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An international peer-reviewed journal

Online Learning: Designing for All Users

Cindy Poore-Pariseau

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 4, August 2010, pp. 147 - 156

Article Contents


The Laws That Govern Accessibility

Designing substance for the web (including coursework) is more dynamic than in years past. While there are positives in this development, there are also negatives, particularly for those with disabilities such as blindness or low vision, dyslexia (and other print related disorders), and deafness/hard of hearing. The reason for this is that these populations do not experience the Internet and media used to enhance coursework the same way as those without disabilities. For example, there is an inherent disadvantage for students who are blind and taking courses that depend, even in part, on visuals, or for students who have dyslexia and are taking primarily print-based courses. Although assistive technologies (which will be defined below) exist, such as screen readers that can be used to accommodate for some disabilities, online information must be made accessible in order for the technology to work in a meaningful way. For example, if a web page is set up in columns or in blocks, the screen reader technology may not interpret the correct order to read each piece of information, therefore rendering the technology unusable.

To compensate for some of the disadvantages faced by people with disabilities, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was implemented in the U.S. In particular, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was implemented to create accessibility to educational programs for all students (Castorina, 1994). This law was designed to impact institutions that receive federal funds. Later, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addressed discrimination issues within both private and public institutions by requiring reasonable accommodations or modifications that work to compensate for an individual’s disability.

The next law established in the U.S. in regards to assisting people with disabilities was the 1988 Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act). The Tech Act made governmental funds available to assist states in developing programs to increase awareness and availability of assistive technology (Castorina, 1994). Assistive technology is an aid (mechanical or technical) that can assist an individual with a disability to complete or perform a task that is difficult or impossible due to their disability.

Although the aforementioned laws proved to be beneficial to people with disabilities, they only touched the surface of how this population could interact with instruction designed for distance education environments. While the ADA addressed communication issues as they relate to people with disabilities, this set of laws did not explicitly state how postsecondary educational institutions were to make their online learning courses accessible (Edmonds, 2004).

Ten years after the Tech Act was implemented, Congress amended section 508 (s508) of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act

to require [U.S.] Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Inaccessible technology interferes with an individual's ability to obtain and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of United States technologies that will help achieve these goals. (United States Government, 2008)

Although s508 does not specifically apply to institutions of higher education, the U.S. Department of Education wrote a letter stating that they interpreted s508 to apply to state agencies who received funds as a result of the 1988 Tech Act (mentioned above). The federal government, however, has not yet accepted this interpretation (Edmonds, 2004). Nevertheless, a number of states have adopted and mandated compliance to s508 related laws. For a listing of these states, see the Georgia Tech Research Institute database at http://accessibility.gtri.gatech.edu/sitid/stateLawAtGlance.php.  Another important source of guidelines that many adhere to (and will be discussed later) is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0 and, more recently, WCAG 2.0) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

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