Meeting the Accessibility Needs of Adult Students

by Kristina Wilson

Adult students have a higher incidence of disability and are less likely to seek accommodations than the general student population. What should we do to support them? Anticipate their needs.


The Adult Educator Handbook of Rights and Responsibilities, issued by the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning in 2005, succinctly describes the impact that meeting the accommodations of adult learners can have.

Adult educators in the state of Kansas reported that students were more trusting and more productive, their self-confidence and self-esteem improved, and, because they were more comfortable, they had increased interaction with staff and other students.

And that’s all on top of increased academic performance!


In October 2015, as part of Celebrating 25 Years of ADA: Access, Opportunity, and Inclusion, a day-long conference at DePaul University, Marca Bristo, President and CEO of Access Living, discussed students with disabilities in higher education. She noted that the number of students who enter higher education with a disability is growing every year and, generally speaking, the number of people with disabilities is growing exponentially as advances in medicine help infants survive and the elderly live longer.

Perhaps as many as 30% of adult education participants have a disability.

Judith Kolar, the Director of the Center for Students with Disabilities at DePaul University discussed the current status of adult students with disabilities at the same event. She observed that adult student disability documentation varies greatly–some students may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and others may have outdated paperwork–and concluded that the (often formidable) challenge of acquiring documentation prevents some adult students from seeking accommodations, especially since they are substantially less likely to seek accommodation through a parent advocate. She also described adult students’ hesitance to identify as “disabled.”

Perhaps most importantly, she observed that adult students with disabilities were simultaneously more likely to take online courses and more likely to find online courses difficult.

What Can You Do?

Follow web accessibility guidelines and familiarize yourself with assistive technology.

The School of Professional Studies works to make sure that its online courses are as accessible as possible, which includes captioning multimedia and using HTML headers to identify sections of a webpage, among other tasks.

Web accessibility can seem daunting and complex, but there are lots of measures that anyone can take to make their courses more accessible.

A quick web search for “web accessibility tips” generates millions of results from universities, graphic designers, advocacy organizations, bloggers with disabilities, and accessibility consultants.

It is also essential to acquaint yourself with the broad range of assistive technology used by students with disabilities to access the internet. Sheryl Burgstahler, writing for Washington University’s DO-IT program, categorizes these tools into five groups: those supporting people with mobility disabilities, blindness, low vision, deafness, auditory disabilities, and specific learning disabilities. Have you ever considered what it might be like to navigate your course with a screenreader? To type using a one-handed keyboard, or in Morse code, activated by switch? To read an online assignment by printing out the page on a Braille embosser? Many people do!

A number of these assistive technology resources are available to Northwestern students through NUIT and the University Library.

Use helpful and respectful language when writing your course content.

Inclusive language is imperative to welcoming adult students with disabilities. For example, our January 2016 webinar, Planning to Write an Accessible Online Course, talked about how relative phrases such as “see above” or “the bold column” seem innocuous but may be difficult for students using screenreaders to perceive.

It is also important to consider respectful language use. You may not even realize that you are using pejorative idioms (i.e. the blind leading the blind) or words with a history of demeaning people with disabilities, like dumb, idiot, or lame. The Language of Disability, published by the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, describes some of the most commonly used offensive terms and their histories of use.

Alternately, use people-first language. Where you might have previously said disabled students, which identifies the group of people as disabled first and students second, consider using students with disabilities. A simple change in syntax reminds both you and others that you value a person’s humanity and student identity above their disability. To explore this topic further, the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center provides an excellent Language Guide.

Encourage your students to seek accommodations, and then collaborate to meet their needs.

Does your syllabus include a statement encouraging students to self-identify with AccessibleNU? Use or modify the Northwestern University recommended syllabus statement or compose your own. It wouldn’t hurt to explore other resources on the AccessibleNU website, including the Faculty Roles and Responsibilities and Frequently Asked Questions.

Dr. Kolar described academic accommodations as an art. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies are a good place to start, but accommodations should be creative and individual, as well as developed through ongoing interactions between the student, AccessibleNU, university administration, the instructor, and the student.

Web accessibility is one of very few instances in which the university is expected to make accommodations in anticipation of student needs. This is largely because it is difficult to provide accommodations for video captioning and other media in a timely way when requested on-the-spot.


“Despite the growing number of mature learners on college campuses, they can sometimes be a largely invisible, underserved group,” laments Stephanie Gaddy in a 2014 article. It is essential that we work diligently to serve adult students with disabilities in our current student population and to prepare for the arrival of more like them.

For more information on the web accessibility needs of adult learners, contact Content Editor Christine Scherer or Learning Designer Krissy Wilson.

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