Accessibility: The Bridge Between Success and Disability

Standards and Practices Committee

North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design—a global movement of inclusive design practice through a working group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers—collaborated to identify seven components of the Principles of Universal Design (Connell et al.,1997):

  • Equitable - the design is equally useful to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexible - the design supports differing abilities.
  • Simple - the design is intuitive.
  • Perceptible - the design offers material in multiple modalities.
  • Tolerance for error - the design minimizes possibilities for predictable errors.
  • Effortless - the design minimizes repetitive actions.
  • Spacious - the design includes appropriate room for users.

Researchers adapted these principles of universal design from architecture into education, first with the goal of providing better educational experiences to students with disabilities, then to expand those experiences through flexible methods and materials, and then to curriculum, which led to the development of a universal design for learning (UDL) to benefit students.

UDL Implementation

In 1984, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) was created with the goal of providing better educational experiences for students with disabilities through the development of assistive technology such as screen readers, voice recognition programs, and much more. After extensive research into how humans learn, CAST shifted focus onto improving the curriculum by developing scientifically-based flexible methods and materials rather than just addressing individual students’ needs. This focus led to the development of the universal design for learning principals (CAST, 2018) to optimize teaching and learning that, by developing accessible and engaging resources for the least able, will benefit all others.

CAST has also helped define access standards for the World Wide Web and influenced the inclusion of UDL in legislation such as the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which provides for its implementation in post-secondary settings and teacher preparation programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). By designing courses with the UDL guidelines in mind, faculty can ensure that all students benefit from the extra instructions and guidance that are provided to those with disabilities. UDL provides multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression to help students access information, build skills, and internalize comprehension and develop knowledge.

The goal of UDL is to develop expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed. UDL encompasses accessibility in the guidelines for representation, which renders accessibility as the learning experience provided to students rather than simply creating accessible documents and support captioning.

Web Content Accessibility

In addition to making documents and materials accessible to students, resources such as websites, eBooks, and applications must all be verified for accessibility compliance.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) prescribe the design of web-based materials to be technically accessible as well as usable (World Wide Web Consortium, 2008). In cooperation with organizations and individuals throughout the world, WCAG 2.0 documents are developed with the goal of providing a standard for web content accessibility to meet the needs of all users.

The WCAG 2.0 guides developers on how web content should be made accessible for people with disabilities. These guidelines can be summed up in an acronym, POUR:

  • Perceivable to visually impaired and sighted individuals.
  • Operable by disabled, less capable, and capable individuals.
  • Understandable within a wide range of learning abilities.
  • Robust to maximize compatibility to assistive technologies

Resistance to Accessibility

Great resistance sometimes exists to preparing or adjusting courses to meet accessibility requirements. Instructors often fail to imagine the full spectrum of students who may need to use the materials and benefit from a well-designed course that meets accessibility thresholds. Faculty must think about students who may be left out of full participation or locked out of full access to course materials.

Three types of student impairments should be a focus of attention: vision, hearing, and mobility. If the materials are visual, faculty should also make them audible. If the materials are audible, faculty should also make them visual. Text, images, videos, lectures, and meetings must be in a format that works well with assistive technology. As for mobility, faculty must go beyond the obvious issues of students using assistive equipment such as wheelchairs or crutches. Students with arthritis, carpal tunnel, and other fine-motor control limitations benefit from courses designed to mitigate the demands of a keyboard and mouse. As Elise Roy (n.d.), a disability rights lawyer and design thinker, says, "When we design for disability first, we often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm."

If designing courses for the learning experience of students who are the least privileged is not enough to overcome resistance to accessibility, this simple final argument should: it is the law.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination based on disability and applies to federal agencies, public universities, federal contractors, and any other institution or activity receiving federal funds. Section 508 of the same act provides the underlying mandate for designing courses that are accessible to students with visual, auditory, and physical impairments, as well as students with information processing differences (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

The Education for Handicapped Children Act of 1975, now called The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, guarantees a free, appropriate education for all children with disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). This act influences educational programs as well as the facilities in which they are conducted.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 awakened widespread public awareness of the civil rights of people with disabilities. Discrimination in employment, access to places of public accommodation, services, programs, public transportation, and telecommunications is prohibited by this law (U.S. Access Board, n.d.).

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandates that telecommunications services and equipment and customer premises equipment be "designed, developed, and fabricated to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable" (Federal Communications Commission, 2013). It applies to all types of telecommunications devices and services.

To provide guidance to faculty and administrators, the California Community Colleges Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines Task Force compiled the Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines for Students with Disabilities (Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines Task Force, 2011).

Mitigating Accessibility Issues

Faculty need not wait for a DSPS notice upon a student’s request for accommodation: students are not required to disclose a disability to have full access to materials and resources. Providing accessible courses and materials is under the control and responsibility of instructors. Faculty can take the following steps to make a course fully accessible:

  • Add an accessibility section to the syllabus or instructions for the course.
  • Change all documents to “Pages” in Canvas. If doing so is not possible, run accessibility checks on all doc, pdf, xls, documents, and pp presentations, including those from shareable apps such as Google.
  • Run the accessibility checkers PopeTech or Ally in Canvas on pages, assignments, announcements, and other materials.
  • Make videos accessible with captions or other methods. If the material is not pedagogically necessary, consider removing it.
  • Run the “Validate Links in Content” found in “Settings” in Canvas. Visit each link to verify that the website is accessible.

Resources Inventory

So that all necessary steps are taken to make courses accessible, faculty can prepare a list to keep track of all items:

  • List all resources in a module, such as activities, assignments, videos, and documents.
  • Indicate the resource type, such as page, pdf, ppp, doc, video, or website.
  • Include the location or URL of the resource.
  • Write the steps to make materials accessible.
  • Indicate the completion date.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Accessibility Center provides resources for instructors on their quest to accessibility compliance, such as self-paced and essentials micro-courses in addition to links to Canvas and Microsoft courses. It also has specific accessibility courses for the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. The Accessibility Center can be accessed at Faculty may also contact their college’s disability or distance education offices.

Course Design Review

Bringing an online course into compliance with accessibility requirements will necessitate that faculty bring the entire content into alignment with the California Virtual Campus Rubric. Doing so may increase students’ engagement and stimulate enrollment, and faculty may earn flex credit. Interested faculty should check with their local Peer Online Course Review team to participate in a Course Design Academy. [1]

Benefits from a course design review include the following:

  • Confidential feedback and course design recommendations from fellow online faculty.
  • Support from an instructional designer to assist in applying feedback and getting the most from the tools and features in Canvas.
  • Hands-on assistance, as needed, from accessibility specialists to make a course fully 508 compliant.
  • A quality reviewed badge for the course that will help it rise to the top of the student search at

Teaching is a dynamic field that is constantly changing and evolving. To become more effective educators, faculty should keep up with new rules and resources that aim to support their students. Accessibility is indeed the bridge that improves the chances for all students, disabled or not, to achieve success.  

[1] The Course Design Academy is a free professional development program for faculty teaching at California community colleges. More information is available at