The recent shift to online learning has emphasized the importance of accessibility in higher education institutions. Universities and colleges are now more conscious of accessibility, and many institutions have implemented different kinds of website accessibility initiatives. Nonetheless, accessibility on college campuses is not a recent phenomenon. Universities have promoted accessibility even before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

For example, Ramapo College of New Jersey has been wheelchair accessible since its founding in 1971. All of the buildings on Ramapo’s 300-acre campus are interconnected, making it easier for wheelchair users to travel from one class to another. Ramapo is also known for its assistive technology lab for the exclusive use of those with physical disabilities.

Higher education institutions have also made their students’ living spaces more accessible. The Cypress Hall dormitory at the University of Florida, for instance, was designed with the needs of students with physical disabilities in mind. The dorm has wheelchair-accessible showers and toilet facilities, specially-designed lifts, and individualized furniture. The university offers a free bus, equipped with ramps and chair lifts, to facilitate students to get around campus.

Accessibility and inclusivity are not just limited to physical facilities. Universities also provide opportunities for students with disabilities to make meaningful connections and pursue leisure activities. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers opportunities for accessibility research and overseas exchange, while UIUC’s sports programs, including its wheelchair basketball teams, have produced successful Paralympic athletes. Around 20 Fighting Illini joined the U.S. contingent to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, the most of any school.

In addition to on-site facilities and services, colleges and universities have been working on making their websites and other online services accessible even before the onset of the pandemic. Several top schools, such as Davidson College, the University of Minnesota, the California State University system, and the University of Washington, have resources that their web and instructional developers may refer to as they build online content.

However, universities face particular challenges that keep them from catering to every student with a disability. Students are not required to report their disabilities, and while roughly 13% of students informed their colleges about their disabilities, the actual number might be much higher. As a result, there is a need for accessible technologies that do not require users to disclose their disabilities or personal data.

For instance, education websites may use universal design principles to accommodate disabled users, such as those with color blindness, dyslexia, or limited use of either hand. Learning content creators may also provide video transcriptions for people with hearing impairments. Users with visual impairments should be able to access the same content through built-in screen readers. Finally, offering accessibility controls such as contrast, text size, or specialized fonts can help students, faculty, and staff with disabilities access the information they need to succeed in the academic environment.

By taking an institutional approach, colleges and universities can make learning more inclusive, and accessible for students with disabilities – online and offline.