination. Also called distance learning

Postsecondary: The provision of a formal instructional program whose curriculum is designed primarily for students who are beyond the compulsory age for high school. This includes programs whose purpose is academic, vocational, and continuing professional education, and excludes avocational and adult basic education programs. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009)

Section 508 Guidelines for Web Accessibility: Section 508 requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities.

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