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Distance Education Accessibility Guidelines

Universal Design

Throughout the community college system, distance education continues to grow to include more infrastructure, course offerings, and services. With this growth comes the responsibility to reach and accommodate more students, including those with disabilities.

To meet the challenge of access, educational research has come to acknowledge the concept of Universal Design as a paradigm shift, representing an all-inclusive approach to designing barrier-free environments. The term, originally borne in the field of architecture, has found its place in the educational arena, where the design of curriculum and course materials allows us to rethink the design, preparation and delivery of instruction.

In architecture, we have seen the acceptance of new standards that allow for broader usage and thus avoid unintentionally designed barriers. In education, we see the same unintentionally designed barriers in online courses that need to be redesigned based on individual students' requirements for access. If principles of Universal Design were instituted from the beginning, accommodations required for students with disabilities because of inaccessible environments could be ameliorated. In education, the core designers of curriculum are faculty. Faculty must be provided with the opportunity to understand and implement Universal Design, which will create improved accessibility for students with disabilities.

Since the publication of the 1999 Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities, approaches to training have gradually increased access, but the task is not complete. Building universally designed courses is a joint responsibility between faculty, trainers, distance education coordinators, access specialists, alternate media staff and administrators who make the commitment through institutional support.

Students need options and flexibility for expressing and demonstrating what they know. Accessibility can be thought of as an "add on" or reactive approach to an inaccessible environment. However, Universal Design incorporates those accessibility features into the beginning stages of course design. This is a proactive approach to building broad usability for many and alleviates the need for numerous individual accommodations.

In the 2008 revision of the system-wide Distance Education Guidelines, (Guideline section 55202) it states that "course quality depends upon the full involvement of the faculty in the design and application of DE courses." Full engagement begins when faculty present their DE addenda to campus curriculum committees, stating which methods of instruction they will use to teach a course. This is an opportunity for full inclusion, redesign, change and commitment to all students.