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Providing Access to Students with Disabilities in Online Distance Education:
Legal, Technical, and Practical Considerations

Curtis D. Edmonds, J.D.
Georgia Institute of Technology

Online distance education is becoming increasingly prevalent, but many students with disabilities experience barriers to online education. Many stakeholders are unaware of potential electronic barriers to access, do not know the legal responsibility to provide access for students with disabilities, and are not familiar with the methods and resources needed to improve access to distance learning programs. This limits the courses available to students with disabilities, and impacts the quality of overall learning.

Introduction: Electronic Barriers to Students with Disabilities in Distance Learning

Prevalence of Distance Learning

In 1998-1999, the National Center on Educational Statistics conducted a comprehensive study of distance education programs in institutes of higher education. This study found that distance education is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent in both two-year and four-year institutions. Approximately one-third of all institutions surveyed offered distance education courses, and an additional fifth planned to add courses in the near future (Lewis, Snow, Farris and Levin, 1999). Figure 1 illustrates the data from this survey:

Figure 1: Institutions Offering or Planning to Offer Distance Education, 1997-1998.

  Public 2-year Private 2-year Public 4-year Private 4-year
Planning to Offer Distance Education 250 220 70 450
Offering Distance Education 760 60 480 390

Overall, approximately 1.6 million students were enrolled in distance learning courses in 1997-1998. Approximately 1.3 million of these students were taking courses for credit. These students were enrolled in approximately 54,000 courses, and slightly fewer than 50,000 of these courses were offered for credit. Eight percent of all institutions surveyed offered complete degree programs available through distance education degree programs, with a total of 1,230 programs being offered through distance education (Lewis, 1999).

The means by which institutions offer distance education is also changing, in response to new developments in technology. As of the survey date of 1998-99, many institutions were still using two-way interactive video or one-way prerecorded video for distance education. However, the use of asynchronous online distance learning tripled from 1995 to 1998, and institutions that reported plans to offer future distance education offerings indicated that they were looking towards increasing their use of the Internet (Lewis, 1999).

Although nationwide data are not yet available for the growth of online distance education options since 1999, the growth of distance education in the state of Oregon indicates that more and more courses are being offered in an online format. The Oregon University System reports that there were 3,170 students enrolled in 222 computer-based courses in 1998-1999. In 2001-2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 14,206 students enrolled in 1,436 courses. This represents an almost 350% increase in the number of students and an almost 550% increase in the number of courses. As a result of this increase in the number of online distance education courses, Oregon students are able to take a more diverse course load, add flexibility to their schedules, and to take courses that cater to the learning styles of the individual student. (Oregon University System, 2001).

Barriers to Participation for Students with Disabilities

Distance learning is an increasingly popular way for institutions of higher learning to deliver educational services to students. It is popular among students with disabilities as well; a Department of Education study found that 27.6% of students with disabilities surveyed were more satisfied with distance learning than online learning, compared to 22.1% of their nondisabled counterparts (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). However, distance education is also increasingly inaccessible to people with disabilities. The design of many distance learning courses offered by institutions of higher learning erects barriers to the full participation of students and instructors with some types of disabilities (Burgstahler, 2002).

One main concern is the integration of existing information technology with assistive technology devices utilized by people with disabilities. The federal government defines an assistive technology device as "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities" (29 United States Code § 3002(a)(3), 2000). Assistive technology use is widespread; the Assistivetech.net project (http://www.assistivetech.net/) at the Georgia Institute of Technology lists thousands of different devices in its online database, such as screen-reading software, speech-activated devices, specially adapted keyboards, and magnification tools. A 1994 National Center for Health Statistics study revealed that over 16 million Americans used some form of assistive technology (National Center for Health Statistics, 1994). However, there is no reliable source of information regarding the number of people using assistive technology, and as more and more technology becomes available at a rapid pace, the available information about persons who use assistive technology becomes quickly outdated (Carlson, 2001).

Although assistive technology for people with disabilities is prevalent, assistive technology alone does not remove all access barriers for students with disabilities in distance education. Distance education courses that are designed without planning for students who use assistive technology can result in barriers for those students. Poorly designed distance education courses can result in students with disabilities not being able to participate equally in academics or in career preparation (Burgstahler, 2002). Different strategies are needed to accommodate students with different disability types who use different types of information technology. Figure 2 illustrates the potential needs of students with varying types of disabilities, the potential barriers they face to distance education, and potential solutions that educators can use to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to online distance education.

Figure 2: Access to Electronic & Information Technology by Students with Disabilities

Disability Type

Assistive Technologies



Students who are blind

Use assistive technologies to access online services through screen reading software (JAWS, WindowEyes, Home Page Reader) or Braille refreshable display

Inability to access graphical information on Internet sites, difficulty in accessing formats such as Adobe PDF and Microsoft PowerPoint
Provide a text equivalent (alt tag) for every non-text element
Students with other visual impairments

May use other forms of assistive technology to access distance learning such as software that magnifies the screen

Difficulty reading tables and charts

Inability to make sense of pages when magnified

Design internet sites using relative rather than absolute values for width and height of rows and columns and images
Students with learning disabilities

May use speech output and/or screen enlargement system

May have difficulty understanding web sites when info is cluttered and when screen layout changes from one page to the next Designing accessible web pages results in better design for all
Students with mobility impairments

May use trackballs and other devices if keyboard access is an issue

May not be able to respond to pages such as online quizzes that call for a timed response

May have difficulty navigating pages with repetitive links

Allow users to adjust the timing of responses

Allow users to skip repetitive links

Students with photosensitive seizure disorders (e.g., epilepsy)

Not generally needed


Sites with flickering images and text may trigger seizures


Avoid use of flickering elements
Students with hearing impairments

May use captioning features on multimedia players like Windows Media Player or Real Audio

Unable to hear multimedia presentations that use sound, such as recorded lectures Multimedia presentations must be captioned

Benefits of Accessible Online Instruction

Designing online Internet-based courses that are accessible to all students, including students with disabilities, results in courses that are easier to use and understand for everyone (Nielsen, J. 2000). For example, accessible online courses that have alternative text included allow students to search for key words and phrases. Captioned videos may help students that are taking courses from a professor who does not have good English language skills. Accessible courses are more compatible with second-generation browsing devices, such as wireless handheld computers. As institutes of higher learning serve increasingly diverse populations, including individuals for whom English is a second language, having additional textual content in distance learning courses may help such students succeed academically. Additionally, creating online courses that are accessible is much easier than retrofitting courses to provide access once a person with a disability enrolls in the course or applies to teach it (Burgstahler, 2002).

Instructors with disabilities can also benefit from accessible online distance education. For example, Dr. G. Denise Lance, an online instructor with cerebral palsy, reports that accessible online education allows her to keep her disability hidden if she chooses. Additionally, it allows her to communicate with students more effectively, and answer more questions from students (Lance, 2002).

Legal Considerations: Requirements for Access to Online Distance Learning

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has wide-ranging application to colleges and universities. Title II of the ADA, which applies to public entities such as public colleges and universities, provides that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity" (42 United States Code 12132, 1990). The ADA's implementing regulations require a public entity to "make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless the public entity can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the services, program, or activity" (28 Code of Federal Regulations § 35.130(b)(7), 1991).

Title III of the ADA, which applies to "places of public accommodation", including private colleges and universities, provides that "No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to) or operates a public accommodation" (42 United States Code § 12182(a), 1990). Both the Title II and Title III regulations require that communication with people with disabilities be as effective as communication with others. (28 Code of Federal Regulations § 35.160, 1990; 28 Code of Federal Regulations § 36.302(a), 1990).

The ADA was passed in 1990, well before the Internet was in widespread use. In fact, commercial use of the Internet was prohibited until 1991 (Lee, 2000). As a result, the ADA and its implementing regulations contain no information about online accessibility, or any standards governing the accessibility of Internet pages. However, a Department of Justice letter opinion states that "covered entities under the ADA are required to provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet. 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" (Patrick, 1996).

In an amicus brief filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the Department of Justice argued that the ADA does have application to the Internet, finding that the "language of the statute is broad enough to cover services provided over this new medium" (Lee, 2000). The brief addressed the argument that the ADA should not apply to the Internet because the Internet is not a "place" of public accommodation. "Even if the district court's holding were somehow restricted to companies that provide services solely outside the context of their physical buildings," the brief stated, "this would still leave a significant array of service providers free to discriminate. For example, those selling car insurance over the telephone would be free to hang up on blind customers, Publisher's Clearing House could refuse to sell magazines through the mail to people with HIV, and colleges could refuse to enroll the deaf in their correspondence courses. Again, these are businesses Congress clearly intended to cover" (Lee, 2000).

In 1998, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education concluded a complaint investigation against the California community college system. OCR surveyed all 110 campuses and had on-site visits to twenty campuses as part of an investigation of technology-related disability access issues. As part of an agreement to close the investigation, the system agreed to purchase adaptive technology for students with disabilities, to provide training to community college staff, and to ensure that all distance education offered through the California Virtual University program met the guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (Rosenzweig, 1998). Subsequently, the system adopted its own standards for accessibility in distance education (California Community Colleges, 1999).

One federal court has ruled that an inaccessible Internet site of a public entity can contribute to a violation of the ADA. In a case against the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) alleging multiple ADA violations, a federal district court judge found that the MARTA website was inaccessible to people with disabilities and that the system violated a provision of Title II of the ADA requiring that transit agencies make information available in accessible formats. "MARTA representatives also concede that the system's web page is not formatted in such a way that it can be read by persons who are blind but who are capable of using text reader computer software for the visually impaired. However, it now appears that MARTA is attempting to correct this problem," the court ruled. "Until these deficiencies are corrected, MARTA is violating the ADA" (Martin v. Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority, 2002). However, another federal court dismissed a Title III challenge against an inaccessible airline website on the grounds that the website was not a place of public accommodation (Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines Co., 2002).

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

The 1998 amendements to the Rehabilitation Act provide that Federal departments or agencies must ensure, absent an undue burden, that the electronic and information technology they acquire is accessible to individuals with disabilities who are Federal employees or who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency (29 United States Code § 794d, 1998). In order to implement this law, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, a federal agency, drafted standards for information software accessibility (36 Code of Federal Regulations § 1194, 2000).

The Section 508 web access standards are fairly easy to use and understand. Several online tools are available to evaluate websites for compliance with these standards; many of them are available for free. Additionally, software programs such as A-Prompt (http://www.aprompt.ca/) and Bobby (https://www.elicense.com/watchfire/store/index.asp) are available to help users evaluate websites. The Section 508 Internet standards, along with links to the various online tools, are summarized in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Section 508 Standards, Tools and Techniques


Suggested Tool or Technique

(a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content).
Use the WAVE online accessibility tool developed by Temple University (http://www.temple.edu/instituteondisabilities/piat/wave/) to check whether all images are accompanied by an appropriate alt-tag.
(b) Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation. Use the MAGpie Media Access Generator developed by the National Center for Accessible Media (http://ncam.wgbh.org/webaccess/magpie/) to add captions to multimedia files.
(c) Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
Use the Lynx Viewer developed by Delorie Software (http://www.delorie.com/web/lynxview.html) to view your site in a text-only format.
(d) Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet. Turn off style sheets in your browser, or download an older browser that does not support style sheets.
(e) Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map. Use Lynx Viewer to check whether all the links provided on image map appear as text within the document.
(f) Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
Avoid server-side image maps whenever possible.
(g) Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables. Use the Bobby validator developed by Watchfire (http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp) to identify potential problems, then check manually.
(h) Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers. Use Bobby to identify potential problems, then check manually.
(i) Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation. Use Bobby to check for presence of frame titles; ensure that frame titles are appropriate.
(j) Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz. Check manually; use the screen flickering demonstration developed by the National Center for Accessible Media (http://ncam.wgbh.org/richmedia/flicker_demo.html) as a guideline. WARNING: DO NOT USE THIS LINK IF YOU HAVE PHOTOESENSITIVE EPILEPSY.
(k) A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes. If the page as designed cannot be retrofitted to meet the Section 508 standards, consider designing a text-only page. Most pages can be made accessible with a little effort. Text-only pages are discouraged because they often are not updated as often as other pages.
(l) When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology. Use Lynx Viewer to see the page in a text-only format with scripts disabled. Use the NOSCRIPT tag to add in text content for people who cannot access scripts.
(m) When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with ß1194.21(a) through (l). For example, if your page has a link to an Adobe PDF document, provide a link download the Adobe Acrobat reader.
(n) When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
Use Bobby to check accessibility of forms. Consider adding default, place-holding characters in edit boxes and text areas.
(o) A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links. Use Lynx Viewer to check for presence and placement of skip-navigation links. See the Digital Media Access Group (http://www.dmag.org.uk/resources/ design_articles/skip.asp) page for an example of building a skip-navigation link.
(p) When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required. If your page requires timed responses, consider testing the page using assistive technology, like a virtual keyboard, or by tapping the keyboard with a pencil.

By its terms, Section 508 only applies to programs and services of the federal government. However, officials at the U.S. Department of Education authored a letter in 1999 indicating that they interpreted Section 508 to have application to state entities, including some public colleges and universities. The letter stated that the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 required that states receiving grants under this law must continue to abide by the assurances provided during the initial grant program created under the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988. That law required states to submit assurances that the State would comply with Section 508. As a result, the Department of Education stated that "states that receive ATAct funding must continue to comply with the requirements of Section 508 by ensuring that their electronic and information technology is accessible. This includes compliance with the standards to be issued and published by the Access Board" (Heumann, 1999).

This administrative interpretation has not yet been adopted by a federal court. However, colleges and universities may choose to adopt Section 508 as part of their Internet access policies. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) adopted Section 508 as part of its web accessibility standards, both for newly designed pages and "legacy" pages designed before 2001 (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2001).

Although, as stated earlier, there are no standards under the ADA for Internet accessibility, universities like UWM that adopt Section 508 policies voluntarily will likely be able to show that they are complying with the accessibility requirements of the ADA.

State Laws

Several states have passed laws similar to Section 508. These laws vary in their scope and application. Some of them apply to state agencies, while others have wider applications to state universities. Faculty and staff members at public colleges and universities should be aware of the laws that may apply in their states. The Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) compiled a list of state policy and legal initiatives (http://www.resna.org/taproject/policy/initiatives/508/508Stateactions.htm). Figure 4 lists citations and summaries of selected state laws and regulations.

Figure 4: Selected State Laws and Regulations Concerning Electronic Access for People with Disabilities

State Citation Summary
Arkansas Arkansas Code §25-26-206 Requires that any state or state-assisted organization ensure that information technology equipment or software be accessible to individuals with visual impairments. Implements technology access clause for state contracts.
California California Government Code § 11135(d) Requires state government entities to comply with Section 508. Requires entities that contract with state or local entities to resolve complaints on accessibility.
None Adopted W3C guidelines as part of policy for state agency websites (http://www.cmac.state.ct.us/access/).
Indiana Indiana Code Annotated § 4-23-16-12
Requires state information technology commission to appoint a group, including representation from people with disabilities, to develop statewide standards modeled on Section 508.
Kentucky Kentucky Revised Statutes § 61.980 Requires state entities and state-assisted entities, including universities and schools, to provide equivalent access to information technology for students with disabilities.
Louisiana Louisiana Revised Statutes § 39:301 Creates an advisory council for the state's chief information officer to provide input on accessibility issues for people with disabilities.
None Adopted policy for state agency websites based on the W3C guidelines (http://www.state.me.us/CIO/accessibility/webpolicy.html).
Maryland Maryland Education Code Annotated § 7-910 Requires that technology-based instructional products purchased by Maryland public school systems meet Section 508 requirements.
Massachusetts None Adopted standards for state agency websites based on the W3C guidelines (http://www.state.ma.us/itd/spg/publications/standards/web-access-std.htm).
Minnesota None Adopted guidelines for state agency websites (http://www.admin.state.mn.us/accessibility_guidelines.html).
New York None Adopted W3C guidelines as part of policy for state agency websites (http://www.oft.state.ny.us/policy/99-3.htm).
North Carolina North Carolina General Statues § 168A-7 Requires public entities, including educational entities, to make reasonable aids and adaptations to their programs and services to accommodate people with disabilities, including services provided through information technology.
North Dakota
None Adopted W3C guidelnes as part of policy for state agency websites (http://www.state.nd.us/itd/planning/standards-policies/policies/approved/data-proc/dp005-01.doc).
Texas Texas Government Code § 2001.007 Requires that state agency websites conform to generally accepted standards for accessibility for people with disabilities. Developed accessibility standards for state agency websites (http://www.dir.state.tx.us/standards/S201-12.htm)
Washington None Guidelines encourage state agencies to follow W3C criteria (http://www.wa.gov/dis/portfolio/webguidelines.htm).
West Virginia West Virginia Code § 18-10N

Requires state department of administration to develop standards for accessibility of state agency websites and technology purchased by the state. Included access as part of overall strategy (http://www.state.wv.us/got/eportal.asp)

Technical Considerations: First and Second-Generation Access Issues

Prevalence of Access Errors on University HTML Pages

Generally, pages on the Internet are presented in HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Two major research studies have looked specifically at HTML access issues in distance education (Rowland, 2000 and Schmetzke, 2002). Both researchers used the "Bobby" web accessibility validator (http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp). Bobby allows for fast, automated checking of accessibility for HTML pages. Its most current version checks for compliance against the Section 508 standards and the W3C guidelines (http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505/). Bobby is "not a perfect tool"; it requires users to perform manual checks and can return both false-positive and false-negative responses to an inquiry. However, it is well suited to accessibility testing (Schmetzke, 2002).

Dr. Rowland's study revealed that only 24% of the 124 web pages of distance education providers checked in a random sample passed the Bobby validation test. This tracked with an earlier study that showed a similar level of access problems in the front pages of colleges and universities. "It is apparent," writes Dr. Rowland, "that the current national snapshot of accessibility to postsecondary Web sites is horrible" (Rowland, 2000).

Dr. Schmetzke's study looked at two sets of pages: university-based distance learning pages and the pages of distance-learning organizations. In the first set, only 15.1% of the 219 home pages of distance learning providers were found to be accessible by the Bobby validator. A more comprehensive look at pages linked to the home page showed that only 23.3% of the 3,366 pages surveyed passed Bobby. 81% of the errors involved images presented without alternative text. Additionally, "the web pages of distance-education organizations were not paragons of virtue, either," with only one out of 12 pages surveyed approved by Bobby (Schmetzke, 2002).

Second-Generation Accessibility in Distance Learning

Using tools like Bobby and implementing policies based on the Section 508 standards or the W3C guidelines helps to ensure accessibility for students with disabilities. However, because of the nature of distance learning, following these standards may not be enough to ensure complete accessibility for students with disabilities.

As distance learning has expanded, so has the market for courseware. Courseware such as Blackboard or WebCT allows faculty and staff to present course materials in an online course easily and simply. Courseware products enable faculty and staff members who may not have experience in programming or authoring HTML code to create courses that they might otherwise not have created. However, they frequently present access barriers to students with disabilities. (Harrison, 1999)

Courseware products allow faculty members to include non-HTML elements within online courses. Examples of such elements include online slideshows (using software such as Microsoft PowerPoint), video presentations, animations, spreadsheets, charts, tables, and documents (in formats such as Microsoft Word or Adobe Portable Document Format). This provides a dual challenge to a faculty member creating an accessible online course for students with disabilities. The faculty member must first consider "first-generation" accessibility issues, i.e., ensuring that the HTML structure of the page is accessible and meets either Section 508 standards or the W3C guidelines. Next, the faculty member must then consider "second-generation" access issues related to the online accessibility of non-HTML elements.

"Second generation" accessibility is a much more difficult task for the educator. Unlike "first generation" issues, there are few quick-and-easy online tools available to evaluate the accessibility of "second generation" issues. In many cases, the software used to develop the non-HTML elements may have difficulty in turning out elements that are accessible. Additionally, the responsibility for ensuring "first generation" accessibility is generally in the hands of courseware developers or web designers. The responsibility for ensuring "second generation" accessibility is generally in the hands of the faculty member creating the course - i.e., someone without the technical background to provide accessibility. Figure 5 provides information about commonly-used elements in distance education, identifies difficulties that need to be addressed by educators, and offers suggestions on achieving accessibility for these elements.

Figure 5: "Second Generation" Access Issues in Distance Education

Element Potential Barrier Suggested Solution
Slide Presentations (Microsoft PowerPoint) Online presentations utilize a JavaScript plug-in that presents slides as graphic files not accessible to users who are blind; automatic conversion to HTML results in non-508-compliant pages. Convert PowerPoint slides to accessible HTML format; WebAim has tips and suggestions on their website (http://www.webaim.org/ howto/powerpoint/).
Animations (Macromedia Flash, Java) Video multimedia animations not generally accessible to people with sensory disabilities; may require the use of a mouse to control. Provide captioning or text equivalent for users who are deaf; audio-describe animation for users who are blind. Newest version of Macromedia Flash contains some accessibility features (http://www.macromedia.com/ macromedia/accessibility/).
Audio files Issues for people with hearing disabilities Provide captioning or text equivalent.
Video Files (Windows Media Player, Real Audio) Video files (such as lectures) pose access problems for people with sensory disabilities Provide captioning or text equivalent for sound; provide audio-description of video. The free Media Access Generator (MAGpie) software is a good resource (http://ncam.wgbh.org/ webaccess/magpie/).
Word Processing Documents (Microsoft Word, WordPerfect) Documents may use color or highlighting to denote information, resulting in difficulties for people with visual impairments; documents may include inaccessible features such as images, charts, graphs and maps
Ensure that information can be conveyed without the use of color; provide text equivalents for graphic elements.
Spreadsheets (Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel) Spreadsheets may include inaccessible charts or graphs Provide text description of charts and graphs
Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) Some PDF files that are generated from original documents using scanners are not compatible with screen-readers; documents presented in columns may not read correctly; documents may contain inaccessible elements
Consider providing a text equivalent; test PDF files using the online tools at the Adobe website (http://access.adobe.com/).
Whiteboards Most whiteboard software not compatible with screen-readers Consider providing textual or audio equivalent of whiteboard content.
Chat and Message Boards Some software used for online chat rooms or message boards may not meet accessibility standards Consider using alternate accessible means of student discussion.

Case Study in Second-Generation Access Issues: Microsoft PowerPoint

Presentations generated by the Microsoft PowerPoint program are increasingly common in both classroom settings and in distance education. In the classroom, providing access to PowerPoint presentations could require an instructor to read information on slides as they are projected so students with visual impairments can have equivalent access to the information. In a distance-learning environment, providing access to PowerPoint presentations requires a little more thought, time and effort.

The first major issue is how PowerPoint files are presented online. Individuals with disabilities who have access to a copy of the PowerPoint software can download PowerPoint files included in a distance learning course from a server and save them on their own computers. Students can then view the files in their own copy of PowerPoint, taking advantage of the accessibility options built into the program. However, individuals with disabilities who do not own a copy of PowerPoint may have difficulty in accessing online presentations.

One possible option is to download the free PowerPoint Viewer from Microsoft (http://office.microsoft.com/downloads/2000/Ppview97.aspx). However, the viewer presents PowerPoint slides as graphic files. A student with visual disabilities would not be able to access any textual information embedded into these graphic files. Another option would be to view the PowerPoint within a window of a browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer. However, the Java plug-in that allows Internet Explorer to display PowerPoint slides also presents the slides in an inaccessible graphical format.

Alternatives include exporting the PowerPoint file to another format, such as HTML or PDF. PowerPoint allows for the automatic conversion of PowerPoint presentation files to HTML. However, the HTML pages produced by this conversion process presents access problems for people with disabilities. Generally, PowerPoint automatically generates HTML pages that use five separate frames, none of which have the appropriate title. The multiplicity of frames may make the site hard to navigate for someone who does not use a mouse. Additionally, the automatic process provides no way to skip repetitive navigation links.

The second major issue is how non-text elements are presented within PowerPoint slides. Presentations may use a variety of charts, images and graphics to portray information. Although PowerPoint does allow for users to associate alternative text with elements, this alternative text does not appear in HTML automatically. Not having textual equivalents means that a user with visual impairments would not have access to that information.

One method of addressing both of these issues would be to transform a PowerPoint presentation into an accessible HTML document. For individuals with a good basic knowledge of PowerPoint and HTML coding, this is a relatively simple process. First, a PowerPoint presentation can be saved as a series of graphic files in a variety of formats (i.e., JPG, GIF, BMP). These files are then saved in a separate folder. Second, save the presentation as a Rich Text Format document, which will create a text-only version of the presentation. Third, copy that text-only presentation into an HTML editor. Fourth, use the HTML editor to code an HTML page that integrates the text content with the graphic content, and that meets accessibility standards. An example of how a PowerPoint slide can be displayed within an accessible HTML page is presented in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Example of HTML Code for Simple PowerPoint Title Slide



Example of a PowerPoint page

<img src="slide1.jpg" height="100%" width="100%" border="0" alt="Slide One">
<h1>Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations</h1>
<h2>This is an example of a slide in an accessible PowerPoint presentation saved in HTML format.</h2>

Note that this method presents both the slide as a graphic (for users who are sighted) and as text (for users with visual impairments). If this slide contained images, graphs, charts, maps, or other non-textual information, the author of the presentation could add in descriptions of those elements in the text. An author could also use a Cascading Style Sheet or other method to make the text appear very small, or match the color of the text with the background so that it would not appear to the sighted user but would be read by a screen-reader. Additionally, presentations offered in an accessible HTML format are easier to navigate than those presented in frames, and the presence of text means that the file can be easily searched by users or by search engines.

Practical Considerations: A Demonstration Project to Remove Electronic Barriers

Project Background, Goals and Objectives

The Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education recently approved a three-year grant for the Southeast Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC) to develop cooperative strategies to remove barriers to students with disabilities in online education.

The Southeast DBTAC is housed at the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA), a center within the College of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), a public four-year institute of higher education located in Atlanta, Georgia. The Southeast DBTAC is one of ten regional centers established by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), under U.S. Department of Education Grant Number H133D010207

The Southeast DBTAC serves an eight-state region, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and is responsible for promoting the need for accessible education-based information technology (EduIT) in the Southeast Region. The Southeast DBTAC is assisted in this endeavor by a 21-member Education Leadership Team comprised of representatives of educational institutions throughout the Southeast Region.

The demonstration project involves three separate tracks. In each track, the Southeast DBTAC will work with a different partner to improve access to distance learning courses for students with disabilities. These tracks will enable the Southeast DBTAC to improve access on the Georgia Tech campus as well as on a nationwide basis. Additionally, these tracks will help to build the capacity of faculty members and administrators, with and without disabilities, in planning to provide accessible on-line education.

Track One - Professional Development

The first track will focus on the creation, evaluation, dissemination, and marketing of a curriculum on accessibility issues in distance education. This curriculum will be designed to improve the knowledge of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, including people with disabilities, at Georgia Tech and other institutes of higher learning nationwide. The objective of this track is to increase the capacity of faculty and staff who use the curriculum to provide accessible distance learning for students with disabilities on a nationwide basis.

This curriculum will be developed by IDET Communications (IDET), an Atlanta-based private company which is developing software and strategies to improve access to distance learning. These modules will focus on the need to provide access to students with disabilities, the necessary supports for all students who are taking distance learning, accessibility issues in a number of software types (such as PowerPoint, Word, Excel, Adobe PDF, and Flash) and the integration of accessible elements into commonly used courseware.

The Southeast DBTAC will partner with IDET to provide a nationwide marketing and outreach effort for the ten-module course. The Southeast DBTAC will participate in the drafting of course materials and will review the course on an ongoing basis to ensure that the course remains up-to-date as technology products change. Additionally, the Southeast DBTAC will host the course on its fully accessible Internet site and will provide additional technical assistance, on request, to faculty members and administrators seeking to make their distance learning programs more accessible to students with disabilities. Project staff will also attend a variety of strategic conferences on education and technology issues. The Southeast DBTAC will use these conferences as a way to market the online course and distance learning materials, as well as to communicate and network with other individuals, institutions and businesses working in this area.

The Southeast DBTAC will work to create technical assistance materials, based on information in the course, designed to provide a detailed summary of access issues, solutions, and tips for improving access. These materials will be permanently available on the Southeast DBTAC website.

The Southeast DBTAC will involve key faculty, staff and students at Georgia Tech to evaluate the usefulness of this course and make suggestions for improvements. A minimum of 6 faculty members and 4 students, including people with disabilities, will participate in this initial training and evaluation process. The Southeast DBTAC will pay stipends to the faculty and students involved. Additionally, the Southeast DBTAC will establish a series of lunchtime roundtable discussions on the Georgia Tech campus for faculty members, staff and students, with and without disabilities, to share perspectives on access issues in distance education. This program will promote accessibility and build better relationships between faculty and students with disabilities. The Southeast DBTAC will provide the course and the technical assistance material on a nationwide basis via its Internet site. Faculty, staff and students at institutes of higher education will have accessible, just-in-time access to this resource to support their efforts to improve access.

In the third year of the project, the Southeast DBTAC will host a national leadership institute on accessibility in distance education. This institute will take place in Atlanta and will have speakers and presenters from around the country. The institute will provide a valuable forum for stakeholders in distance education to discuss accessibility issues.

As a result of this track, faculty and administrators across the country will have access to a variety of professional development resources that detail exactly how to create an accessible distance learning course. Faculty, staff and students at Georgia Tech, with and without disabilities, will benefit from increased collaboration and intensive professional development services.

Track Two - Barrier Removal at Georgia Tech

The second track will focus on removing barriers to online education at Georgia Tech. It will involve partnerships with the Georgia Tech Center for Distance Learning, the Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, and the Access Disabled Assistance Program for Tech Students (ADAPTS).

The Center for Distance Learning has provided distance education options to students outside the Georgia Tech campus for 75 years. Currently, it provides 23 courses over the Internet, mostly graduate-level courses in engineering. About six to eight new graduate-level courses are made available each year. Additionally, the Center for Distance Learning offers the only online masters-level program in mechanical engineering in the nation.

The Southeast DBTAC will work with these stakeholders to make Georgia Tech a model institution on accessibility to distance education. The goal of this track is to increase the capacity of faculty and staff at Georgia Tech to provide accessible distance learning for students with disabilities.

The Southeast DBTAC will work to retrofit an existing online distance learning course as a model for complete accessibility. This course, relating to human factors in engineering, presents a special challenge because of its complexity and use of graphics and charts. This course will serve as a model of accessibility for all online courses offered at Georgia Tech. The Southeast DBTAC will partner with ADAPTS and Georgia Tech students with disabilities to evaluate this model online course for accessibility. Students who have received training in accessible online course design will make recommendations for improvements. These students will gain experience in evaluating online courses for accessibility and will have the tools needed to assist in surveying existing courses.

The Southeast DBTAC will work with faculty and staff at the Center for Distance Learning and Continuing Education and the Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning to improve accessibility to online courses at Georgia Tech. The Southeast DBTAC will provide funding to make a minimum of two courses accessible in the second year and a minimum of two courses accessible in the third year of the project. The Southeast DBTAC will provide ongoing technical assistance to Georgia Tech faculty, staff and students, with and without disabilities, on ensuring that distance education initiatives are fully accessible.

As a result of this track, access to distance education at Georgia Tech will be improved through the identification and removal of barriers. Students with disabilities will have enhanced knowledge to self-advocate for changes to inaccessible materials. Faculty and administrators will have an enhanced knowledge of potential barriers to distance learning for students with disabilities.

Track Three - Promotion of Accessibility Through MERLOT Database

The third track will involve a partnership between the Southeast DBTAC and the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and On-Line Teaching (MERLOT). MERLOT is a collaborative project of the California State University system, the University System of Georgia, the University of North Carolina system, the Oklahoma State Regents, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers. MERLOT is a free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students in higher education. MERLOT helps faculty enhance instruction with a continually growing collection of online, reviewed learning material and assignments. MERLOT is also a community of educators who strive to enrich teaching and learning. MERLOT is a gateway to a national database containing web-based interactive learning materials, assignments, reviews, and projects. MERLOT contains online material across a variety of academic disciplines and provides peer-review of learning materials submitted to the database.

First, the Southeast DBTAC will work with MERLOT to develop voluntary standards for accessibility for distance learning. The MERLOT database currently does not contain any information regarding the accessibility of the various learning materials available. Several of the learning materials that are available are not accessible. Faculty members who do not have a good knowledge of accessibility issues may use these materials without realizing that students with disabilities may not be able to take full advantage of them. The Southeast DBTAC will work with MERLOT to develop voluntary standards for MERLOT members to use when submitting material. These voluntary standards will be transmitted to all MERLOT members, together with information about the online course and technical assistance materials developed by the Southeast DBTAC.

As part of the peer-review process, the Southeast DBTAC will review existing materials in the MERLOT database and evaluate them for access based on the voluntary standards. This will ensure that information about whether a distance learning element complies with these standards will be included in the MERLOT database. Students with disabilities will be involved in this review and evaluation process. The Southeast DBTAC will also contribute materials created in the first two tracks to MERLOT as examples of accessible materials.

In its review of existing materials, the Southeast DBTAC will identify and document promising practices in accessibility of online distance learning materials. The Southeast DBTAC will report on promising accessibility practices and will distribute information about learning materials that serve as models of accessibility for other institutions. The Southeast DBTAC will provide detailed technical assistance on the voluntary standards to MERLOT members who wish to retrofit learning elements for accessibility.

As a result of this track, faculty members nationwide will have available examples of existing accessible online courses and will be able to look up accessibility information on existing distance learning elements.


Of all the potential barriers to accessibility for students with disabilities, awareness of the problems continues to be the most significant. The more that faculty members, staff, and distance learning specialists know about the technical problems facing students with disabilities, their legal obligation to remove barriers, and practical approaches to improving access, the more likely it will be that barriers can be removed. The demonstration project currently underway at the Southeast DBTAC should provide enhanced resources and technical assistance products to help faculty members and university staff meet their obligations.


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Contact Information:

Curtis D. Edmonds
Southeast Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center
490 Tenth Street
Atlanta, GA 30308
(404) 385-0636 (voice/tty)


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