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Simulating the Experience of Online Learning for a Student with Physical and/or Sensory Disabilities

Lisa Webb (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA)
Yin Kreher (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA)
Additional Authors
Phil Edwards (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA)
Session Information
November 20, 2013 - 12:45pm
Learning Effectiveness
Areas of Special Interest: 
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Europe 2
Session Duration: 
35 Minutes
Information Session 2

This session highlights challenges students with physical and/or sensory disabilities encounter in online courses and demonstrates tools to help teachers proactively design accessible courses.

Extended Abstract

Teachers are responsible for selecting media and creating interactive opportunities for their students; however, the experiences of students with disabilities can be constrained by these instructional choices (Carnevale, 1999). In the transition from classroom-based to hybrid and/or fully-online modes of teaching, the accessibility-related tensions these choices create can be exacerbated. Many teachers may not have the lived experience of encountering inaccessibility in their own learning, experiences which might otherwise have sensitized them to issues of (in)equitable access for learners with disabilities. As a result, teachers routinely decide to deploy (in)accessible platforms (i.e., learning management systems), (in)accessible practices (e.g., (lack of) verbal descriptions of visual representations during recorded lectures), and (in)accessible content (e.g., (lack of) captioned video and transcripts). Whether these instructional choices are shaped by a lack of awareness of relevant adaptations ("I did not know that my course content was unable to be recognized by screen-reader software"), by active denial ("There are not going to be many students with disabilities in my courses"), or by sheer indifference ("It is a student's responsibility to seek out accommodations"), it has become increasingly likely that teachers will be compelled to provide comparable access to online courses for students regardless of specific disability characteristics. The regulatory, economic, and moral arguments for enhancing accessibility in online learning environments continue to evolve, introducing additional responsibilities for institutions and individual teachers to navigate in this changing landscape.

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines from the Center for Applied Special Technology (2011) recommend that teachers provide multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement to help their students become resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, goal-directed, purposeful, and motivated learners. UDL approaches are complementary to long-standing practices of providing accommodations for students with disabilities in that both perspectives attempt to ensure that educational experiences are comparable forAll learners regardless of ability. While proponents of UDL adopt a broad, proactive, and emancipatory stance toward accessibility, the discourse around the "reasonableness" of particular accommodations, stemming from individualized assessments of students, is often a far more reactive, compliance-driven approach grounded in the physicality of classroom and campus spaces.

To draw attention to the (in)accessibility of online courses, this proposed interactive session strives to meet the following objectives:

(1) To simulate some of the typical challenges that students with
physical and/or sensory disabilities encounter in online courses;

(2) To present examples of teachers who, when reacting
to the needs of students with disabilities enrolled in their courses, made
accessibility-related modifications which had a positive impact on students'
experiences; and

(3) To demonstrate a suite of tools that teachers may use to
proactively design more accessible courses.

To address these objectives, session facilitators will introduce cases in which teachers have redesigned aspects of their online courses to align with UDL principles; examples include reactive changes with regard to access to video content and the use of Wimba/Collaborate within Blackboard. Participants will be exposed to a variety of existing and freely-available tools which could be used to gain a better understanding of how students with physical and/or sensory disabilities may be experiencing their online courses; selected tools may include ATbar (, WebAnywhere (, WebbIE (, Amara (, and the UDL Curriculum Toolkit (Center for Applied Special Technology, 2011-2012).