Universities Struggle to Ensure Access to Online Education for Students with Disabilities

When it comes to enabling students with disabilities to take full advantage of higher education, online course materials can be potentially empowering. This is particularly true for students who may be wheelchair- or place-bound.

But a major problem is that online materials are often inaccessible because the assistive technologies on which students with disabilities rely — such as screen readers or voice recognition software — are often outdated and outmoded, according to some experts.

“The number one issue is technology access,” says Ron Stewart, technology adviser for the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), an international organization of professionals involved in policy and provision of services for students with disabilities. “The vast majority of education technology that most colleges are using can’t be readily accessed by people who use assistive technologies. [This] technology tends to lag two generations behind the current.”

“For example, we’re using IE 13 now,” he adds, using the shorthand for Internet Explorer. “Most assistive technology works with IE 9 or 10.”

Stewart is also a consultant for AltFormat Solutions, an Indiana-based company that works to make education more accessible for students with disabilities. Through his work, he has found that situations are often exacerbated when it comes to less commonly used Internet browsers.

“As you get away from the mainstream browsers, you aggravate the problems,” Stewart says. “Most of my work is done in the evaluation of websites, courses, those kinds of things. And in almost all instances, they’re abysmal failures.”

Institutional leaders concede that making online educational materials accessible to all students is a work in progress.

At the University of Washington (UW) — which Stewart cites as one of the more exemplary universities when it comes to issues of access — a special unit focused on making technology accessible operates within the university’s IT department. The unit’s goal is to “promote universal design on campus” and to build an “accessible technology-based infrastructure,” according to the group’s leader Terrill F. Thompson, technology accessibility specialist at UW.

University of Washington Instructor Jim Loter assists a student after class in a university computer lab.
University of Washington Instructor Jim Loter assists a student after class in a university computer lab.

“We want to work to make sure that the websites we create and the software we purchase are accessible,” Thompson says, “[and] we want to make sure videos are captioned, so that students are all on an equal playing field and don’t encounter much of a barrier that stands in the way of learning or obtaining their academic or career goals.”

While cost can be problematic when it comes to making online learning accessible to students with disabilities, Thompson says the problem transcends the issue of expense.

“For the most part, awareness is the big challenge,” he says. “We’re looking at inaccessible websites and technology and videos that aren’t captioned. Typically, if we educate the people [who are] providing these resources, once they become aware that there are accessibility problems, they’re more than happy to fix them and can find the resources to do so.”

“Awareness is more of a problem than cost is,” Thompson adds.

At the same time, Stewart says the products that are commercially available often don’t pass muster when it comes to being accessible to students with disabilities. “Your options are almost nonexistent for a purchaser,” he says.

Making products and services within the existing infrastructure accessible for students with disabilities is often challenging.

“The responsibility relies on the institution,” Stewart says. “So we have these solutions come forward that fix 20 percent of the problems, and then the institution is responsible for retrofitting; and in many instances [it] can’t. So that further disenfranchises folks with disabilities.”

He advises college and university purchasers to require vendors to visit campuses to demonstrate how their products will be accessible to students with different disabilities. Unless purchasers write that language into their contracts, Stewart says there’s “no obligation on the vendor to do that.”

A major reason to get a firsthand look at how a system or product operates is to determine whether it works for students with varying types of disabilities, not just one or two. For example, Stewart says, a product might work for someone who is blind, but may not work for someone who needs voice recognition.

Access for All 
While many institutions focus on making course materials accessible to people with sensory disabilities, they often overlook people with “invisible disabilities” such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or cognitive and learning disabilities — which, according to Stewart, represent over half the population of students with disabilities on college campuses.

“People have been focusing on the most visible,” he says. “There are ways to mitigate it for everybody, but what most campuses are worried about is getting sued, and that’s where the focus has been.”

Two students discuss the 2010 Entrepalooza keynote speaker Vishen Lakhiani of MindVision at the University of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography, Martin Vloet)
Two students discuss the 2010 Entrepalooza keynote speaker Vishen Lakhiani of MindVision at the University of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography, Martin Vloet)

Lloyd E. Shelton, a wheelchair-bound student currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan (UM), voiced similar concerns with respect to students with invisible disabilities.

“My experience is different from theirs in that [because I use] a wheelchair, people never really question the validity of my request for accommodations,” says Shelton, who is the founder of Students with Disabilities and our Allies Group, a support and advocacy group for students with disabilities at UM.

“But folks who have invisible disabilities often experience a lot of pushback in terms of people respecting their requests,” he adds. “Or they have to jump through extra hoops to prove the validity of their need for accommodations.”

Gaeir Dietrich, director of the High Tech Center Training Unit of the California Community Colleges, says that universities still have a long way to go in making learning materials, such as videos and documents, accessible to all students. The unit’s focus is on training community college faculty and staff on how to teach more effectively using assistive technologies.

Instructors will often post scanned documents — such as pictures of text that aren’t readable with text-to-speech, as well as uncaptioned videos — and utilize third-party software and apps without realizing that they are inaccessible, according to Dietrich.

She cites a series of recent complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, as well as resolution agreements, as evidence of the fact that universities are still struggling to make course materials available to students with disabilities.

“Ensuring that any third-party materials used are fully accessible is the area where we are struggling the most,” Dietrich says.●

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.