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Joan Wolforth


Joan is Director of the Office for Students with Disabilities at McGill University. She has been involved with NEADS since its inception and carries out research on postsecondary education, on eLearning, and on learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.


College and University Students with Disabilities Speak Out on Their eLearning Experiences

Jennison Asuncion, Co-director, Adaptech Research Network
Catherine Fichten, Co-director, Adaptech Research Network; Professor, Dawson College and McGill University
Joan Wolforth, Director, Office for Students with Disabilities, McGill University

Jennison Asuncion presented some background information on an eLearning study that was part of a larger investigation conducted by the Disability and Information Technologies (Dis-IT) Research Alliance.

Several partner organizations were involved, including Adaptech, NEADS, and the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education. The research team included students (including students with disabilities), disability service providers, disability activists, professors, and eLearning specialists (managers of distance education departments, for example).

Elearning is the full range of information and communications technologies that professors use when teaching their courses. Included are technologies used in the classroom, those used for online courses, and the ones used for hybrid courses (involving classroom and online components).

For this particular study, “accessibility” was defined as “the ability of a learner, regardless of their disability, to easily and independently use e-learning.” For some learners, adaptive technology may be required to interact with eLearning.

Asuncion presented some sample research questions:

  • How accessible are different types of eLearning to students with disabilities?
  • What accommodations are currently being made for students with disabilities?
  • Are there differences between English- and French-speaking institutions?
  • What are the barriers?
  • What are good solutions?

Before constructing the survey, the researchers undertook a series of 22 interviews with five groups of key informants: students with disabilities, campus-based service providers, faculty, eLearning specialists, and post-secondary e-publishers. They used the resulting data to construct a survey, which they delivered online to four of the five groups (e-publishers were not surveyed).

Participants from colleges and universities numbered 406, with representation from all ten provinces and the Northwest Territories: 245 students (205 with disabilities), 77 disability service providers, 45 eLearning specialists, and 39 professors.

Catherine Fichten then provided additional information on the survey demographics and presented some of the findings. The “top five” types of disabilities represented among the student respondents were

  • learning disabilities (42%),
  • mobility impairments (23%),
  • ADD or ADHD (20%),
  • psychological or psychiatric disabilities (16%), and
  • health and medical impairments (15%).

Fichten noted that still-lower percentages of respondents had vision or hearing disabilities or difficulty using their hands or arms. Those groups were therefore not as well represented. Many students (44%) had more than one impairment. That latter finding suggests the need for universal instructional design. It is not practical to target “an impairment,” said Fichten. “We have to target students.” She then listed the five most accessible types of eLearning according to the survey response:

  • E-mail
  • Course-related files in Word, PowerPoint, and similar software programs
  • WebCT, BlackBoard, FirstClass (although sometimes these programs are used for content that is not accessible)
  • Course web pages
  • In-class presentations using PowerPoint

Fichten noted that the results reflect the nature of the sample—most of the students surveyed had learning impairments as opposed to visual and hearing impairments.

The survey also indicated the five most inaccessible types of eLearning:

  • Videoconferencing
  • Live, online, voice-based chat (speaking and listening)
  • Audio clips and files (e.g., recorded audio-only class lectures)
  • Online content that uses Flash
  • CD-ROM tutorials used in class or computer labs (publishers have not been making most of their products accessible)

The researchers also asked general questions about accessibility of the eLearning provided by schools, with students asked to rate their level of agreement with statements on a six-point scale. The results suggested that, on average, accessibility is reasonable and eLearning has not posed difficulties.

Respondents identified the top five benefits of using eLearning:

  • Availability of online course notes
  • Help in learning and academic success
  • Help in understanding course lecture content
  • Ability to work at own pace
  • Ability to work or learn from home

The top five problems encountered in eLearning were these:

  • Inaccessibility of web sites and course management systems
  • Technical difficulties (including hardware and software problems)
  • Poor use of eLearning by professors
  • Difficulty connecting to course management systems on the web site
  • Lack of knowledge of how to use eLearning

Respondents also noted the top five solutions to eLearning problems:

  • Not resolved (67%)
  • Resolved using a non–eLearning solution (20%)
  • Professor provided assistance (12%)
  • Technology or software was obtained and used (10%)
  • Alternative formats were obtained (9%)

The fact that most problems with eLearning remained unresolved is a significant concern, as was the finding that the second most popular solution to e-learning problems was a non–eLearning solution.

Joan Wolforth commented that service providers are aware that many problems remain, despite the somewhat positive results seen in the survey. She suggested that much of the response was disability-dependent. People with different impairments (those with visual impairments, for example) would likely have given different responses. Wolforth noted that the web page at McGill University is technically accessible, but still requires much work to navigate with a program such as JAWS. Accessibility also depends on the level of skill that students have with a technology. Often, students do not receive the training that they need. Another issue is cost.

Wolforth indicated that this comprehensive research project will help in communicating with university administrations, because it shows that accessible eLearning has advantages, but also problems that need to be addressed. The study has informed service providers and students of what is available, what works, and what is needed.

Wolforth then summarized the conclusions, stating that eLearning has many benefits for students and that many popular forms of eLearning are accessible. The caveat is that the experience of eLearning varies depending on the disability.

But the issue goes beyond eLearning: a whole e-university exists. Students can do everything online, from completing their application to watching graduation ceremonies. Print formats are less and less available, which affects navigation through university. For many students, barriers still exist, and for some, technology produces additional barriers. For example, one professor put moving graphics into a PowerPoint presentation, making it inaccessible to a student with low vision. The professor did not understand when the student complained that the presentation was inaccessible.

The next steps in the study are to complete the analysis of the data, to disseminate findings, and to make recommendations. More information can be found on the Adaptech website:

During the post-presentation discussion, one participant suggested creating a national forum where people could post their problems and share solutions. Asuncion commented that NEADS has an eMail discussion list and that the Adaptech Research Network is exploring options.

The group discussed how to motivate professors to share their material in e-format. Wolforth and Fichten recommended that students explain to their professors why they need the material. They also commented that, if a professor is protective of copyright, a student may still be able to obtain the material by signing a confidentiality agreement.

One participant asked for advice on where to start when making a student portal more accessible. Wolforth commented that the best approach is to consider accessibility from the very beginning. Asuncion added that automated validation and repair tools on the market such as AcVerify, can help web designers who may not know that much about accessibility determine the accessibility of an existing site.

Asked if the eLearning research had involved professors with disabilities, Fichten said that identifying faculty with disabilities is challenging. Only about 30% of disability service providers provide services to faculty. Noting that no association exists for faculty with disabilities, she suggested that NEADS could start a subcommittee on this topic, adding that there would be NEADS members who would eventually become university faculty.

Another participant asked if the rise in eLearning had caused any problems with social isolation. Wolforth said that the university administration must understand that eLearning does not take the place of physical accessibility, and it can not be an excuse to avoid making campuses accessible. Also, eLearning has positive aspects that can reduce social isolation even for those who can not be physically present—chat rooms being one example.

Asked how a self-employed graduate could remain current regarding technology, Asuncion suggested a Google search for “newsletter assistive/adaptive technology,” which will find newsletters that provide up-to-date information on available technology. Organizations such as NEADS or consumer disability organizations also have information. Fichten suggested visiting the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres website ( or Industry Canada also has an Assistive Devices Industry Office (ADIO).

Asked how accommodation for students with disabilities is funded, Wolforth explained that several different processes are in place at her institution, from university-wide funding (through the student services fee), to specific initiatives such as library purchases and provincial grants for technology updates. She added that the Office of Students with Disabilities is normally consulted on decisions regarding technology accessibility.

Celebrating 20 years