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 Alison May of AccessibleNU, 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 they allow students to maintain their privacy if they do not want to report their disability.

However, students with disabilities are also far more likely to encounter difficulties and challenges in online courses. Lack of captions, missing alt-text, using images instead of text, inaccessible readings–these are common issues that students with disabilities encounter in online courses, and they prevent students from fully engaging with the material.

Legal Background

While there are no federal statutes or regulations specifically governing web access, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a variety of lawsuit rulings 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 court rulings refer to the WCAG 2.0 standards as the ideal guidelines for higher education institutions to rely upon when discussing web accessibility.

These various legal rulings and amendments can best be summarized as a requirement that higher education institutions ensure that students with disabilities 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 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.