This post is the first in a three-part series adapted from a workshop given by ODL course developer Clarissa Anderson at the 2022 OU Online conference. In this first part, we will explore the disability and the need for accessibility. In part 2, we will look at Universal Design for Learning, and part 3 will cover how to design accessible content in Canvas specifically.

Before we can really talk about how to be more inclusive in online learning spaces, there are a handful of terms that are useful to know. 

  • Student-centered learning: Considering the students’ learning needs when creating the course
  • Accessibility: Ensuring all users have equal access to content and services
  • Usability: Designing an effective, efficient, and inclusive learner experience
  • Accommodations: Adapting a course or materials to meet an individual’s specific needs

Disability and Online Courses

The CDC reports that 61 million adults have some type of disability. That means on average, every fourth adult you meet has some kind of disability. This is also true in post-secondary settings. The National Center for Education Statistics gives a breakdown of students with disabilities, reporting that 19% of undergraduate students and almost 12% of post-baccalaureate students have at least one disability. 

These disabilities aren’t always disclosed to online instructors either. Students may be especially reluctant to disclose their specific learning disability. Even though accomodations can be fantastic aids to students with disabilities, many students also avoid requesting them for their online courses. Students may have a fear of discrimination from the instructor, a belief they do not need an accommodation, or an expectation that accommodations may not help.

One of the challenges of working with students is the presence of both visible and invisible disabilities. Visible disabilities are disabilities that are quickly noticeable (e.g. visual, auditory, mobility), but many individuals have disabilities that aren’t obvious, such as chronic illness or pain, mental illness, or a learning disability. Furthermore, in the online environment all disabilities are invisible disabilities.

A paper by Stephen Bunbury on disability discrimination discusses two main approaches to making spaces more accessible for folks with disabilities. The Medical Model is a reactionary model that tends to focus on students’ perceived “deficit.” It requires students to first disclose their disability and then receive accommodations. 

Conversely, the Social Model is proactive and focuses on barriers in the learning environment in order to reach as many students as possible. Instead of only providing accommodations to individual students, the Social Model utilizes Universal Design for Learning to benefit all learners, regardless of ability. 

There are also a handful of legal requirements and guidelines when it comes to accessibility:

ADA Title II: Prohibits discrimination on basis of disability in all public entities, including universities; ADA Title III: Websites can be considered places of public accommodation; Section 508: Sets requirements for accessible technology; Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): Instructional standards for web accessibility

In addition to being required by law, the reality is that accessibility best practices help all users. Many folks are anxious about implementing accessibility into their courses and resources, but as you will learn, they can be rather easy to implement and don’t radically change development time, especially after they become a habit.

Integrating Accessibility and Course Development

Before we can start designing a course with all learners, including those with disabilities, we need to understand the common issues individuals with disabilities encounter in online courses.

According to a paper by Mike Kent from Curtin University, the biggest barriers to students with disabilities were the basic readability and accessibility of Canvas pages, websites, audio and video content, and course documents (PPTs, PDFs, Docs, etc.). Also difficult are inflexible time limits on quizzes and exams and the lack of access to assistive technology.

Taking this into account, we can begin to create an action plan to design courses from accessibility (via the University of Minnesota’s Accessible U page for Instructors):

  1. Plan for accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) from the beginning
  2. Incorporate inclusive assessments and materials
  3. Utilize automated accessibility checkers
  4. Develop a plan B if an accommodation is needed 

It is best (and easiest) to build in accessibility when originally developing the courses rather than waiting until the term begins. Remember: we want to take the proactive approach of the Social Model instead of always being reactive. As such, it’s important to ask the following questions during course development:

  • How can I use technology in accessible ways?
  • What accessibility challenges might be present in this course?
  • Do my objectives and assessments consider UDL and accessibility?
  • At what checkpoints will I confirm accessibility and UDL?
  • If accommodations are needed, what must be done to provide them?
  • Ultimately, is my course accessible to everyone?

By repeatedly asking yourself these questions during course development and implementing accessibility and UDL best practices, you will save yourself and your students a lot of frustration down the road while also creating a better course for everyone. In the next couple of posts, we’ll go into more detail about UDL and designing accessible content on Canvas specifically.

References and Additional Resources

Accessible U – Instructors. (n.d.) University of Minnesota.

Bunbury, S. (2019, February 28). Unconscious bias and the medical model: How the social model may hold the key to transformative thinking about disability discrimination. International Journal of Discrimination and the Law, 19(1): 26-47.

Disability and Health Overview. (2020). CDC.

Disability & Health U.S. State Profile Data for Oklahoma (Adults 18+ years of age). (2022). CDC.

Fast Facts: Students with disabilities. (2021). National Center for Education Statistics.

Kent, M. (2015). Disability and ELearning: Opportunities and Barriers. Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1.

Mole, H. (2013, January). A US model for inclusion of disabled students in higher education settings: The social model of disability and Universal Design. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(3):62-86.