Defining the Term Accessible

1 in 5 people in the United States report having a disability (Brault, 2012) and approximately 1 in 10 undergraduates report having a disability according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (n.d.). Evaluating the design of your course for accessibility will help students with disabilities be successful in your course.

What does accessibility mean though? For the purpose of this article, we are using the following definition that emerged from the agreement between the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the South Carolina Technical College System (SCTCS) on the accessibility of their websites.

“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. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology. (Office of Civil Rights in the Resolution agreement with South Carolina Technical College System, 2/18/13)

The ADA does not specifically mention online courses, but the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights have clarified that the ADA applies to Internet-based programs and services.

Importance of Making Courses Accessible

As educators, it is important to keep accessibility in mind to ensure that students with disabilities have access to online instructional materials and are formatted correctly for assistive devices.

Making your courses accessible:

  • Provides educational opportunities  to all students. For example, a screen reader will provide an audio description of the image allowing a student with a visual disability to access information about the image.
  • Can provide students with disabilities a sense of independence. For example, a student with a hearing disability can leverage technology to access content in videos directly from closed captions.
  • Allows students to engage in course activities. For example, students with cognitive disabilities may be allowed additional time for assignments and assessments.

Laws, Guidelines, and Best Practices

Several laws in the US address accessibility, including The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sections 504 and Section 508), and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are an international set of guidelines for improving web accessibility.  Developed by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the governing body of the web, the guidelines can help solve many of the issues students with disabilities face. The guidelines are organized around the following four principles:

  • Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

Instructional Designers at ASU Online use Quality Matters™ (QM), a research-based and established, best-practices program that focuses on the quality of online and hybrid courses. One of the main standards of the program focuses on accessibility and usability. This standard highlights navigation, readability, and alternative access to materials, which all contribute to the accessibility of your course. To learn more about this standard and how to design or revise your course, please visit the QM website to login and download the Quality Matters™ Rubric.

Who’s Responsible For Making Courses Accessible?

Designing accessible course is a shared responsibility that requires collaboration and communication among the Disability Resource Center, Faculty, and Instructional Designer. The following table outlines the role each party plays in ensuring that courses are accessible. As a team, we can work together to ensure that all students can readily access the instructional materials needed to be successful in their courses.

Disability Resource Center
Faculty Member
Instructional Designers
Assists the University in fulfilling its commitment to educate and serve students with disabilities Determines how to meet students accommodation Supports the implementations of instructor accommodation including adding an exception to a test, adding alternate descriptions to text, etc.
Reviews student applications to determine students’ eligibility for accommodation Provides syllabus in an electronic and accessible format, and use appropriate formatting for assistive technology Helps faculty design clear and consistent navigation and instructions
Works with students to identify their accommodation needs Ensures materials created in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Adobe Acrobat PDF use can be accessed by users of assistive technology Works with the media team to provide transcriptions for media and audio materials
Notifies faculty when an accommodation is required Provides transcription and/or captions for video and audio materials or provides alternate sources for inaccessible content

Making Instructional Materials Accessible


The Accessibility Guide provides you quick tips on how to create accessible video/ audio materials, images, Word documents, PowerPoint Presentations, Excel Spreadsheets, and PDF Files.

Click here or on the image above to download the Accessibility Guide.

Accessibility Resources

ASU Disability Resource Center

The Disability Resource Center is an excellent resource for students and faculty alike.

DRC Website and Contact information:

Website: Disability Resource Center


Phone: 480-965-1234

Fax: 480-965-0441



  1. Brault, M. W. (2012). Americans With Disabilities: 2010. Retrieved from
  2. National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Fast Facts: Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from
  3. “Resolution Agreement”. (2013). Office of Civil Rights in the Resolution agreement with South Carolina Technical College System. Retrieved from

Co-written by Justin Harding and Mary Chaaban.