One of the reasons I think students “find their voice” in mediated interaction is that they feel more authentic as a person in mediated interaction than they do face to face. Someone with a disability often doesn’t feel disabled inside. But because they present to the world some form of disability, they feel that their identity is labeled that way. It’s exciting for them to be in a kind of interaction where they present themselves as not disabled because the bandwidth is low enough that they are not presenting their full physical appearance (Dede, 2005, p. 120).
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C secs. 12101, et seq., requires universities to make their distance education learning classes accessible to qualified individuals with a disability (O’Neil et al.). “As universities and faculty expand their distance-education offerings, they are finding that they must include the virtual equivalents of wheelchair ramps when building their online classrooms” (O’Neil et al., p. 111). For example, the student who is visually impaired and cannot see a graphic, the text on a web page, or the navigational menu, or the student who is deaf and cannot listen to a streaming audio lecture must be accommodated. Most distance students with disabilities have equipment that aids them in hearing a lecture or reading text. However, web sites that are not ADA compliant can confound the programs used by the equipment.
The online instructor should consider on an individual basis what accommodations need to be made for the online student. It is important to know the limitations of the student and what equipment the student has before the course begins, so the instructor can plan accordingly. For instance, if a student is using voice recognition software to write a paper, the online instructor might allow for leniency in spelling. If the student is using a TTY phone or a screen reader to take a test, the instructor might allow more time to take the test. If the online instructor provides audio lectures, a text version of the lecture should be provided for the hearing impaired student. If the online instructor incorporates web pages and web graphics into the course, the web pages must be verified for ADA compliance (O’Neil et al.). Section 508 of the ADA includes standards for designing accessible web pages and should be reviewed by the online instructor. “The bottom line is that everyone should have equal access to information” (p. 112).
Under the pillar of “Learning Effectiveness,” the Sloan Consortium (“Ten Practices for Developing Accessibility Material”, n.d., para. 3) recommends Ten Practices for creating accessible online materials:
- Consider multiple formats for content such as html, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, PDFs
- Create PDFs with Optical Character Recognition rather than as scanned images
- Avoid cutting and pasting text from Microsoft Word – use Notepad to avoid extra code
- Design for the Web
- Use clear consistent headings
- Limit navigation links and menu buttons
- Provide instructions for course tools
- Design with color contrast for text and background
- Use san serif fonts or fonts designed for the Web (e.g., Verdana)
- Insert alt tags for images
- Write for the Web
- Use short sentences
- Remember to check spelling
- Write out acronyms
- Use numbers rather than bullets
- Provide an overview, subheadings, and summary
- Keep tables simple with clear column and row headings and one piece of data per cell
- Provide transcripts and/or captioning for audio and video files
- Use templates with built-in formatting with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint; use styles with Word
- Provide instructor contact information in a prominent place
- Use discussion board or email rather than chat as a primary form of communication
- Make friends with your disability services and instructional support staff; talk to a student who has a disability
“Learning effectiveness is enhanced as students receive online course materials in a timely manner and in alternative formats. Student satisfaction is enhanced by the clarity and accessibility of the course materials” (“Ten Practices for Developing Accessibility Material”, para. 5).
All students can benefit from online courses structured using a “universal design that has a redundancy of instructional responses” (Moore, 2004, p. 2). This allows the student to select learning materials in multiple formats to best suit his/her learning style or ability. In addition, the instructor will save time, energy, and expense by taking a proactive approach to create accessible materials upfront, rather than have to revise and redesign the materials later to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Resources for Developing Accessibility Materials (Americans with Disabilities Act)