When they are designed with accessibility in mind, online courses offered through a Learning Management System (LMS) have potential for leveling the playing field and allowing learners with disabilities to enjoy equitable access to higher education. For learners with visual or physical impairments that make orientation and mobility difficult, these courses offer a more convenient option by reducing the need to come to campus. Similarly, learners with disabilities that impact social interactions may find online learning environments to be less threatening than face to face ones. For all of these learners, online learning environments also minimize the impact of the stigma that is often associated with disabilities. If a learner can do the work, there is no need for the nondisabled peers in a course to know that the learner has a disability. It is up to that learner to reveal this information on his or her own terms. All of these benefits of online learning can only be realized when the LMS used to deliver the course content is accessible.
As a 2013 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revealed, the overall accessibility of LMS products is improving, “but much more needs to be done” (Schaffhauser, 2013). Based on my experiences as both a learner and instructor with visual impairment, I would agree with this assessment. The various LMS products I have used appear to be paying attention to key requirements for screen reader compatibility and keyboard navigation as set forth in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Many of the problems I and my learners have encountered arise not from a lack of “technical” accessibility in these products, but from a lack of “practical” accessibility. A good example is the synchronous communication feature that is often included in many LMS products. While all of the buttons and controls of that chat feature may be technically accessible to a screen reader user, the slower way in which screen readers interact with the information can prevent someone with a visual impairment from keeping up with the fast pace of conversation in online chat, limiting his or her ability to participate in the conversation on an equal basis. An easy solution is to make attendance in synchronous sessions optional, and to provide a link to a recording of the session and/or a transcript of the chat portion so that learners can review them at their own pace. Timed assessments present a similar challenge. The forms they are based on may be technically accessible to users of assistive technologies, but the time requirement can make them practically inaccessible for those who require more time to respond due to the limitations of their assistive technologies. Both instructional designers and individual faculty need to be aware of these “practical” implications of accessibility when selecting and using an LMS to deliver course content, not just the “technical” ones covered by the various accessibility guidelines.
Schaffhauser, Diana (May 13, 2013). Study ranks accessibility of top learning management systems. Campus Technology. Retrieved October 19th, 2015 from https://campustechnology.com/Articles/2013/05/13/Study-Ranks-Accessibility-of-Top-Learning-Management-Systems.aspx