Online Education And Advances In Educational Technology Are Becoming More Of An Obstacle For Blind Students

August 23, 2010

Side view of students typing in computer roomInsider Higher Ed reported that advocates for the blind are worried that online education is becoming more and more inaccessible, especially as e-learning materials become more technologically sophisticated.

As online education and educational technology--such as e-readers--make college accessible to a wider audience, it has also created an obstacle for blind students. "When faculty or course developers hear about a new tool being introduced at a distance education conference, they want to bring it home and try it out," said Kelly Hermann, chair of the Online Education Special Interest Group at the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). "But what they fail to recognize is where that new tool might create barriers to accessibility."

Although accessibility issues are nothing new within higher education, the courts have done little to define and enforce accessibility standards. For example, "dynamic" content--or content/images that change with time or user interaction--can be a huge challenge for blind students who use screen reader technology. The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that college websites are "widely inaccessible" to people with disabilities. Furthermore, Terrill Thompson, co-author of Web Accessibility: A Longitudinal Study of College and University Home Pages in the Northwestern United States and technology accessibility specialist at the University of Washington, added that accessibility is often "an afterthought" for website developers.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), told Inside Higher Ed, "Assistive technology does the best it can to keep up with changes in [educational] technology, but a lot of the times you have a university that is using the latest, cutting-edge Web technology... screen-reader technology tries to keep up, but more often than not it's behind."

Some applications are on the right track, however. The NFB recently awarded Blackboard Learn its Nonvisual Accessibility Gold Certification. The company's software is the first and only learning management system to receive such certification.

According to a press release, Blackboard Learn Release 9.1 features "faster navigation and better form interaction for blind users that make it easier to submit assignments, participate in discussion forums, submit responses to tests, upload files, create content and more". The company meets regularly with its Accessibility Interest Group and incorporates feedback on how to address any accessibility issues that come up. "We're committed to ensuring our platform is accessible and engaging for all users whether they use a keyboard, mouse or screen reader," said Jessica Finnefrock, senior vice president of product development at Blackboard.

Insider Higher Ed pointed out that while it is not explicit when or how the government plans to crack down on institutions, recent issues with accessibility have suggested that the government is indeed preparing specific obligations to address inaccessibility for blind students as well as those with limited manual dexterity.

Compiled by Staff


"Blinding Technology of Online Learning,", August 23, 2010, Steve Kolowich

"College Web Pages Are 'Widely Inaccessible' to People With Disabilities,", August 12, 2010, Marc Parry

"National Federation of the Blind Certifies Blackboard for Accessibility of Learning Platform,", August 12, 2010

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