Adult students have a higher incidence of disability and are less likely to seek accommodations than the general student population, so it is critical that institutions of higher education anticipate their needs, especially in online classes.

Unfortunately, this is not the norm; it is typical for institutions to avoid addressing web accessibility unless a student requests specific accommodations or an individual, supported by a disability advocacy group, brings a lawsuit against the school. The perspective that web accessibility is expensive and serves a fraction of the student population needs to change; properly implemented, accessible online courses can be compliant and profitable in addition to improving outcomes for all students. In a 2016 universal design for learning workshop, Thomas J. Tobin noted that accessible online coursework increased retention, persistence, and satisfaction among all students by 3-4% over baseline.

The Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership report identifies the role of accessibility in contributing to an online program’s reputation for excellence, saying that “All digital experiences designed and developed as part of the online educational environment must be universally accessible to all students” (UPCEA, 2015).

It is also the right thing to do. At the 2016 Distance Teaching and Learning Conference held by the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Ray Schroeder discussed the need for university advocacy and media presence. “Point the light, build the path,” the Director of the Center for Online Leadership and recent Wedemeyer Award winner said. “There are opportunities for us to lead.”


A Growing, Underrepresented Demographic


As a Learning Designer, I partner with faculty to develop online courses in the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern University. Discussing web accessibility with online instructors, I am often asked, “How many students is this really going to help?” I usually respond, “More than you think!”

At a recent keynote speech (2016), Richard Culatta, former director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education, noted that more than half of higher education enrollments for 2016 are nontraditional students.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that statistic could be as high as 85%.

The Division of Adult Studies at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning estimates that as many as 30% of adult education participants have a disability. However, “they can sometimes be a largely invisible, underserved group,” laments Stephanie Gaddy in her article Support Adult Students with Disabilities by Understanding, Addressing their Unique Struggles (2014).

At a 2015 DePaul University conference celebrating 25 years since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), keynote speaker Marca Bristo, President and CEO of Access Living noted that the number of students who enter higher education with a disability is growing every year.

The number of students who register with disability services is also increasing. “We’re going up pretty consistently about 17% per year. And that’s nationally, not just us,” said Dr. Alison May, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of AccessibleNU at Northwestern University. She also observed that “there’s a higher percentage of individuals with disabilities taking online classes than taking brick-and-mortar classes,” and pointed out that adult students are also likely to experience disabilities that accompany age, including hearing loss, visual conditions, or health complications (A. May, personal communication, 2016).

Discussing the current status of adult students with disabilities, Judith Kolar, the Director of the Center for Students with Disabilities at DePaul University, observed that adult students with disabilities were simultaneously more likely to take online courses and more likely to find online courses difficult (J. Kolar, personal communication, 2015).

Susana Verdinelli and Donna Kutner confirmed many of these observations in their September 2015 article, “Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students With Disabilities,” published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. “Research indicates that students with disabilities tend to prefer and excel in the online environment… yet they tend to graduate at lower rates than students without disabilities,” the qualitative study concluded (Verdinelli and Kutner, 2015).


Benefits of Online Classes for Adult Students with Disabilities


Adult students take online classes for many reasons. Reluctance to move to a different city or increased scheduling flexibility to accommodate family commitments are among the most common. Some may also be disability related, including pain management and the ability to avoid stigmatization by making a request for accommodation (Verdinelli and Kutner, 2015).

Judith Kolar has described adult students’ hesitance to identify as disabled, and Dr. May has also discussed the benefit that anonymity provides some students taking online classes. “If you design distance learning courses accessibly, [students] might not have to self-identify,” Dr. May noted, “And they so much prefer not to share that they have a disability if they don’t have to” (A. May, personal communication, 2016).

There can also be challenges to obtaining adult student disability documentation, Kolar notes. Some students may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and others may have outdated paperwork. She concluded that the (often formidable) challenge of acquiring documentation prevents some adult students from seeking accommodations, especially since they are substantially less likely to seek accommodation through a parent advocate. (J. Kolar, personal communication, 2015).

To students who are unable to or do not wish to make a request for accommodation, accessible online courses provide the draw of built-in accommodations. In on-ground classes, a student might typically use an audio recording device or note-taker to help capture lecture content; in an online class, where the student can watch a lecture video multiple times or print a lecture transcript, no such accommodation is needed. Likewise, physical disabilities or anxiety disorders can make attending an on-ground class difficult; in a self-paced, online course, students don’t need to head to campus.

Just because students with disabilities haven’t self-identified doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It is critical that we work to serve adult students with disabilities in our current student population and prepare for the arrival of more like them in our online courses.

The Adult Educator Handbook of Rights and Responsibilities, issued by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning in 2005, succinctly describes the impact that meeting the accommodations of adult learners can have. Adult educators in the state of Kansas reported that students who received accommodations were more trusting and more productive, their self-confidence and self-esteem improved, and, because they were more comfortable, they had increased interaction with staff and other students.

And that’s all on top of increased academic performance.


Where Are We With Web Accessibility and Online Classes?

Web accessibility is one of very few instances in which the university is expected to make accommodations in anticipation of student needs. However, myths about the expense associated with accessibility have resulted in inconsistent web accessibility across institutions of higher education since the inception of online learning.

New lawsuits brought against institutions of higher education have raised the profile of web accessibility. Inside Higher Ed published Tracy Mitrano’s Law, Policy and IT? blog post on ADA Web Accessibility in July 2016, and Laura Carlson at the University of Michigan—Duluth has compiled a list of recent (and troublingly frequent) Higher Ed Accessibility Lawsuits, Complaints, and Settlements. No type of institution has been exempt: from local community colleges to flagship state universities to online, for-profit universities to private, Ivy League universities. Individuals bringing the suits are often supported by disability advocacy groups like the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), which assisted in the 2014 web accessibility suit against Miami University (Ohio) and the National Association of the Deaf, which sued Harvard over lecture captioning.

Among the 2016 Distance Teaching and Learning Conference attendees were those from Disability Rights Wisconsin, as well as institutions of higher education serving specific student populations online, like the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

In a recent conversation with Terrill Thompson, the Chairperson for the Technology Special Interest Group of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), he discussed the current climate surrounding institutions of higher education and their pursuit of web accessibility. “The fact is, and we can’t really deny it, all the case law is starting to have an influence,” he said (T. Thomas, personal communication, 2016).

He went on to describe other professional organizations that take an active interest in accessibility legislation, including the Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN) and the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group, which works with the NFB to craft responses to proposed legislation (T. Thomas, personal communication, 2016).

Of the challenges that online courses afford students with disabilities, perhaps the two largest are:

  • The absence of textual substitutes for audiovisual content, and
  • The use of inaccessible educational technology.


Where Should We Be with Accessibility in Online Classes?


Assessing and converting existing online courses is time-consuming. Moving forward, we need to incorporate accessibility considerations into the online course development process from the beginning.

Fundamentally, this will require a shift of perception when it comes to students with disabilities as a group of students to consider from the outset rather than a last-minute accommodation. For example, three mathematics instructors at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Patricia Spiecker, Keith Mousley, and Gary Blatto Vailes, recently showcased the videos they developed for their online courses, which included audio, handwriting capture, video of the instructor signing using ASL, and English captions. (P. Spiecker, K. Mousley, and G.B. Vailes, personal communication, 2016).

In the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern University, which develops online courses for post-baccalaureate certificate, graduate certificate, and master’s degree programs in addition to select courses for adult undergraduates, this consideration of students with disabilities starts with holding courses to national standards for quality that value web accessibility. For example, the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric includes five key standards for web accessibility, including, “Information is provided about the accessibility of all technologies required in the course,” and “The course provides alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.”

We also have a technical editor on staff who meets with faculty at the beginning of the development process to discuss our department’s accessibility guidelines. Six weeks before the course runs, the technical editor performs an accessibility review on the course, providing action items to be addressed before the course opens to students.

Likewise, our learning designers and instructional technologists have accessibility written into their job descriptions, and they are well-versed in guidelines and trends. Some have sought professional development on web accessibility through webinars, coursework, and a tutorial series centered in the information technology department. Are you looking to fill a position on your development team? Ask your candidates about their knowledge and experience with web accessibility.

Our course development staff also maintain a distance learning blog for a faculty audience, frequently addressing accessibility topics in blog posts and webinars.


What Else Can Be Done?


Familiarize Yourself with Assistive Technologies.

It is essential to acquaint yourself with the broad range of assistive technology that students with disabilities use to access the internet. Sheryl Burgstahler, writing for University of Washington’s DO-IT program, categorizes these tools into five groups in “Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology:” those supporting people with mobility impairments, blindness, low vision, hearing or speech impairments, and specific learning disabilities (S. Burgstahler, 2012). Have you ever considered what it might be like to navigate an online class with a screenreader? To type using a one-handed keyboard, or in Morse code, activated by switch? To read an online assignment by printing out the page on a Braille embosser? Many people do.

If you attend distance learning conferences, seek out discussions, presentations, and panels on accessible technology. This year’s Distance Teaching and Learning Conference included a presentation on building an ADA-accessible video player developed by the University of Wisconsin—Extension. If a panel doesn’t address accessibility directly, take it upon yourself to ask. Typically, the question I put to the presenters is “What considerations did you make for accessibility?”

In the Beginning, Focus on Doing the Most Good Quickly.

Web accessibility is a vast field, one that can seem quite daunting to someone just starting out. In the Rutgers University Continuing Education course Accessibility and Compliance in Online Education, instructor Sheryl Burgstahler, founder and director of Washington University’s DO-IT program, emphasized the idea that it’s better to focus on “low-hanging fruit” at first.

There are some simple things that course developers can do to improve accessibility in a big way. It may take a considerable amount of time to put captions on all the videos for a program, for example, but adding alt-text to embedded images and using proper heading tags is much more achievable–and provides a tangible benefit to students with disabilities.


Follow Web Accessibility Guidelines.

In their recent presentation “Web Accessibility: Charting a Course Toward Implementation,” Wendy MacColl and Mark Nash from Pikes Peak Community College focused on high impact/low effort tasks in order to be proactive and “get ahead of the game,” noting that Title I, Title II, and Title III will soon be changing to address web accessibility, giving institutions two years to show progress toward Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 at the AA level. Universal Design for Learning On Campus, supported by CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) provides a succinct summary of current legal obligations for accessibility.

Web accessibility can seem daunting and complex, but there are lots of measures that any instructional designer or faculty developer can take to make their online courses more accessible.

A quick web search for “web accessibility tips” generates millions of results from universities, graphic designers, advocacy organizations, bloggers with disabilities, and accessibility consultants.

Use Helpful and Respectful Language.

Inclusive language is imperative to welcoming adult students with disabilities. For example, Planning to Write an Accessible Online Course, a January 2016 webinar, the facilitators discussed how relative phrases such as “see above” or “the bold column” seem innocuous but may be difficult for students using screen reader software to perceive.

It is also important to consider respectful language use at all levels. You may not realize that you are using pejorative idioms (such as the blind leading the blind) or words with a history of demeaning people with disabilities, such as dumb, idiot, or lame. The Language of Disability, published by the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, describes some of the most commonly used offensive terms and their histories of use.

Alternately, use people-first language. Where you might have previously said disabled students, which identifies the group of people as disabled first and students second, consider using students with disabilities. A simple change in syntax reminds both you and others that you value a person’s humanity and student identity above their disability. To explore this topic further, the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center provides an excellent Guide to Disability Language and Empowerment.


Provide Text-Only Alternatives.

If you are like many others, you may be thinking: “If we get a request, we’ll caption it.” Unfortunately, captions often prove too time-consuming to produce for students at a moment’s notice and students end up going without. Incorporating scripting into your instructional video workflow can save time and capital. When speaking extemporaneously, you may have to transcribe your own videos (which is time consuming) or work with student employees or an external vendor to have them captioned (which is expensive).

Having a text-only alternative for slide presentations and infographics is also critical. Dr. May shared this maxim from a blind former student: “Simple is beautiful” (A. May, personal communication, 2016).

Think about your textbook. Is an ebook available that can be read with a screenreader? If not, how long might it take for that book to be converted to characters that a computer can read, a process known as optical character recognition? The same consideration should be made when it comes to additional course readings; any documents distributed as a PDF should be clear, quality copies with selectable text.


Choose Add-on Technologies Carefully.

If you are considering using an up-and-coming educational technology in your online program, find out whether or not it will be accessible to a variety of students. Vetting educational software is something that offices for students with disabilities are often tasked with, but it is something administrators and faculty in any department can do.


What should you consider before choosing any new technologies?


  • Value pedagogy before technology. What’s the purpose of the application? Will it serve program and course objectives? Or is it merely shiny and new?
  • Request a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) from the vendor. It can help answer many accessibility questions up front.
  • Ask a representative from the company or service to perform an accessibility demonstration. If the representative can’t or won’t, there’s a good chance the technology won’t serve all of your students.
  • Conduct trial runs of the software with students with disabilities, or consider establishing student personas for testing. Could you operate this software using only a keyboard? Could you participate in use of the software if you had an auditory impairment?


Involve Stakeholders at All Levels: Administration.

Communicating the value of accessibility at high levels can be difficult, but “Universal design is our pathway to that,” says Ray Schroeder, and a formal plan initiated by the institution can be the first step. (R. Schroeder, personal communication, 2016). MacColl and Nash noted in their presentation that their school’s administration was shaken when a local institution received a notice from the Office for Civil Rights, and released a mandate that discussed the treatment of new vs. legacy content, making changes that will affect the most students, and requests for exceptions.

In addition to developing an accessibility plan, it is also critical that the administration develops and maintains a vocal commitment to serving students with disabilities as part of their diversity statements. In What Campus Leaders Have to Say, a six-minute video developed by the University of Washington, Edward J. Ray, President of Oregon State University, says, “We genuinely believe that excellence is achieved through diversity and that a commitment to equity and inclusion really enriches each of our lives” (DO-IT, University of Washington, 2013).


Involving Staff.

MacColl and Nash provided an extensive list of the departments involved in implementing a web accessibility strategy, which included not just departments of distance learning and offices for students with disabilities, but the library, information technology, procurement, communications and marketing, student services, and many others. Recently, Michael Moore—one of the preeminent scholars in distance education—asked Distance Teaching and Learning Conference attendees to “help in the political process.” No matter your role within an institution of higher education, you are well-positioned to contribute to changes in web accessibility policy.

Involving Faculty.

Any class can be used to teach accessibility strategies. If your students are turning in a Word document as part of their final project, ask them to use the Styles feature to apply headings rather than formatting headings in bold or italics. If your students are turning in a short video presentation, ask them to script their videos, upload the videos to YouTube, and upload the transcript to be used as captions for the video before sharing it with their peers. In addition to mastering the content of your course, students will hone digital literacy skills and soak up web accessibility best practices.

And don’t forget to involve the students you are serving. Collect information about the needs of your student population to anticipate their needs and solicit feedback to assess your progress and iterate on your policy and procedure.


Moving Forward


“Deliver an accessible product from Day 1,” Dr. May says, and “the dividends will pay off. If the way you design your course means a student who would otherwise have to self-identify and request accommodations doesn’t, I would say you have leveled the playing field” (A. May, personal communication, 2016).

The 2016 Distance Teaching and Learning Conference finale ended with a call to action. Les Howles, the conference director, noted that “We need to continue to improve learning environments,” and ended the conference as he always does, saying “Go forth and apply.”



Burgstahler, S. (2012). Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology. DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from

DO-IT, University of Washington (Producer). (2013). IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have to Say. Retrieved from

Gaddy, S. (2014, 11 April). Support adult students with disabilities by understanding, addressing their unique struggles. Disability Compliance for Higher Education. Retrieved from

UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership. (2015). UPCEA. Retrieved from

University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. (n.d.). DAS Projects: Accommodating Adults with Disabilities in Adult Education Programs. Retrieved from

Verdinelli, S., & Kutner, D. (2015, September 21). Persistence factors among online graduate students with disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.




Parts of this article were modified from blog posts previously published at the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies Distance Learning blog, including Meeting the Accessibility Needs of Adult Students, Accommodating Adult Students: Perspectives from AccessibleNU and Accessibility and Compliance in Online Education Course Review.


Kristina Wilson is a Learning Designer in the School of Professional Studies. She collaborates with faculty as an advocate for curricular excellence, innovation in design and technology, universal design for learning, and superior student engagement and experience in online classes.