Why is Web Accessibility Important?

Web accessibility touches every part of the course design and requires some additional planning and work. So why do we need to be proactive about it? Why does it matter at all?

Online Students & Disability

The students within the primary populations that SPS Distance Learning serves–online students and adult students–are both more likely to have disabilities. According to research on disabled students, online courses are more appealing to students with disabilities, for a number of reasons. They provide greater flexibility, allowing students to do their work when they have the most ability, rather than when the class is scheduled. They are easier to access for students with mobility issues. And, most commonly, they allow students to maintain their privacy if they do not want to report their disability. Disabled people face frequent prejudice and discrimination, and many students with disabilities report that they enjoy the freedom from stereotypes that online courses can offer. 


Approximately 70% of online students with disabilities do not disclose their disability or request accommodations. Some of these students may not be aware of the support that is available, but for majority of students, they do not disclose because they want “the opportunity to allow intellect, skill, and character to become their observed identity, rather than their disability.” As a result, it is crucially important for online courses to be accessibly designed from the beginning, so that all students can engage with the course materials. Students should not be forced to choose between maintaining their privacy and passing a class. Building an accessible course allows them to do both.


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

Legal Background

While there are no federal statutes or regulations specifically governing web access, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and a variety of lawsuits, rulings, and Office of Civil Rights memos have combined to form the legal foundation of web accessibility. This legal foundation outlines the broad requirements that higher education institutions must meet to be in compliance with the ADA.

These requirements include:

  • Students with disabilities must have “the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services… with substantially equivalent ease of use” as nondisabled students (Case Western University Settlement Agreement, 2009)
  • Auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities, such as captions, alt-text, etc., must be provided in accessible formats, in a way that protects the students’ privacy and independence, and in a timely manner (which, in a digital environment, generally means immediately). (ADA Regulatory Amendments, 2010)
  • Communication, such as a transmission of information via the internet, with students with disabilities must be as effective as communications with non-disabled students. (ADA Title II)
  • Majority of rulings and memos refer to the WCAG 2.0 standards as the ideal guidelines for higher education institutions to rely upon when discussing web accessibility, and in January 2018, Section 508 will be updated to require that all U.S. Federal information and communication technology must meet the WCAG 2.0 A/AA standards.

These various legal rulings and amendments can best be summarized as a requirement that higher education institutions ensure that disabled students have functionally the same access as nondisabled students. Failure to adhere to this requirement can leave a university open to future legal action, either from the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, or a private lawsuit brought by a student or an activist group.

Culture of Diversity

Northwestern University is committed to creating a diverse learning environment for all students. As part of that commitment, we encourage course designers to take an attitude of not simply accommodating students with disabilities, but actively welcoming them. By creating courses that are accessible from the beginning, we demonstrate to these students that they are fully included members of the learning community.


The number of students who report disabilities to AccessibleNU is increasing each year, and while there are obviously no hard numbers on the number of students who do not self-report, it’s safe to assume that their numbers are increasing, too. Even if you do not receive an accommodation request, the odds are good that you have at least one student with a disability in your course. This is why it’s so important to be proactive in making a course site accessible. It will result in a high quality, universally welcoming, and legally compliant course that all students are able to engage in.