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ADA Compliance in Online Education

Research Synthesis

Keyboard for typing - ADA Compliance article

Educational institutions are required by law to ensure that any digital media or materials they use for online or hybrid instruction and assessment meet the U.S. Department of Justice American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design adopted in 2010. The ADA standards require that all electronic and information technology must be accessible to students with disabilities. Disabled students must have equal access to educational services including digital media and websites.

Chapter 5 of the ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments, explains website accessibility required under the ADA (https://www.ada.gov/pcatoolkit/chap5toolkit.htm). Common problems with digital or web-based educational media and materials include images without supporting text, documents not posted in accessible format (PDF, HTML or RTF), static color and size for digital fonts, lack of close captioning for video and audio descriptions, etc.

Krach and Milan (2009) examined school websites for accessibility finding only 14% of schools and 17% of districts were web accessible. Roberts, Crittenden and Critttenden (2011) conducted a cross-institutional review of perceived satisfaction with ADA compliance finding that special needs students perceived their disability had a negative impact on their success while a majority felt their requests for accommodations were being met.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag) describe the purpose, audience and updates from the W3C international organization along with web content guidelines (https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/) that cover all aspects of web accessibility.  

Vasquez and Serianni (2017) provide an excellent review of research on the topic of accessibility focusing on other considerations when moving from face-to-face to hybrid or online settings. Scherer and Wilson (2016) offer a comprehensive approach to ADA compliance in online education while Sylvia (2014) provides considerations for ensuring appropriate accessibility in online settings.

For a more comprehensive approach, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides flexibility for all students in representation, engagement, action and expression (Brand, Favazza & Dalton, 2012). UDL guidelines are available from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) along with a free, open-source CSS/Javascript framework for accessible, cross-device, interactive web design. An EDUCAUSE review provides an excellent introduction to ADA compliance for online course design – see References below – along with those in the Resources section.


5 tips for ADA-Compliant inclusive design https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2017/05/03/tips-designing-ada-compliant-online-courses

10 tips for creating accessible course content. Sylvia, J.  http://ung.edu/student-disability-services/_uploads/files/10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content Accessible.pdf

Accessibility and compliance in online education Course review. Scherer, C., & Wilson, K. (2016). http://dl.sps.northwestern.edu/blog/2016/06/accessibility-compliance-online-education-course-review/

Accessibility considerations for online courses. Access IQ. Sylvia, J. (2014, April). http://www.accessiq.org/news/news/2014/04/accessibility-considerations-for-online-courses

Creating ADA compliant instructional material for online courses. Juvale, D., Celik, P., & O’Connell, R.  http://www.elo.iastate.edu/resources/files/2015/11/ADA-Guide-V2.pdf

Getting started on ADA accessibility. https://www.schoolwebmasters.com/Blog_Articles?entityid=257545


Brand, S.T., Favazza, E.E., & Dalton, E.M. (2012). Universal Design for Learning: A blueprint for success for all learners. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48(3), 134-139.

Burgstahler, S. (2017, January). ADA Compliance for Online Course Design. EDUCAUSE. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/1/ada-compliance-for-online-course-design  

Krach, K.S., & Jelenic, M. (2009). The other technological divide: K-12 web accessibility. Journal of Special Education Technology, 24(2), 31-37.

Louder, J. R., Tapp, S., Philippe, L. K., & Luft, J. (2016). Technology review: Video captioning software to help comply with ADA accessibility requirements. The Community College Enterprise, 22(1), 71-75.

Roberts, J.B., Crittenden, L.A, Crittenden, J.C. (2011). Students with disabilities and online learning: A cross-institutional study of perceived satisfaction with accessibility compliance and services. The Internet and Higher Education, 14(4), 242-250.

Vasquez, E., & Serianni, B.A. (2012). Research and practice in distance education for K-12 students with disabilities. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 31(4), 33-42.

Weir, L. (2005). Raising the awareness of online accessibility: the importance of developing and investing in online course materials that enrich the classroom experience for special-needs students. T.H.E. Journal, 32(10), 30-34.


: Associate Professor for the Grand Valley State University College of Education and MACUL SIG online/blended learning (OBL) steering committee member.