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Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines

Frequently Asked Questions



Do I really have to make my course accessible?

Yes. The California Community Colleges are bound by Federal law (Section 508) and California state law (Government Code Section 11135, that mirrors Section 508), to ensure that all DE courses be made accessible to students with disabilities. These legal requirements are reinforced by the Chancellor's Office in the DE Guidelines.

Beyond these legal requirements for electronic information, all of the services provided by the California Community College system must be equally available to all citizens of California. Following the Section 508 standards and the principles of Universal Design that are included in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 is the recommended approach to use in achieving accessibility.

"...As officials of the agencies charged with enforcement and interpretation of the ADA and Section 504, we ask that you take steps to ensure that your college or university refrains from requiring the use of any electronic book reader, or other similar technology, in a teaching or classroom environment as long as the device remains inaccessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision. It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to students." ('Dear Colleague' letter OCR and U.S. Dept of Education, 2010)

I have a video I want to use in my distance education course that is not captioned, but I don’t know of any deaf students currently enrolled in my course. Do I still have to caption the video?

Per Section 508 guidelines, video files should always be captioned whenever possible, and in most situations they MUST be captioned. Generally speaking, if the video has audio and it will be stored for later or repeated use in a course, it must be captioned. It does not matter if the video is instructor or institution owned, or if it is a collection of clips and snippets; whatever video will be shown in a classroom, placed on a public website, or used in any open forum, needs to be captioned.

In order to use non-captioned video, the video must be contained in a secure, password-protected environment, there must be no students requiring captioning, and the video can only be used for a single term. Other exclusions to captioning include student work and raw footage that will never be archived after the current use, as well as video with foreign language subtitles.

Quite simply, if you’re keeping the video and more than a very limited audience might view it, then you must caption it.

How much time will it take to make my course accessible?

There are several variables that affect this question. The quantity of multimedia you incorporate into your course can impact the amount of time required. In addition, the more complex the multimedia, the greater the time that can be expected to address accessibility. The key is to build accessibility into your course content during the development phase, so it will not be necessary to go back later to retrofit inaccessible content.

What if I teach a Math or Chemistry course? Is accessibility possible?

The capability for designing and delivering accessible online Math and Chemistry courses has been rapidly expanding in recent years. Traditionally difficult, if not impossible, content such as the symbols and characters used in Math, Chemistry, and Engineering can now be rendered accessible. Advances in computing and communication technologies have made it possible for many disciplines that rely extensively on graphic means of conveying information to be designed and delivered in an accessible way.

If I have no disabled students in my course, do I still have to make it accessible?

Yes. All courses must be accessible regardless of whether or not a disabled student is currently enrolled. There is no guarantee that you will NEVER have a student with a disability in your course. The intention and mandate of Section 508 is to remove all existing barriers to access so that when a disabled student does enroll, there will be no need to hastily retrofit materials to provide access.

Additionally, disabled students are not required to disclose their disabilities and, in an online course, it would likely be more difficult to identify disabilities than in a face-to-face course. All materials have to be accessible when presented, not in the after-the-fact accommodation style that is the norm in many face-to-face courses. Again, following the principle of Universal Design to make courses usable and effective for everyone benefits all students, not just students with disabilities.

I understand that I might be exempt from making my content accessible if it is an undue burden to do so. What is an undue burden?

Undue burden is a concept presented in the Americans with Disabilities Act; defined in Section 35.150 of 29 USC. This section states that, in general, a public entity shall operate each service, program, or activity so that the service, program, or activity, when viewed in its entirety, is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. The ADA does not require a public entity to take any action that it can demonstrate would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or result in undue financial and administrative burdens.

In those circumstances where personnel of the public entity believe that the proposed action would fundamentally alter the service, program, or activity or would result in undue financial and administrative burdens, the public entity has the burden of proving that compliance with § 35.150(a) of this part would result in such alteration or burdens.

The decision that compliance would result in such alteration or burdens must be made by the head of a public entity (in the case of a California Community College, either the College President or the District Board of Trustees) or his or her designee after considering all resources available for use in the funding and operation of the service, program, or activity and must be accompanied by a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion.

If an action would result in such an alteration or such burdens, the ADA requires that the public entity shall take any other action that would not result in such an alteration or such burdens, but would nevertheless ensure that individuals with disabilities receive the benefits or services provided by the public entity.

In choosing alternate accommodations, the public entity must engage in an interactive process with the person requesting the accommodations and must:

  • give preference to accommodations in the most integrated setting and;
  • give weight/preference, whenever possible, to the type of accommodation requested.

In summary, for a college to claim undue burden, it must be prepared to prove compliance with these applicable provisions of the ADA and assume that burden. The claim must be made in writing by the head of the college, the claim must be made after considering all the resources available to the college (not only DSPS funds, but all college resources), and the alternate action proposed must be determined through an interactive process, directly involving the student.

It is recommended that each college work closely with their legal counsel, ADA Coordinator, supervisor of DSPS, College Administration and other experts on their campus before considering pursuing a claim of "undue burden."

How do I bridge the students' capabilities with the required learning objectives when there are perceived accessibility challenges?

In answering this question, there are variables at play, including:
  1. What is the learning objective of the course?
  2. What is the user's skill level with regard to using assistive technology?


What is the learning objective? It is important to factor in how the course is taught and the nature of the assignment, when determining how to accommodate an individual with a disability. For example, in an astronomy course being taken by a blind student, assignments could be made accessible by providing tactile graphics of star systems or other materials pertinent to the lesson/course.

What is the user's skill level with regard to using assistive technology? Sometimes a user's skill level with a given assistive technology tool is not adequate to access a course, no matter how accessible the course is. Refer the student to the DSPS office on your campus to help determine the user's level of expertise and to acquire training, if necessary.

To whom do I go for help?

It is important to know your campus. Every California community college has someone whose duties include training faculty to design accessible courses. This person's title and department affiliation may vary from campus to campus. A common title is Alternate Media Technology Specialist. This position often resides in DSPS. A good place to start is with the supervisor of DSPS. Other resources may be the Distance Education Coordinator or Dean. The Vice President of Instruction or Student Services is also a possible resource to identify appropriate assistance. Again, know your campus!

What are our college's responsibilities regarding the accessibility of e-packs?

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each college to ensure that the electronic information they procure is accessible. It is important to get assurance from the e-pack's publisher representative about its accessibility before making a purchase. Insist that the publisher representative send files to you in an accessible format. Putting pressure on publishers to make content accessible will help to motivate them to provide content that is accessible. Find out about the possibility of being able to use some parts of the e-pack and not others. An e-pack can be mostly text with a few graphics, a full Flash-based site with comprehensive graphics, and everything else in between.

Alternatively, you can modify the publisher files to make them accessible yourself (you may need permission first), create your own files, or not use an e-pack at all. You might also consider switching to a different textbook that uses an accessible e-pack.

When I select a delivery method, how do I determine the accessibility of the tools I choose to teach the course?

One thing is certain: new exciting ways to present information electronically become available every day. It is our responsibility as educators to consider the ramifications for all students when making new technology purchases. However, as the instructor, you have many resources at your disposal. A good place to start in selecting those tools is with your supervisor of DSPS, Alternate Media Specialist, Faculty Resource Center, technology trainer, etc.

They often have answers or can provide resources based on your specific concerns (i.e., contact information for determining the accessibility of your learning management system, e-book, e-pack, etc.). There is no comprehensive solution for determining the accessibility of all electronic and information technology that is available.

I send my students to many sites on the web. Am I responsible if those sites aren't accessible? What do I do if they are not accessible?

Required course materials must be provided in an accessible format. If third-party websites are used as required course materials and you cannot guarantee accessibility of the content, you must be prepared to provide accessible equivalent versions of the content for students with disabilities. It is your responsibility as faculty to conscientiously select course content and materials from external sources that are accessible.

The graphics I use in my course are merely decorative? Do I really need to add alt labels to them?

Graphics that are used solely for background or decorative purposes should be labeled with the empty alt tag (where alt=""). There is no space between the quotes in an empty alt tag.

The files I upload into my course are mainly Microsoft Word, PowerPoint files, and also Adobe PDF files. Are those accessible?

In general, the safe answer is no. As of 2010, PowerPoint files are not accessible in their native format. The accessibility of Word and PDF depends on the complexity of the layout of each document. In order to help ensure accessibility of Microsoft and Adobe files, a good starting point is the training materials that are available on the High Tech Center Training Unit (HTCTU) web site at http://www.htctu.net.


I uploaded my syllabus, which contains my course schedule in a table. Is that accessible?

Tables require some special attention to make them accessible. Depending on your authoring tools (HTML Editor, Word, Acrobat) and the media file format (doc, HTML, PDF), the procedures will vary. However, the concepts for creating accessible tables remain the same: header columns and rows must be added to help define the context of each table’s cell data. For more information about creating accessible tables, visit the High Tech Center Training Unit website: http://www.htctu.net.

I use a lot of interactive Flash files as simulations. Are those accessible?

Flash files can be created in an accessible manner, as long as the content creator is deliberate about including accessibility throughout the authoring process. While it is possible to create accessible Flash-based information, it is not safe to make an assumption regarding the accessibility of Flash files in general. Each Flash file, whether created by you or someone else, must be considered as a separate entity in terms of determining accessibility. If they are not accessible – and if you want to continue using them – you or the creator will have to retrofit the files. Information about Flash accessibility can be found at http://www.adobe.com/accessibility, and at the High Tech Center Training Unit website: http://www.htctu.net

I don't have time to caption or transcribe all of my videos and podcasts. How can I get help?

Talk to the person responsible for web accessibility on your campus. One resource is the DECT (Distance Education Captioning & Transcription) Grant provided for the CCCs. This grant will help to alleviate some costs for the captioning of digital audio and video files used in DE courses: http://www.canyons.edu/captioning


My course is not a DE course. Do I still have to make my web materials accessible?

Yes. Any content placed on the web must be accessible. For that matter, any online materials that you require students to access, whether you are using a campus-hosted learning management system, your campus faculty web page, or a site that you are maintaining outside the scope of the college altogether, all materials must be accessible to your students.

I am an adjunct instructor. Am I required to make my course accessible?

Yes, accessibility is not an optional consideration regardless of your position status. Consult your college’s Office of Instruction/Academic Affairs for more information about resources that may be available to help you make your courses accessible. Also, remember to consult the High Tech Center Training Unit for assistance with specific accessibility issues or questions at: http://www.htctu.net.

What are the ramifications if my courses are not made accessible?

The ramification of not making a DE course accessible is that you become complicit in creating a culture of inaccessibility and discrimination vs. accessibility and Universal Design.

If your online materials are not accessible, there is a chance that a student with a disability could file a discrimination complaint with the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. That would likely trigger an investigation. If the OCR found that the student's complaint was valid, your institution would likely have to agree to some binding conditions as part of a costly resolution. Another possibility would be that a student might file a lawsuit and the college or district could be held liable for any damages awarded to the student.