QM Digital Accessibility White Paper Series

As of 2018, 19% of undergraduate college students reported having a disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Additionally, all institutional stakeholders have been impacted by the rapid shift to online education and a limited ability to obtain accessible learning materials. Having digitally accessible course materials is a heightened need, as is increasing awareness among administrators, faculty, and all stakeholders of the importance of accessibility. 

More students than ever must rely on accessible digital materials for instruction, as all online materials — including videos, documents, and slide decks — must be presented in an accessible format. Accessible materials also meet the needs of learners that need materials in an alternate format for ease-of-use or technology limitations. 

Accessibility has been an important part of the QM Rubric since the inception of Quality Matters through a FIPSE grant in 2003-2006. It is addressed in the QM Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition, General Standard 8: Accessibility and Usability, and QM provides professional development and resources to help individuals and institutions create accessible courses. However, developing these digital materials requires a significant time investment and a unique skill set that may not be required for faculty teaching campus-based courses. 

Back in 2010, Barbara Frey, D.Ed., and Denise King conducted research with higher education institutions with a QM membership, in which 87% of respondents indicated their institutions did not have an accessibility policy for online programs — in other words, no digital accessibility policy. With this sobering statistic in mind, Frey and King teamed up with Lorna Kearns, Ph.D., in 2011, to create Accessibility Policy Guidelines for Online Courses

Frey, working with Rae Mancilla, Ed.D., in 2019, decided that with the passing of a decade, the time was right to follow up on the 2010 study to see what progress has been made and which aspects of digital accessibility improvements are the most important to focus on now and in the immediate future.

This three-part digital accessibility white paper series shares the results of a 2019 survey conducted by Dr. Barbara Frey and Dr. Rae Mancilla. The first paper on accessibility policies and processes, the second on course design and development tools, and the third on professional development needs. Each of these papers draws comparisons with the original study from 2010 to show where reporting higher education QM member organizations were, substantial changes that appear to have been made, and recommendations for continuous improvement in making online and blended education truly accessible for all. 

The research presented in this white paper series, although conducted prior to the COVID-19 health crisis, prioritizes digital accessibility and the need for agility and responsiveness of all institutional stakeholders in these critical times. This series summarizes the accessibility policies and practices of Quality Matters member institutions and presents timely recommendations for administrators, faculty, instructional staff, and disability services experts in developing inclusive online materials.

About the Authors 


Barbara A. Frey, D.Ed. is an Adjunct Assistant Professor with the School of Education at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a Senior Optimization Consultant with CampusWorks, Inc.  She is also an active Quality Matters Facilitator, Master Reviewer, and Researcher.  Barbara’s background includes over 25 years of experience as a Senior Instructional Designer with Pitt Online at the University of Pittsburgh and as an Assistant Professor with the World Campus at Pennsylvania State University and the Global Campus of Colorado State University.  In addition, Barbara is co-author of the book Distinctive Distance Education Design: Models for Differentiated Instruction (IGI Global Publications, 2011) and a Scholar with the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (IBSTPI).

Rae Mancilla

Rae Mancilla, Ed.D. is a Senior Instructional Designer with the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. She brings to bear over a decade of design and project management expertise in developing fully online and blended programs, including large-scale course developments. She is also an active educator and researcher, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on Instructional Technology, and is passionate about faculty development for online learning. Her research interests include the professional development of instructional designers, language learning and technology, digital accessibility, and program evaluation.