Accessibility in Distance Education Courses

Contents: Mission StatementsOnline Leadership CommitteeForms of Distance EducationTraining RequirementsPrinciples of Learning through DEDE Course ExpectationsProctoring in DEAccessibility in DE CoursesReview & Revision Process for DE FacultyIntellectual Property Rights for DE

“Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.

Department of Justice and The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights: South Carolina Technical College System Resolution Agreement (PDF)

Why is Web Accessibility Important?

Implementing the principles of universal design and accessibility in online learning means anticipating the diversity of students that may enroll in your course and planning accordingly. Designing a course with these principles in mind is an ongoing and creative process. One does not achieve the level of usability aspired to with a simple checklist, but with an open mind and a commitment to making design and inclusion a priority.

Universal design/accessibility touches every part of the course design and requires some additional planning and work. So why do we need to be proactive about it? Why does it matter at all?

Studies indicate that the student populations served by Distance Learning are more likely to have disabilities. According to research on disabled students, online courses are more appealing to students with disabilities for a number of reasons. This course format provides greater flexibility, allowing students to do their work when they have the most ability, rather than when the class is scheduled. These courses are easier to access for students with mobility issues. And, most commonly, these courses allow students to maintain their privacy if they do not want to report their disability. Disabled people face frequent prejudice and discrimination, and many students with disabilities report that they enjoy the freedom from stereotypes that online courses can offer. 

It is estimated that 30 to 70 percent of online students with disabilities do not disclose their disability or request accommodations. Some of these students may not be aware of the support that is available, but for majority of students, they do not disclose because they want “the opportunity to allow intellect, skill, and character to become their observed identity, rather than their disability.”1 As a result, it is crucially important for online courses to be accessibly designed from the beginning, so that all students can engage with the course materials. Students should not be forced to choose between maintaining their privacy and passing a class. Building an accessible course allows them to do both.

1. Verdinelli, S. and Kutner, D. (2015). Persistence Factors Among Online Graduate Students With Disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9, 353-368.

Adapted from Northwestern School of Professional Studies with permission.

Accessibility is a College & Legal Obligation

Online course content is subject to Pellissippi State’s policy regarding Accessible Informational Materials and Technologies (00.04.01) which states in part:

“In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act …. all informational materials and technologies should meet accessibility best practices and standards set forth in the most current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Levels A and AA, Epub3 Accessibility Guidelines (specifically for Ebooks) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.”

Online course content is also subject to the TBR Distance Education Policy which reads in part:

“Course developers and instructors of each online course must comply with federal guidelines for accessibility as directed by TBR policy, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Course developers and instructors utilizing materials that are not accessible must provide a written plan for alternate access and a plan for bringing the course into compliance.” (Emphasis added.)

When to Think about Web Accessibility?

The time to think about the accessibility of your course and course materials is now. First, having to revisit and revise your course materials to address accessibility issues will consume more of your time compared to creating these in accessible formats from the start. Secondly, treating accessibility concerns as an afterthought can make disabled students feel unwelcome and, even worse, can erect further barriers to their learning.

How to Create Web Accessibility?


This is important whether or not a user has a disability. If your navigation is not well designed and easy to understand, then people will not be able to find and access all of your content. Further information: 9 Ways to Make Your Course Easier to Navigate


Roughly 2% of adult Americans have some form of vision impairment, including nearsightedness, color blindness, or even complete loss of vision. Considerations such as text size, contrast, and color can significantly improve how easy it is to read your content. For example, users should be able to increase or decrease the text size on your site using basic browser functionality. Additionally, proper color contrast between text and backgrounds will reduce visual comprehension challenges brought on by color blindness and other conditions.


Select colors of sufficient contrast to the background. Don’t use color as the only visual means of conveying information.


Using imagery to convey a great deal of meaning in a design can prevent the visually impaired from being able to receive that information. Some things to consider:

  • Important information should be displayed as text and not as an image wherever possible.
  • Include text descriptions on your images so that vision-impaired users can understand what is being displayed. This is especially important for graphics such as flowcharts, schematics, maps, graphs, or menu buttons.
  • Color alone shouldn’t be used to convey important or critical information – for example, a map that uses color-coded markers. To assist people with color blindness or other vision impairment, supporting text should be included.


Captioning and transcripts can provide synchronized text when consuming video or audio file. Animations and movement should include a means for the user to disable or pause them.

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Dr. Paul Ramp, Director


Pellissippi State Community College is an AA/EEO employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, ethnic or national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, disability, age, status as a covered veteran, or genetic information in its programs and activities.
View the Non-Discrimination Policy/Website Accessibility.
For questions or concerns, please contact Annazette Houston, Executive Director of Equity and Compliance.