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Why is Web Accessibility Important?

Web accessibility touches every part of the course design and requires some additional planning and work. This may be a very different experience from most on-ground classes, where the focus is on accommodations provided at a student’s request and often after the fact, rather than building in accessibility from the start. So why do we need to be proactive about it? Why does it matter at all?

Support Online Students with Disabilities

The students within the primary populations that SPS Distance Learning serves–online students and adult students–are both more likely to have disabilities. According to research, disabled students find online courses more appealing for a number of reasons. Online courses provide greater flexibility, allowing students to do their work when they are most capable of it, rather than when the class is scheduled. They are easier to access for students with mobility issues, who can work from their homes instead of trying to navigate inaccessible campuses and classrooms.

And they allow students to maintain their privacy if they do not want to report their disability. Disabled people face frequent prejudice and discrimination, and many students with disabilities report that they enjoy the freedom from stereotypes that online courses can offer. As one disabled student explained, “I’m not in a wheelchair, but you know, people are still judging. And in the distance learning environment I have the luxury of not revealing that I’m disabled.” 2 On-ground classes can be difficult, both physically and emotionally, for disabled students, due to prejudice and stigma. But online, students have more power over how they are perceived, and “their disability became invisible, offering the freedom to be viewed as a student without limits.”2 Approximately 70% of online students with disabilities do not disclose their disability or request accommodations1. Some of these students may not be aware of the support that is available, but for majority of students, they do not disclose because they want “the opportunity to allow intellect, skill, and character to become their observed identity, rather than their disability.”2 As a result, it is crucially important for online courses to be designed for accessibility from the beginning, so that all students can engage with the course materials. Students should not be forced to choose between maintaining their privacy and passing a class. Building an accessible course allows them to do both.

  • Roberts, J., Crittenden, L., and Crittenden, J. (2011). Students with disabilities and online learning: A cross-institutional study of perceived satisfaction with accessibility compliance and service. Internet and Higher Education, 14, 242-250.
  • Verdinelli, S. and Kutner, D. (2015). Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students With Disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9, 353-368.

Accessible Design is Good Design

Think about the last time you walked on a sidewalk. When you got to a crosswalk, there was a curb cut: a small ramp leading down to the street. They’re such a common sight now that most people don’t think about them, but they are an accessibility measure that disability activists had to fight for. However, curb cuts don’t just benefit people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. People with strollers, carts, and suitcases all benefit from not having to push or drag things over a steep curb. The idea that efforts to increase equity for one group generally help additional audiences is referred to as the curb-cut effect. This concept is just as true in web accessibility and distance learning. Captions, for instance, are vital for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers to understand the audio content of a video. But they are also helpful to non-native speakers who may be able to understand the language written better than spoken, or even to commuters who want to watch a video on the bus on a day they forgot their headphones. Headings and white space help people with visual and learning disabilities, but they also make pages easier for everyone to read.

These broad benefits are why most frameworks for course design, including Quality Matters and Universal Design for Learning, include accessibility among their best practices. A well-designed course is an accessible course, and accessibility benefits all students.

Legal Background

While there are no federal statutes or regulations specifically governing web access, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and a variety of lawsuits, rulings, and Office of Civil Rights memos have combined to form the legal foundation of web accessibility. This legal foundation outlines the broad requirements that higher education institutions must meet to be in compliance with the ADA.

These requirements include:

  • Students with disabilities must have “the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services… with substantially equivalent ease of use” as nondisabled students (Case Western University Settlement Agreement, 2009)
  • Auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities, such as captions, alt-text, etc., must be provided in accessible formats, in a way that protects the students’ privacy and independence, and in a timely manner (which, in a digital environment, generally means immediately). (ADA Regulatory Amendments, 2010)
  • Communication, such as a transmission of information via the internet, with students with disabilities must be as effective as communications with non-disabled students. (ADA Title II)
  • Majority of rulings and memos refer to the WCAG 2.0 standards as the ideal guidelines for higher education institutions to rely upon when discussing web accessibility, and in January 2018, Section 508 was updated to require that all U.S. Federal information and communication technology must meet the WCAG 2.0 A/AA standards.

These various legal rulings and amendments can best be summarized as a requirement that higher education institutions ensure that disabled students have functionally the same access as nondisabled students. Failure to adhere to this requirement can leave a university open to future legal action, either from the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, or a private individual or organization.

Culture of Diversity and Inclusion

Northwestern University is committed to creating a diverse, inclusive learning environment for all students. As part of that commitment, we encourage instructors to take an attitude of not simply accommodating students with disabilities, but actively welcoming them. By creating courses that are accessible from the beginning, we demonstrate to these students that they are fully included members of the learning community.The number of students who report disabilities to AccessibleNU is increasing each year, and while there are no hard numbers on the number of students who do not self-report, it’s safe to assume that their numbers are increasing, too. Even if you do not receive an accommodation request, the odds are good that you have at least one student with a disability in your course. This is why it’s so important to be proactive in making a course site accessible. It will result in a high quality, universally welcoming, and legally compliant course that all students are able to engage in.