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Increasing Accessibility: Using Universal Design Principles to Address Disability Impairments in the Online Learning Environment


Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration Volume 17, Number 3 ISSN 1556-3847


With the increasing number of students enrolling in distance education, there is a need to consider the accessibility of course materials in online learning environments. Four major groups of disabilities: mobility, auditory, visual, and cognitive are explored as they relate to their implementation into instructional design and their impact on students in online learning, specifically for students with disabilities. This article highlights the ways in which universal design can assist in providing increased accessibility, not only for students with disabilities, but for all students in the online learning environment. Current standards for disability instruction and guidelines for creating accessible materials are shared. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defined distance education as "a formal education process in which the students and instructors are not in the same place" resulting in the online environment becoming the platform where students and teachers meet academically (NCES, 2008, p. 1). In postsecondary education, the development of distance education has significantly accelerated in the last few decades (Pittman, 2003). Allen and Seaman (2013) indicate that 6.7 million students, or about 32%, enrolled in at least one distance learning course during the fall 2011 semester, which was a 3% increase from fall 2010. Edmonds (2004) noted that higher education institutions may neglect the needs of students with disabilities in an effort to increase online learning opportunities. With the rise in distance education enrollment, administrators should consider accessibility in the instructional design process. The invention of the World Wide Web (Web) has impacted students with disabilities by removing many of the interactional barriers they may have faced in a physical classroom setting; while creating new barriers that may exclude these students from using the Web (World Wide Web Consortium, 2013). Providing accommodations through access is not enough because courses that are inadequately designed create additional barriers to participation (Burgstahler, 2004). The purpose of this article is to identify challenges in the online learning environment faced by those with disabilities and to illustrate how the principles of universal design can be used as a means to assist instructors in increasing accessibility for students with disabilities in the online learning environment (Mace, Hardie, & Plaice, 1991).


Pittman, C.N. & Heiselt, A.K. Increasing Accessibility: Using Universal Design Principles to Address Disability Impairments in the Online Learning Environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 17(3),. Retrieved March 21, 2023 from .

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