Many colleges and universities have added, or are considering, classes taught over the internet in order to reach students who are unable to attend a traditional higher education course. Because distance learning is new, many people are giving attention to issues of format, appropriateness, and quality of classes taught over the internet. A good discussion of these issues can be found at Also, faculty who are preparing distance learning courses are developing inventive ways of making the courses more engaging and interactive, to make up for the missing person-to-person interaction of a traditional course. For an excellent example, see

    Although these are important considerations, it is equally important not to forget the needs of the disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. secs. 12101 et seq., directs universities to make their distance learning classes accessible to qualified individuals with a disability, just as they are required to do for traditional courses. In particular, 42 U.S.C. sec. 12132 states:

Subject to the provisions of this subchapter, no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.

For non-public institutions, 42 U.S.C. sec. 12182(a) provides:

No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.

    An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes some of the difficulties web sites can pose for the disabled:"distance+education"&Collection=Weekly46&Collection=Weekly45&SortField=score&SortOrder=desc&ViewTemplate=ArchiveView%2Ehts&.

    In contrast to classroom instruction, in which accommodations for a disabled student can perhaps best be worked out individually, proper design of a web site and other internet-based parts of a course can minimize, if not eliminate, the need to provide individual accommodations for disabled students. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information regarding how best to use the internet to maximize access for the disabled.

The overall design of web sites can have a tremendous effect on their accessibility for persons with disabilities. Because the internet is predominantly a visual medium, it should be no surprise that accommodations may be needed for the blind. However, proper design of a web page can also accommodate the needs of persons who have mobility impairments or learning disabilities, or are deaf.

    Guides for making the web accessible recommend the use of standard hypertext markup language (html) or, if appropriate, the new extensible hypertext markup language (xml or xhtml). (Html is the standard coding language that tells a web browser what to display on a computer screen; xml is the name for the most modern version of the coding language.) Cutting edge html can pose problems because specialized software for the disabled, such as reading software for the blind, may be unable to understand it. Also, in general a simple layout is better. Frames and tables, for example, can cause problems with reading software because that software reads from left to right, ignoring the layout of a page. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) recently sued AOL because AOL's software allegedly does not work with reading software. A copy of the complaint is attached and can also be found at Curtis Chung, the NFB's Director of Technology, answered questions about the suit at Mr. Chung said:

. . . the quarrel we have with America Online has to do with the accessibility of the software we *MUST* *RUN* in the Windows environment in order to use any AOL service. This is *NOT* related directly to any question of accessibility to web pages. To put it simply, the AOL software, all versions, behaves in such a way as to make it difficult if not impossible for screen access programs for the blind to understand what is being displayed on the screen. What we are asking for is to have AOL software that works well with screen access software for the blind.

    The choice of colors and typefaces, and the layout of the page, can affect the ease of reading for persons with learning disabilities, particularly those with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Consistent style and navigation design from page to page also helps those with learning disabilities. Sites designed for ease of navigation and with large hotlinks can accommodate the needs of persons with mobility impairments, who may have difficulty controlling a mouse. Keeping pages short means that reading software does not have to read a long page before the listener can click to something else. Reading software also may have difficulty with symbols and graphs, such as those used in math and science classes. Persons who are colorblind can have difficulty if the web site relies on color for navigation.

    The technology selected to deliver the course content also can affect the disabled. For example, streamed audio or video is not accessible to persons with hearing or vision disabilities. An institution's duty to accommodate does not force the course designer necessarily to eschew these technologies, but it will require the institution to give thought to alternate means of providing the course content. For example, a course that uses streaming audio lectures will be accessible to a deaf student if a parallel web page contains the written text of the lectures. Similarly, a picture or other visual element can be described in text that reading software can speak to a blind student. (By the way, this descriptive text need not appear on the face of the web page itself - it can be coded "behind" the picture it describes, using a tag that the reading software sees.) Java applets (small programs that can be run within a browser) also can cause problems with some access software.

    The web sites and technology for an online course should be compatible with all operating systems and web browsers. Some software and hardware solutions for the disabled are designed for one operating system (usually Windows or Macintosh), so developing a web site that works only on one platform excludes persons who must use another operating system. Similarly, some people have become familiar with one browser, so using code that requires Internet Explorer, for example, excludes persons who have come to depend on Netscape or text-based browsers.

    The concern about accessibility does not end with the course itself. To be fully in compliance with the ADA's requirements, the institution will need to ensure that the professor's web pages, and means of communicating with the online students, are accessible to the disabled. Also, the means of testing the student will need to be developed with an eye towards ease of accommodating disabilities over a distance.

Finally, the foregoing discussion assumed that an institution would develop its own distance education courses. However, private vendors may offer to sell an institution a ready-made distance-learning course. These courses may not be designed with consideration of access for the disabled, and the institution will be responsible to overcome any deficiencies.

Legal Questions for Discussion

    As may be apparent from my discussion of the design of internet-based courses, I believe that the major issues are practical ones - how best to make the courses accessible - rather than legal. Nonetheless, I've identified a few legal issues for discussion:

1. Do state institutions have immunity from a private suit for damages under the ADA?

2. Do institutions have an obligation to provide specialized software to its students so they can access distance learning courses? Would an institution have such an obligation if it also provides a computer to the student?

3. What is an institution's obligation if a course includes links to a third-party web site that was not accessible? Would copyright law allow a University to make an accessible copy of that web page? See 17 U.S.C. sec. 121 and 2 U.S.C. sec. 135a, which are at the end of this outline.

Web Design Resources

    In my preparation for this conference I found a number of resources that you might find useful. Closing the Gap (at is a company that lists software and hardware resources for the disabled. Other sites on the web set out standards for accessible web design. At the conference I am providing a copy of a web design manual from the California Community Colleges, which many professionals in accessible web design recommended. It can also be found on the web at The California Community Colleges also link to several other resources for web access by the disabled at The World Wide Web Consortium (, the organization that sets the general standards for the web, also has access guidelines at, as well as several other useful materials listed at

    The Job Accommodation network has numerous links to accessibility information and web design at, as does the Electronic Commerce Resource Center at

    The federal Electronic and Information Technology Access Advisory Committee posted guidelines for compliance with new section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act at (Although Section 508 by its terms applies only to federal agencies, another federal law imposes Section 508's requirements on our institutions as well.) In any case, the guidelines will be useful in designing accessible courses. A question and answer site discussing 508 is at

    The Center for Computer Assistance for the Disabled, at, offers training and information for the disabled to help them learn how to use computers and the web. Information regarding access to Sun's Java technology can be found at

    Bobby is a free web-based tool that analyzes web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities. The Equal Access to Software and Information site at has links to numerous resources for making accessible many forms of technology, not just the web.

    In addition, my co-speaker, Tim Spofford, has put his outline on the web at His outline also contains links to useful sites.

    I wish to thank Dr. Norman Coombs of the Rochester Institute of Technology ( and Dan Comden of the University of Washington's Adaptive Technology Lab ( for their invaluable help.

17 U.S.C. sec. 121. Limitations on exclusive rights: reproduction for blind or other people with disabilities

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 710, it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies or phonorecords of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies or phonorecords are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.

(1) Copies or phonorecords to which this section applies shall -

not be reproduced or distributed in a format other than a specialized format exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities; bear a notice that any further reproduction or distribution in a format other than a specialized format is an infringement; and include a copyright notice identifying the copyright owner and the date of the original publication.

(2) The provisions of this subsection shall not apply to standardized, secure, or norm-referenced tests and related testing material, or to computer programs, except the portions thereof that are in conventional human language (including descriptions of pictorial works) and displayed to users in the ordinary course of using the computer programs.

For purposes of this section, the term -

''authorized entity'' means a nonprofit organization or a governmental agency that has a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities;

''blind or other persons with disabilities'' means individuals who are eligible or who may qualify in accordance with the Act entitled ''An Act to provide books for the adult blind'', approved March 3, 1931 (2 U.S.C. 135a; 46 Stat. 1487) to receive books and other publications produced in specialized formats; and

''specialized formats'' means braille, audio, or digital text which is exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.


2 U.S.C. Sec. 135a. Books and sound-reproduction records for blind and other physically handicapped residents; annual appropriations; purchases

There is authorized to be appropriated annually to the Library of Congress, in addition to appropriations otherwise made to said Library, such sums for expenditure under the direction of the Librarian of Congress as may be necessary to provide books published either in raised characters, on sound-reproduction recordings or in any other form, and for purchase, maintenance, and replacement of reproducers for such sound-reproduction recordings, for the use of the blind and for other physically handicapped residents of the United States, including the several States, Territories, insular possessions, and the District of Columbia, all of which books, recordings, and reproducers will remain the property of the Library of Congress but will be loaned to blind and to other physically handicapped readers certified by competent authority as unable to read normal printed material as a result of physical limitations, under regulations prescribed by the Librarian of Congress for this service. In the purchase of books in either raised characters or in sound-reproduction recordings the Librarian of Congress, without reference to the provisions of section 5 of title 41, shall give preference to nonprofit-making institutions or agencies whose activities are primarily concerned with the blind and with other physically handicapped persons, in all cases where the prices or bids submitted by such institutions or agencies are, by said Librarian, under all the circumstances and needs involved, determined to be fair and reasonable.


Copyright 2000 Sachi Wilson. This document may freely be copied in any form, or modified as the user desires, on condition that you give me notice by email to sachiwilson[at] (Replace [at] with @.) Links welcomed.