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Exploring Instructors' Lived Experiences of Accessibility Awareness in Online Learning Environments

Rachael Sessler Trinkowsky (Nova Southeastern University & Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches, USA)
Laurie Dringus (Nova Southeastern University, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 2:30pm
Faculty and Professional Development & Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 5
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 8
Virtual Session

What challenges do instructors experience to accommodate inclusive online learning environments for students with disabilities? What services promote accessibility and universal design in today's OLEs?

Extended Abstract


Although accessibility is highly regarded as a valued part of instructional design when developing online content, inaccessibility in online learning environments (OLEs) is a common and recurring problem for students with disabilities (SWDs) and for their instructors. For students, Coombs (2010) and Burgstahler (2007) recognized OLEs are often inaccessible or do not provide the full potential of support for people with print related disabilities, such as visual impairments, upper body motor impairments, hearing impairments, and learning disabilities. A fundamental principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to provide all students with the full use of flexible learning opportunities that are made available through usable and accessible learning environments.

For instructors, a major issue is a lack of accessibility awareness of the possibilities of UDL; it is unknown how instructors make use of existing guidelines and policies to extend accessible content. Coombs (2010) stated that administrators and faculty fear that the process of creating accessible content is technically complex and costly. Such fear is based on a lack of the proper knowledge, awareness, and planning strategies that are needed in place to develop or support accessible content. Ortiz, McCann, Rayphand, and Leong (2009) found that very few instructors implement accessibility practices in their OLEs. Though a number of reasons likely contribute to this problem, many instructors have not had first-hand experiences with one or all aspects of accessibility, principles of UDL, or SWDs.

Presentation Goal

The presentation will include an overview of a qualitative study conducted with online instructors that sought to understand their experiences of accessibility awareness in OLEs. The barriers of faculty accessibility awareness will be discussed with the goal to help audience members recognize their own relevant experiences in accessibility and how they can turn barriers into positive action for improving accessible content in online courses. Audience members will be invited to participate in the discussion and polls will be used to allow participants to share their own experiences and opinions regarding accessibility awareness and support needs of online faculty to help promote inclusive environments for SWDs.


The goals of the study were to describe how online faculty gain knowledge regarding accessibility, to explore the lived experiences of online faculty who have worked with students who have disabilities, and to gain a better understanding of how faculty experience the process of accessibility implementation. The following research questions guided the study:

1. How do faculty in OLEs experience encounters regarding accessibility for students who have print related disabilities?
2. How do faculty in OLEs experience the journey of developing the skills needed to provide accessibility for students with print related disabilities?
3. What aspects of accessibility and UDL do faculty members practice in OLEs and what meaning do they ascribe to the lived experience of providing these accommodations?

A qualitative study was conducted through semi-structured interviews with seven participants to learn about how faculty experience encounters with accessibility and the challenges and obstacles instructors experience with accessibility in online courses. Participants were recruited from contacts made through the Sloan Consortium, now the Online Learning Consortium, and the Assistive Technology Industry Association. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded to determine emergent themes.


Preliminary findings include the following emergent themes from the interviews:
Faculty experiences and perspectives of accessibility for SWDs in OLEs. Instructors expressed their misconceptions about accessibility, their experiences offering help and informing SWDs, frustrations of instructors and students, and they talked about what things would help faculty prepare to work with SWDs.

Accessibility and usability awareness of online faculty. Instructors expressed their understanding of an awareness gap, the problems associated with the usability of navigating and accessing materials, and how many educational tools are inaccessible or difficult to use for SWDs.

Accommodations and accessibility features used in OLEs. Instructors shared which accommodations and features help students with and without disabilities, and improved accessibility within OLEs. They shared their experiences about the problems of needing more time to develop accessible content, retrofitting accessibility, and needing various accommodations to assist SWDs.

Faculty autonomy within OLEs as it relates to creating accessible content. Instructors expressed that the CMS is often too prescribed, reducing the instructor's ability to add or edit the CMS, and the importance of giving instructors more creative freedom in producing accessible content.

Different perspectives and experiences of faculty who teach courses within programs that have an emphasis on accessibility, assistive technology or working with SWDs. Instructors expressed varied perspectives about how accessibility is improving online and that a stronger connection to accessibility services is growing. They expressed the need for greater acceptance of SWDs.

Interactions and relationships between faculty, students, various departments and outside organizations. Instructors expressed the need for institutional-level offices for SWDs and the need for university services and departments to improve ways to assist with accessibility in OLEs.

Faculty training, accessibility and experiences with people with disabilities. Instructors expressed the challenges of providing accessibility training to faculty and the issue of faculty need vs. desire for accessibility training.


We anticipate that by focusing on various emergent themes from the study, session attendees will be able to recognize their own challenges and experiences in accommodating online content for students with disabilities.


Burgstahler, S. (2007). Accessibility training for distance learning personnel.
Access Technology Higher Education Network E-Journal. Retrieved from

Coombs, N. (2010). Making online teaching accessible: Inclusive course design
for students with disabilities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ortiz, T., McCann, K., Rayphand, L.J. & Leong, P. (2009). Assessing faculty
awareness, practices, and accommodations in universal design for learning:
With respect to distance education courses. In G. Siemens & C. Fulford
(Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia,
Hypermedia and Telecommunications (pp. 4385-4390). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/32121

Lead Presenter

Rachael Sessler Trinkowsky, Ph.D., CRC, is a graduate of the College of Engineering and Computing at Nova Southeastern University. She is the Technology Training and Vocational Coordinator for the Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches. She has many years of experience teaching, evaluating, and recommending needed software and devices for adults and children with visual impairments. Previous speaking engagements include: The Florida Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Just Us Blind Girls, the Assistive Technology Industry Association, as well as numerous local presentations on assistive technology topics.

Contact information:
Rachael Sessler Trinkowsky, Ph.D., CRC
Technology Training and Vocational Coordinator
Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches
1710 E. Tiffany Drive, West Palm Beach, FL 33407
Email: trink@lighthousepalmbeaches.org
Office: 561-586-5600

Laurie P. Dringus, Ph.D.
Professor, College of Engineering and Computing
Nova Southeastern University
3301 College Avenue
Ft. Lauderdale, FL USA 33314
Email: laurie@nova.edu
Office: 954-262-2073