A Mission-Driven Effort to Incorporate Web Accessibility into Online Courses
Elaine A. Crable, Ph.D., 2012 Conway Faculty Fellow & Professor, Management Information Systems, Xavier University

St. Ignatius wrote, “love consists in a mutual communication between two persons. That is, the one who gives and communicates to the beloved what he or she has...and the beloved in return does the same. Thus, if one has knowledge, one gives it to the other who does not.”

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” 

Xavier University is moving down the path of developing virtual courses and programs, but as we do this, along with many other Jesuit schools, we need to be mindful of our Ignatian mission of inclusion. Berners-Lee would agree with the Jesuits in that there should be no boundaries with respect to the invitation to learn via online sources. Early in the development of the Web, Berners-Lee indicated that all are welcome, regardless of economic status, culture, religious background or disability. The compassionate care and attentiveness to those under-served, whether they be impoverished, marginalized, physically or mentally handicapped, has always been a priority of the Jesuits. Finding ways to make Ignatian education accessible to these populations is a challenge and a responsibility for Jesuit schools across the world. The challenge that exists for Jesuit educators is in better understanding technology tools so that guidelines can be written and examples developed that will allow us to share knowledge on a worldwide basis and serve all populations.

Today we have a new way of sharing knowledge and, like Ignatius, we want to be as inclusive as possible as we begin our online endeavors with the Jesuit community of schools. Accessibility is an issue that must be addressed in this online delivery of our courses and it must be addressed immediately as we focus on our mission and the importance of caring for the whole person. Care of the person, cura personalis, is at the heart of a Jesuit education. The human body is a fundamental element of cura personalis. People who struggle with physical challenges often cannot perform at their best because of needless obstacles. It is our mission to make sure that we understand and address the marginalized with any physical disability that could prevent them from fulfilling their dreams of education.

The accessibility project at Xavier is focusing on insuring that the web-based components of the curriculum are accessible to all and especially those with visual, auditory and motor challenges. We need to continually be reminded of what Ignatius said centuries ago in his first principle, “disability is a gift no less than is health.” Accessibility to our online course components is not only a legal issue, but more important, it is also part of our mission as a Jesuit institution.

Accessibility Initiative

As a society, we know we must provide access to public buildings, so we have incorporated building codes and laws for those unable to walk. For those with any hearing impairments, we also have provided closed-captioning for television programs and movies. Until recently, one area that we have been slow to provide equal access to is in the area of education, but with technology advances we can now narrow this divide. Digitized information has been the major breakthrough for education and people with disabilities. Since digital information is display-independent, it can be presented in many different formats.

An effort at Xavier, as we offer more virtual course work for students, is focusing on creating accessible online learning experiences for all students and especially for students with physical disabilities. Providing these online learning experiences, especially for the physically challenged, can empower them to become stronger, and more self-reliant people. We want all our students, regardless of challenge, to find their experiences at our Jesuit schools to be formational and rewarding. The Conway Fellowship afforded me the opportunity to support Xavier’s universal design initiative.

Steps to Web Accessibility:

1. Partnerships are necessary to weave accessibility issues throughout a curriculum. At Xavier, these partnerships include:  

  • Discovery Services and Library Services who provide expertise in course design of web content.
  • Information Resources who provide the “back-end” technology for course development.
  • The Learning Assistance Program and Support Services who identify current accessibility issues at Xavier, as well as those anticipated as a result of future legislation or individual need.
  • The Center for Mission and Identity staff who assist in ensuring that Ignatian mission and values are embedded in the pedagogy for interaction between students, teachers and administrators.
  • Faculty specializing in physical disability studies at Xavier who help identify learning challenges for students.
  • AJCU's JesuitNET Design Services who enable the local, national and global sharing of accessibility documents and guidelines. Many of our schools are moving into online course development and it is important that this message of inclusion is understood and incorporated into these university courses.
  • The national organization of Web Accessibility Initiative, which provides support for all online design and development endeavors.

2. Follow the seven principles of accessibility and universal design of web pages (Making Online Teaching Accessible by Norman Coombs, 2010):

  • Equitable use – page should be useful and appealing to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use – design-appropriate for many different preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive – design is easy to understand regardless of knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible information – design communicates information effectively regardless of ambient conditions or user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance of error – design should provide warnings of possible errors and provide fail-safe measures.
  • Low physical effort – design should not fatigue a user easily.
  • Size and space for approach and use – design should allow everyone access and accommodate assistive devices such as screen readers.

3. Continue to examine available accessibility documents, and provide these documents such as the following to faculty and support staff developing online courses:

  • Online Accessibility Policy for Xavier University that is in compliance with the Federal Rehabilitation Act’s Section 508 standards. This will ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to courses employing Web-based material.
  • Ignatian-based Accessibility Guidelines for creating and delivering online courses.
  • Resource documents from organizations focused on universal design and accessibility.
  • Conference and Journal publications on accessibility issues.

We are all eager to offer online course work alternatives to our students, especially to our non-traditional students. We have an opportunity since we are just starting to build not only excellent courses developed within the Ignatian Paradigm model, but also courses that can be available for everyone. Inclusion is an important part of our mission and providing knowledge to everyone, including students at the margins, should be our goal.

For more information on Xavier’s Accessibility and Universal Design project, please visit The Center for Mission and Identity website.

Connections is the online monthly news publication of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) that provides readers with news and information about the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States.