ECAR Study of the Technology Needs of Students with Disabilities, 2020

Accommodations and the Importance of UDL

When students were asked what faculty could do with technology to aid in their learning, some respondents discussed their disability or condition in relation to an accommodation and/or accessibility need. Some individuals answered this question broadly (e.g., "Help with accommodation," "Make it more accessible"), while others were more specific. For example, several respondents told us they wanted instructors to use captioning and/or transcripts to accompany videos they developed for their courses (e.g., "Add subtitles to videos," "Provide audio transcripts/subtitles by default").

Students also told us they would like their instructors to use more of the kinds of assistive/accessible technology tools they use themselves. Text-to-speech tools can convert text materials—when they are formatted appropriately—into audio for people who need content in a read-aloud format. A number of students wrote about the significance of text-to-speech technologies and the benefits of audio for their learning. Increasingly, e-textbooks are being bundled with read-aloud features, and one respondent specifically called out the usefulness of those resources: "Please find e-books that are accessible to the reader to read out loud. It is so, so helpful for students with learning disabilities, like me."

"Learn to use text-to-speech software. And understand its importance to someone like me [who] has a learning disability."

In addition to aiding people with eyesight disabilities, text-to-speech software can be helpful for students with dyslexia or other conditions that make reading and decoding language a struggle.1  But since a learning disability like dyslexia is not visibly apparent, instructors might not be aware that they need to provide course materials in more accessible formats for some of their students, as the following comment demonstrates:

STOP SCANNING PICTURES OF BOOKS!!! My computer accessibility software cannot dictate them to me!! I have to print everything out and double if not triple the time spent studying plus increase of pain!

A digital scan of a book or an article produces only a picture of that resource, which is incompatible with screen readers; but many faculty might not know about optimizing PDF files using optical character recognition, an easily implemented process for making documents accessible. From these responses, we have more insight into some of the technology barriers students with disabilities experience and the added time and effort they must invest to access their learning materials. These comments also shed light on specific ways teachers can use technology to make their courses more accessible, thereby helping level the playing field for learners. But a learner doesn't have to have a disability to benefit from many of the technologies discussed in these responses. With a UDL approach, which advocates for offering learners multiple means of engagement, representation of information, and action and expression of knowledge, educators can turn their attention away from the idea of "accommodation" (making one change for one student) to the larger notion of access in general.2  All students can benefit when instructors adopt a UDL mindset, and some of the students with disabilities in our sample recognized this:

Provide audio for all course reading to ALL students, not only for students who have Disability Service requirements.

Encourage multiple ways of using technology in the learning process.

To help use its versatility to enable a more inclusive environment.

By considering what students with disabilities tell us they want, instructors have the opportunity to not only address the needs of this population but also improve access for all learners on campus. For example, accurately captioning videos and providing open captioning for live events helps not only those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing or individuals with certain learning disabilities but also students who are learning English as a second language and students working in noisy environments.3  Providing materials that are formatted for/with text-to-speech software offers all students an audio option for readings and other assignments. Sharing class notes online, recording lectures, and leveraging institutionally provided LMSs increase access for everyone—for the student who has limited mobility or a chronic illness, as well as the student who must work an extra shift or has a child-care issue.

UDL is especially important when we consider that many students do not disclose their disability to their institutions. Because many research studies tell us disclosure rates are low, we also looked at open responses from students who did not identify as having a disability that required accessible technology. And several respondents shared specific learning needs even though they did not identify that they had a disability-related technology requirement.

I have somewhat bad vision, so I would like it if all materials that were handed out in class could also be easily accessible online so I don't have to use my magnifier in front of my peers.

These responses demonstrate that some students who have more diverse needs or preferences might feel uncomfortable about openly using tools that aid their learning. Another student told us how helpful recorded lectures would have been during an extended absence due to illness:

Though my attendance is near-perfect now, during my freshman year I really struggled due to having a panic disorder, and also experienced having to try to catch up with the work I missed after I was unexpectedly hospitalized.

These particular students might not have required specific assistive or adaptive technologies like a screen reader or text-to-speech software, but their comments highlight the significance of having all course materials shared in an online format for universal access. The UDL framework is important because it allows colleges and universities to advance support and resources to learners who choose not to use disability services, might be unaware of the services available to them, or might be unaware that they need support in the first place. Effective UDL implementation can also unobtrusively help students work through their courses without an approved accommodation.4  That is, when technology is incorporated well into a course, the need for specific accommodations (which help one person in one way) is greatly reduced and, ideally, the number of requested accommodations decreases.

As some of the students said themselves, if instructors could "invest a little more thought and time" and "be more open to disability," and if they "were more willing to adapt," then "the higher education environment would be more inclusive and equal."


  1. Luis Perez, "From Accommodations to Accessibility: Creating Learning Environments That Work for All," EDUCAUSE Review (April 27, 2015); Kyle Redford, "Mother Worry: Academic Support Away from Home," The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity; "Text-to-Speech Technology: What it Is and How it Works," Understood For All.

  2. Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018).

  3. Morton Ann Gernsbacher, "Video Captions Benefit Everyone," Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2, no. 1 (October 1, 2015): 195–202; Katie Linder, Student Uses and Perceptions of Closed Captions and Transcripts: Results from a National Study (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit, October 2016).

  4. Tobin and Behling, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone.