The past two decades have seen a big shift in higher education, as more and more students swap campus life for the comfort, flexibility, and lower costs of learning from home. Whether it’s to pursue a degree, advance your career, or simply deepen your knowledge, learning from home is an increasingly popular choice.
As the online-learning trend gives no sign of letting up, educators have been working to make online courses just as satisfying and challenging as those on campus. That means access to stimulating lectures and reading materials, convenient feedback methods, live chat rooms, and a supportive online community.
But what does online learning offer to visually impaired students? Is it even possible?
Knocking Down Barriers
However, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance, so institutions have a legal requirement to be accessible to people with different sensory, physical, and cognitive abilities. This means creating suitable online environments too.
Online colleges are also required to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a series of guidelines for improving web accessibility (defined as the practice of ensuring that there are no barriers that prevent access or use of the internet by people with disabilities, including visual impairments). Although they don’t cover all the barriers faced by web users with disabilities, they are internationally recognized and adopted standards.
In light of online learning’s growing popularity, colleges and universities that offer online courses have made web accessibility a priority, and have gone well beyond simply complying with the WCAG guidelines. Their Disability Services offices usually offer individualized programs by organizing access to specific assistive technology (as well as training for that technology), to materials in different formats, and to other accommodations, including extended testing times.
To compile this list we scoured the internet, looking through rankings such as the U.S. News and World Report online rankings, reports by The National Federation for the Blind, and literally hundreds of college websites, with a special focus on their Disability Services and Accessibility pages. We were looking for colleges that pay special attention to making their courses accessible, for example by choosing a Learning Management System which is compatible with screen readers, and by offering assistive technologies and individualized support.
Michigan State University was founded in 1855, with ideals of democratization and knowledge as its central tenets. 170 years later, fairness and inclusivity are still a big part of their philosophy, both on campus and online, where they offer master’s degrees and certificates for students who want to pursue advanced professional study.
This college is high in our ranking because D2L Brightspace is its main online Learning Management System (LMS). Why does that matter? Well, Brightspace was the first LMS to be accepted into the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB) new Nonvisual Access Partnership (SNAP), giving it access to the NFB’s accessibility experts. Because of their commitment to accessibility, Michigan State has created an inclusive online learning environment which offers visually impaired students a seamless and immersive experience.
Penn State World Campus (their online learning ‘campus’) is in the top 10 of six of the U.S. News Best Online Programs rankings for 2020, the most of any institution in the country, so there is no doubt that this is a quality school. Thankfully, visually impaired students are not excluded from accessing this excellence, thanks to the school’s attention to accessibility for everyone.
In their online degree courses, content is provided in different formats, and video and other multimedia content comes with transcripts and audio descriptions. The school has invested in state-of-the-art assistive technologies to help students during challenging coursework in STEM courses, too, making this a welcoming school for visually impaired students online and on campus. In this interesting interview, you can read all about the experience one visually impaired student had while taking an online course at Penn State.
Through free online courses, graduate and professional certificates, advanced degrees, and executive education programs, Stanford hopes to facilitate meaningful learning for students of all backgrounds and ages. To make their courses accessible, Stanford founded The Stanford Online Accessibility Program (SOAP), which provides resources for Stanford web designers and content creators to assist them in creating materials which are accessible to everyone, including visually impaired students.
Stanford students have access to specialized support services through local and state agencies such as the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and the California Council for the Blind (CCB).
Stanford switched LMS in 2015, and now uses Canvas for all its online courses. Canvas can provide students accommodations such as captions for visual content, alternative text formats, transcriptions, and accessible web content.
John Hopkins offers dozens of online courses and programs, some of which can be accessed for free through their partnership with Coursera. Online and on campus, the university works to foster diversity and ensure that programs, services, and benefits can be accessed equally by all students.
One way in which John Hopkins aims to provide equal access is by ensuring that their web-based content and online course material can be easily used by students with various disabilities. The University provides guidelines for its content creators on how to make their websites and content accessible for people with visual impairments, such as colorblindness, low vision, and blurred vision, and recommend that they provide sufficient visual contrast, adjustable font size, and use something other than just color to distinguish pieces of content.
Auburn University offers undergraduate and graduate online courses in many different fields, including agriculture, science and mathematics, business, education, engineering, human sciences, and liberal arts. Auburn University ensures equal access to web information and technology for all its faculty, staff, and students by following strict guidelines (such as providing captioning and scripts for online multimedia, providing image and link descriptions, and creating accessible tables).
For online students, all course materials are delivered via Canvas, which is compatible with screen readers and can be integrated with other assistive technologies. Auburn’s Office of Accessibility ensures that assistive technologies, course materials in alternative formats, and training are all available to students with visual and other impairments.
FSU has an incredible number of degrees you can choose from, and they are well known for their excellence in the arts, humanities, and sciences. Their Office of Accessibility Services (formerly the Student Disability Resource Center) provides a variety of resources to online students. These include different types of accommodations, including academic accommodations, extra support, and specialized assistive technologies. For course specifics, you can read their Technology Accessibility Statements & Privacy Policies, which also talks about their LMS of choice—Canvas—and its integrated applications.
FSU’s Office of Distance Learning (ODL) also provides guidance to faculty in how to design accessible courses, ensuring that video, images, and written documents can all be accessed by visually impaired students.
This excellent University ranked first in an assessment of website accessibility for people with disabilities, topping a list of 140 American Universities. The ranking used a tool called the Functional Accessibility Evaluator (FAE) 2.0, which measures a website’s compliance with W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, which makes online content accessible to people with different impairments.
The ranking is great news for visually impaired students who wish to sign up for one of its numerous courses, which include (but are in no way limited to!) African American studies, astronomy, biochemistry, finance, linguistics, physics, and statistics. The University of Iowa’s LMS of choice is Canvas, which ensures that course material is compatible with different assistive technologies.
Utah State offers hundreds of online courses and over 60 online degrees and certificates, which are often ranked amongst the best by the likes of US News & World Report. Their Disability Resource Center is responsible for assisting students on campus and online, and for providing necessary accommodations and individually tailored support.
Utah State hosts online courses on Canvas, the platform through which quizzes and assignments are delivered, and grades and feedback are communicated. Canvas is screen-reader compatible, and has many other features that make it accessible for visually impaired students, so it’s a great choice for online colleges who wish to be more accessible.
Washington State University is a non-profit public research university that was founded all the way back in 1890. And in 1992, their top-tier degrees have been available to students around the world, thanks to the founding of their online Global Campus, which offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses in the fields of business, communication, social sciences, and science and technology.
The Access Center at Washington State University is responsible for providing accommodations and services to on campus and online students, and can provide braille and audio format materials to visually impaired students. WSU had been using Blackboard (a popular LMS) but began piloting Canvas in summer semester of 2019, and all courses will be on Canvas by 2021.
Many schools at Northwestern University have developed their own courses to offer students a variety of online and blended learning opportunities. You can choose between degrees in data science, global health, literature, marketing communications, and health informatics to name but a few. Some courses are asynchronous (meaning they do not require synchronous attendance), while others are synchronous (meaning you have to attend all or some sessions and at certain times).
Northwestern adheres to a set of guidelines designed to ensure accessibility to all students, and IT staff and faculty are responsible for creating websites and online materials that can be easily used by students with different impairments. Northwestern’s LMS, Canvas, allows teachers to deliver course material and grades, and create an online learning environment that can be tailored to suit individual needs.
Walden University is special for many different reasons, but most striking perhaps is its commitment to the social good. Walden University is, in fact, a B Corp™, meaning it balances purpose and profit: “for more than 45 years”, states their website, “Walden has motivated its students to be a force for good. Making a positive impact in our communities is what we do.” Online they offer over 80 degree programs and close to 400 specializations and certificates.
As well as being an overall great online university, Walden also offers online students a wide range of accommodations, including materials in alternative formats, text-to-voice technology, and more. You can contact Walden’s Disability Services to find out what other auxiliary aids and services they offer to students with visual impairments.
The University of Texas, Sain Austin, embraces and encourages diversity in many forms, and works to create an inclusive community that fosters positive learning environments. One way of doing that is by ensuring that all online material is accessible to students with disabilities, including visual impairments. The university uses Canvas to deliver its online courses, making it possible for visually impaired students to use screen readers and other assistive technologies.
You can choose self-paced online courses, which are great for self-motivated students who need flexibility, or semester-based online courses, which are perfect for students who prefer a more structured experience. The great thing about this university is that under Texas education code, students who are certified as blind and are Texas residents are entitled to be exempted from tuition. Just contact the Texas Workforce Commission, (formerly DARS) for information about how to secure certification.
Michigan Technological University offers an interesting selection of online degrees, ranging from electronic, mechanical, and civil engineering, to health informatics and applied statistics. The University strives to offer equal opportunities for its students and staff, and so have ensured that all University systems, websites, electronic documents, and educational and training materials are accessible. To ensure that no one is excluded, Michigan tech has come up with a set of guidelines and procedures to help staff create online materials that can be used by students with visual, hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairments.
Disability Services provides support and resources to students who require them, even if they do not have a documented disability. For online students, the university provides course material in large font through Canvas (the LMS used at Michigan Tech), and makes sure that all textbooks are available in audio format too.
California State University, Chico was established in 1887, and is now internationally recognized as a pioneer in distance education. Chico Distance & Online Education offers fully-accredited online courses and degree programs, some of which are entirely web-based, and some of which provide live, synchronous video streaming of course lectures.
CSU uses Blackboard as its online LMS. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, Blackboard is accessible to blind users, but because there is a lot of configurability in the Blackboard service, no two experiences will be exactly the same. Another, recent improvement to Blackboard is the ‘invention’ of Ally, a service which allows people to alert faculty to materials that could be better designed to be more accessible.
Saint Louis Online University online allows you to choose exactly when you want to start your degree, and how many courses you want to take, so you can go at your own pace. There are dozens of courses for you to pick from, such as Project Management, Security and Strategic Intelligence, or Social Work to name just a few.
The Access Office is the one responsible for ensuring that all students have equal access to the learning opportunities, resources, and programs that the university has to offer. They take an individualized approach to make sure that each student has the tools to reach their academic potential, and have even created a set of guidelines and best practices to help faculty and staff remove barriers from their courses. The University’s LMS, Blackboard, has also been recently been equipped with Ally, which lets you easily generate alternative formats for your course files.
CSU provides a pretty incredible number of accredited degrees, certificates, and professional development options online, in subjects ranging from accounting and zoology, to forestry, music, and theatre. The University has demonstrated that they welcome students of all backgrounds and abilities onto their campus, and that they have created an accessible learning environment for all. This blind student from Oman, in fact, earned not one but two degrees from CSU.
The Student Disability Center strives to create the same environment for online students by making sure all materials are accessible, and by providing accommodations such as extra time for exams, and course material in different formats. CSU uses Canvas, which is compatible with screen readers and other assistive technologies.
Temple University offers a number of online, distance, and blended courses to ensure students can take advantage of their courses, but at their own pace. The University is committed to providing students with access to facilities and online material, and have created guidelines so that their IT and faculty staff can produce accessible course materials, websites, and documents.
Disability Resources and Services (DRS) offers assistance to students who need it, and the department’s nationally-certified Assistive Technology (AT) coordinator offers needs assessment, training, and short-term equipment loans for students interested in assistive technology. The AT coordinator also manages the production of instructional materials in alternate formats, such as electronic text, braille, and audio. The University’s Institute on Disabilities also offers programs that provide training and support both to people with disabilities (including visual impairments) and to their families.
Established back in 1861, The University of Washington (UW) is a top tier public university that, through its Professional and Continuing Education Division, offers the same high-quality education to online students, who can choose between two accredited bachelor’s degrees and close to 20 master’s degrees.
UW works in many ways to ensure that people with visual impairments have access to all services and content, including online and IT ones. For example, UW’s IT Accessible Technology Services consults with campus units about how to make IT accessible to all students, staff, and visitors. UW’s delivers its online courses through Canvas, and has recently added Ally (provided by Blackboard but compatible with other LMS’s), which generates formats such as electronic braille, screen-reader compatible text, and audio that are accessible to visually impaired students.
The University of Mississippi offers some of its most popular on-campus courses online too, including those created by their Schools of Applied Sciences, of Liberal Arts, of Education, of Engineering, and of Journalism and Media. The school is committed to providing necessary accommodations so that students can reach their full academic potential, and has been working to make all course materials accessible to all students.
The University actually includes the renowned National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision (NRTC) which is located on their historic campus, and focuses on employment outcomes of persons with blindness or low vision. The online university uses Canvas to deliver course materials, assignments, and grades, so you can be sure that your screen reader or assistive technologies of choice will be compatible.
You can study anything from Education, Business Administration, History, or Cybersecurity without leaving your home if you choose to study through the University of South Arkansas’ online programs. The University’s Center for Educational Access (CEA) is the office that ensures that all students can access what they need, and that all barriers are removed, both on campus and online.
CEA works with faculty and university staff to assist each student individually to determine what can be done to make their learning experience a seamless and rewarding one. The University has recently started using Blackboard Ally, which not only creates alternative formats which are accessible to students with visual impairments, but also evaluates each document and gives feedback so that the person who created it knows what and how to improve.
Back in 1839, a new school of higher education in Lexington, Massachusetts, opened its doors to young students who were hoping to be the country’s next generation of great teachers, in a time when the US had a chronic need for professional educators. Some of the early graduates from The Normal School, current-day Framingham University, even went on to teach at the Perkins School for the Blind.
These days, Framingham offers online degree courses in 18 different subject areas, and is committed to providing access to all students. In spring 2018, Ally was added to Framingham’s LMS of choice, Blackboard, making the online courses even more accessible for students with visual impairments thanks to its ability to generate electronic braille, audio, and other formats.
To further help staff and faculty in making their courses more accessible, Framingham has created a set of guidelines and best practice tips.
Missouri State University was found to have one of the most accessible college websites, which is great news for visually impaired students who wish to access one of their excellent accredited and affordable online degrees. And you’ll have more than enough choice, too, as the university offers hundreds of online degrees, including accounting, marine conservation, braille reading and writing, social welfare, and so much more.
As an online student, you can take advantage of all the same support offered to campus students, including virtual research assistance, writing assistance, and one-to-one tutoring. Missouri State is one of the universities that recently made the switch to using Ally, which allows you to simply open the alternative format menu and choose a file format the meets your needs, whether you use a phone, tablet, screen reader, or specific assistive technologies.
The University of Michigan was established in 1817, and since then has become one of the most well-regarded colleges, both on the Ann Arbor campus and online, where they offer more than 100 courses, as well as ‘Teach-Outs’, free online events to which people (whether students or not) can tune in and listen.
The University is committed to providing equal access to information and services for all students, staff, faculty, and visitors. Their university website, for example, is specifically designed to include bold colors, larger than average font size, and other features that make it accessible to visually impaired people. Support and accommodations are available and determined on a case-by-case basis to ensure that students get exactly what they need. Online courses are delivered via Canvas, so materials are compatible with assistive technology.
FAU offers online undergraduate and graduate degrees in several different areas, such as arts and letters, business, design and social inquiry, engineering and computer science, nursing and science. The university’s Student Accessibility Services (SAS) caters to the needs of campus students as well as students taking online courses, and ensures that students with visual impairments receive the necessary accommodations, materials, and assistive technology. They also provide suggestions to faculty on how to best accommodate visually impaired students.
Online coursework is delivered via Canvas, which has been designed to be disability-friendly, and can be used by students with visual and other impairments without difficulty. In the past, FAU has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring everyone can access their excellent education. For example, they spent about one year adapting the curriculum for a wheelchair-bound blind student, who eventually graduated from FAU’s Department of Music.
Ashford University was founded in 1918 by the Sisters of St. Francis as the Mount St. Clare Junior College for Women in Clinton, Iowa. Today, Ashford University offers over 80 associates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate online degrees, serving thousands of students from all over the world. Their Office of Student Access and Wellness fosters “equal opportunities to student success through accessible educational programs, disability-related advocacy, faculty and staff education, and an enhanced awareness of individual abilities and contributions”, and offers tutoring services, materials in accessible formats, and other accommodations to students with visual impairments.
To deliver their course material, Ashford University has chosen Canvas, one of the most accessible LMSs out there because it is compatible with screen readers, among other things. If you want to hear some first-hand experience at Ashford, read about Elton, who is legally blind, and earned his Bachelor of Arts in business administration from Ashford University in 2016.
North Dakota’s third-largest public, co-educational master’s institution, Minot State University offers some of the most affordable online degrees around, but without compromising on quality education. With a wide array of bachelor’s and master’s programs, Minot State is a great choice for visually impaired students who want to acquire a quality education on a budget.
The university is also home to the renowned North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities (NDCPD), a Center of Excellence on Developmental Disabilities, Education, Research and Service whose mission is “to provide service, education, and research which empowers communities to welcome, value and support the well-being and quality of life for people of all ages and abilities.” Minot’s online courses are delivered via Blackboard, which the American Foundation for the Blind says is accessible to visually impaired people.
Shoreline’s online campus offers dozens of online degrees and certificates, and is renowned for its high-quality teaching and affordable prices. Shoreline is ranked #1 in Washington, and its most popular courses include History, Psychology, Health Information Technology, English Literature, and Supply Chain Management.
Shoreline’s Student Accessibility Services works with students individually so that they can have the most positive learning experience possible, and offers accommodations such as materials in alternate formats, adaptive equipment, extra time on tests, and priority registration. Course materials are delivered through Canvas, meaning you will automatically have access to interpreting and transcribing technology, alternative formats, and captions for multimedia content.
St. John’s University offers several online master’s degrees, including ones in business administration, public health, accounting, taxation, literacy, and many more. And if their great reputation is not enough to entice you, St. John’s also gives entrants an Apple MacBook Pro or Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga Ultrabook with full warranty support. The university boasts a very proactive Disability Services Office, which works to improve the quality of the academic and personal lives of students who have a disability, including visual impairments, as well as providing a barrier-free educational experience.
All of St. John’s online courses are delivered through Blackboard, which is compatible with most screen readers and other types of assistive technology.
Since 2002, BU has been offering award-winning online degrees that enable students from all over the world to obtain a high-quality education. Whether pursuing a bachelor’s, a master’s, or earning a doctoral degree, you’ll have plenty to choose from with BU’s courses, which range from Advanced IT, Art Education, Crime Analysis, Cybersecurity, Social Work, and so much more.
Their Disability and Access Services cater to their visually impaired students by offering materials in alternative formats, access to adaptive and assistive technology, as well as reading and research assistance. Boston University staff and faculty are trained on how to make their materials accessible to everyone, and deliver all of their course materials, assignments, and grades on Blackboard, a popular LMS which is accessible to visually impaired students.
Gallaudet University has been offering quality and barrier-free education to the deaf and hearing-impaired community for more than 150 years. However, even the hearing are allowed to attend, and all courses are taught in sign language and spoken English. The current student body includes people from all over the world, and with different needs and communication styles.
Gallaudet University now offers a selection of online courses and programs for undergraduate, graduate, or professional studies credit. Choose between the likes of Education, Clinical Mental Health Counselling, and more, and be sure that staff at Gallaudet will be accommodating and offer an educational experience free of barriers.
How do colleges make their online courses more accessible?
Pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree online is becoming increasingly popular because of the flexibility it offers, as well as being more affordable and convenient. This is especially true for visually impaired students who may not be able to, or may not feel like navigating campus life. That’s why it is extremely important for online colleges and universities to make their content accessible to people with different impairments.
Thanks to both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, institutions that receive federal financial assistance must be accessible to everyone, and are required to remove any kind of barrier that could prevent a person from accessing their services.
Colleges are also required to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) a series of guidelines for improving web accessibility.
Here are some tangible ways in which online colleges are improving accessibility for students with visual impairments:
- Providing guidelines to university staff on how to ensure accessibility
- Ensuring that websites are easy to navigate
- Providing transcripts for video and audio content
- Providing written or audio descriptions of images
- Making sure websites and content are compatible with assistive technology such as screen magnification and readers
- Making sure there is good color contrast on screen, and avoiding the use of color as the sole differentiator
- Ensuring that Disability Services are responsive, available, and happy to create individualized solutions for different students
Another very important factor in an online college’s accessibility is their choice of Learning Management System (LMS), the platform used by faculty, staff, and students to communicate, host course materials, deliver assignments, grades, and more.
All the online colleges in our list use LMSs which have been designed to be accessible by students with different impairments. The three most popular and accessible LMSs are:
- Brightspace, which was the first LMS to be accepted into the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB) new Nonvisual Access Partnership (SNAP).
- Canvas, which comes with several built-in features that allow educators and students with disabilities to configure it in different ways that make online learning accessible and productive.
- Blackboard, which according to research conducted by the American Foundation for the Blind, is accessible to blind and visually impaired users.
The most recent tool which is increasing accessibility is Ally, which is brought to us by the same folks who make Blackboard (but it can be integrated with other LMSs). Ally is great for both instructors and students: For the former, it provides guidelines and advice on how to improve accessibility of their content, and allows them to automatically check for common accessibility issues. For the latter, Ally offers the possibility to choose easily between different formats (audio, electronic braille, etc) and to report accessibility problems.
Can visually impaired students get scholarships for online college degrees?
Unfortunately, the high cost of obtaining a degree is one of the most significant barriers to pursuing higher education. Some of those costs are offset by choosing an online degree over one in a traditional ‘brick and mortar’ institution, but that still doesn’t make it ‘cheap’. So how can visually impaired students achieve the education they want without getting into a mountain of debt?
Thankfully, there are dozens of scholarships available for people with visual impairments. Some of them offer a small, one-off amount to get you started, while others cover your entire tuition (and more!). There are also lots of different requirements; Some require you to prove that you have a certain degree of sight loss, or that you are legally blind, while others are reserved for students in a certain field (STEM, literature, media, or music for example), and finally some are only available to athletes, musicians, or actors.
Some schools also offer their own scholarships, so remember to call Disability Services, the Financial Aid Office, or the department to which you want to apply, as not all funding is advertised on the school’s website. Some scholarships are limited to the state level, so get in touch with state agencies that cater to the visually impaired to find out what is available to you. Some states actually have laws that provide college tuition waivers for people who have a certain level of visual impairment (Texas, for example).
Looking for funding might not be fun, but it is definitely worth it, so start as soon as possible.
Which is the best online college for visually impaired students?
The goals and wishes of students are as diverse as they can be, so while one online college might be perfect for one student, it might just not feel right for another. However, the one thing all the colleges on our list have in common is accessibility. Can a visually impaired student fully enjoy what the college has to offer, and can they fulfill their academic potential?
All of the colleges listed above have made major progress in making their courses accessible to visually impaired students, either through their choice of LMS, the accommodations available to students, or the special attention paid to creating accessible online materials.
We found that Michigan State University is one of the best online colleges in terms of accessibility, thanks in part to its choice of LMS. But there are so many other factors to consider, such as choice of courses and degrees, price, and schedule, so make sure you take a look at our list and make an informed choice.