Making Distance Courses Accessible to Students with Disabilities

Author Information
Sheryl Burgstahler
Ph. D.
University of Washington
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Washington
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The University of Washington's DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center promotes the accessible design of online courses nationwide. DO-IT, the UW Access Technology Lab, and the UW Distance Learning program have demonstrated an effective practice in this area.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

How this practice supports access: The University of Washington's DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center has undertaking a nation-wide effort to move online course accessibility beyond reactive compliance (accomodation) to proactive (universal design). See for resources in this area. The UW's Access Technology Lab (ATL) coordinates technology access efforts on campus. It is involved with a number of campus-wide initiatives. They include working with the UW's Educational Technology Group to promote accessible tools and course materials; providing stand-alone accessibility presentations; integrating accessibility into mainstream Web and other technology courses; supporting a campus Web accessibility Web site; and participating in the "Accessibleweb" discussion list and monthly meetings. The UW Distance Learning program has worked with both DO-IT and the ATL to improve the accessibility of its coures. Initially it included policy and procedures statements on its Web site regarding reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, but not regarding a commitment to design accessible courses. A proactive approach such as this is also referred to as universal design = "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." - and benefits all students and instructors, not just those with disabilities.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

This systemic change in approach from accommodation (reactive) to universal design + accommodation (proactive + reactive) has made progress in several areas. Places on UW's distance learning program Web pages to reaffirm UW policy have been identified, including the program home page, student and faculty information pages, and staff support pages. Rewards include confidence in compliance with laws on accessibility, cleaner, better functioning pages, and improved ease of use for all students and instructors. The UW Distance Learning program recently received the "BizTech Accessibility Award" for its efforts in designing courses that are accessible to everyone. DO-IT's experiences suggest that accessibility compliance is not as difficult as it seems; designing with accessibility in mind, collaborating with key partners, and finding and using existing tools are effective strategies.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Incorporating accessible design as courses are being developed is not expensive; retrofitting existing courses to make them accessible to a student with a disability can be very expensive.

References, supporting documents: 

Burgstahler, S., and McCarter, J, "Making Online Distance Learning Courses Accessible to Students with Disabilities," presentation at 9th Annual Sloan-C International Conference. Powerpoint presentation retrieved May 6, 2004 from:

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D., Director, DO-IT, University of Washington
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