Accessibility in Digital Teaching: The US as a Model for German Universities?

Accessibility in Digital Teaching: The US as a Model for German Universities?


Image: [ Michel Arriens]

Barrier-free access to higher education is anchored in German law. This is not just about physical barriers. Since the beginning of the Corona pandemic, at the latest, it has become clear that the removal of digital barriers is also an elementary component of inclusive university teaching. However, many universities are still in the early stages of implementing accessible digital teaching. This blog post addresses the question of what German universities can learn from U.S. universities with regard to accessibility in digital teaching. In doing so, we refer to the results of the study by Dr. Axel Oberschelp “Information Portals for Accessible Digital Teaching. What can German universities learn from the USA?” as well as the exchange during the HFD Digital Day in June 2021 on the topic of “Digital barriers – strategies and perspectives”.

Inclusion and Digitization

According to a survey by the Studierendenwerk (an organization providing social, economic, and cultural support to students) on the situation of students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, around 11% of the almost 2.8 million students at German universities are affected by an impairment relevant to their studies. It is the task of the universities to provide these students with equal access to higher education. Even though universities are already striving for physical accessibility in many places, accessibility in virtual space is also gaining in importance in view of the rapid pace of development of information technology communication and the associated increase in digital teaching offerings. Against the backdrop of the COVID 19 pandemic, this trend has intensified dramatically: there is an acute need for action on the part of higher education institutions. Digitization of teaching plays a key role in the design of inclusive higher education. The flexible, time- and location-dependent teaching and learning arrangements associated with it mean that the needs of diverse target groups can be taken into account.  To ensure that the opportunities offered by digital offerings are exploited accordingly and that digitization does not create any new barriers, the “implementation of the legally anchored standards of accessibility in the area of e-learning and digital infrastructure by the federal states and universities” is required.

Independent of the current developments in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, the EU already set a clear legal framework for the implementation of digital accessibility for public institutions in 2016 with its Directive 2016/2102. This also obligated universities to fully implement corresponding measures by September 23, 2021. The directive’s requirements are implemented and specified at the national level by the Federal Equal Opportunities Act (BGG) and the Ordinance on the Creation of Barrier-free Information Technology in Accordance with the Act on Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (BITV 2.0). In Germany, this goes even further than the requirements of the European guidelines.

Implementation at German Universities

Despite the legal framework and the subsequent expansion of supporting infrastructure, the implementation of barrier-free digital teaching at many German universities is nowhere near as advanced as necessary. This includes, for example, the barrier-free design of websites, texts and all teaching materials as well as the barrier-free planning and implementation of courses and examinations. Even if concrete data is lacking, it must be stated that the efforts made so far by universities to promote digital accessibility hardly go beyond individual measures. These are often neither coordinated internally across different departments at universities nor linked across universities. In many places, those affected, teachers and other university employees act as lone warriors, as it were. This impression is also confirmed by many of the responses that the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD) receives as part of its community-based work. With a series of formats, the HFD would therefore like to take up the topic and offer targeted support in the (re)design process of the universities. 

International Perspective

In an international comparison, the U.S. higher education system plays an exemplary role with regard to framework conditions and support structures that enable impaired persons to access educational opportunities. The USA’s pioneering role is based in particular on the far-reaching federal laws that prohibit discrimination against impaired students. These laws began with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which provides a legal right to equal access to all educational opportunities and to all necessary support services, regardless of cost. In contrast to the situation in Germany, this legal entitlement can be claimed individually. Other reasons for the USA’s pioneering role are its strong customer and competitive orientation and the pronounced level of digitization at US universities. 

In order to derive potential fields of action for improving the situation at German universities from the exemplary situation in the USA, the HFD commissioned the German Center for Higher Education and Science Research (DZHW) to conduct a study that analyzes in detail the structures, measures and standards developed and implemented at US universities for implementing digital accessibility.

Study of web-based support services in the U.S.

The object of the study is a quantitative content analysis of the web-based support services of 20 exemplarily selected U.S. universities. The sample includes universities of different sizes and geographical locations as well as all so-called Ivy League universities and universities that have been positively evaluated in two central disability rankings in the USA. Priority is given to universities that are comparable to German universities in terms of their teaching and research profiles. 

The aim of the study is, on the one hand, to take stock of the content of relevant information portals according to the type of service, target group and content-related aspects. On the other hand, the study examines the extent to which the design of the offerings is related to certain university-specific and internal organizational factors. In addition, the study identifies examples of best practice and provides initial indications of transferability to the German higher education system.

With regard to the design of the offerings, the website analysis shows that the support offerings are primarily in the form of external links and textual references. There is also a focus on assistive technologies and the barrier-free design of websites, documents and images. The majority of the offers are not specifically aimed at a certain target group. If there are addressee-specific offerings, these are directed much more frequently at teachers than at students. Offerings for staff and teachers are often available in the form of webinars, workshops and (video) tutorials and offer support for the accessible design of images, videos, websites and documents. Offerings for students, on the other hand, are primarily aimed at the use of technologies, especially audio-text converters. 

According to the study, there is no correlation between the extent of support services and university-specific factors, i.e. research orientation, proportion of students with health impairments, size or ranking or renown of the universities. This also means that, in terms of the number of support services, neither the Ivy League universities in the study nor those universities that scored positively in both disability rankings stand out. The latter even have a lower number of support offerings – although it is important to bear in mind that the quantity of the offering structure alone does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the quality of the offerings. 

At the same time, there is a certain correlation between the size, type and organizational structure of the universities and the form and target groups of the offerings: Small and medium-sized universities and Ivy League universities, for example, gear their offerings more strongly to the needs of students. Ivy League universities are identified as having twice as many offerings for students as other universities. The reason for this could be the high customer orientation of Ivy League universities and related funding aspects. Another finding is that in medium to large universities, support services are the responsibility of a few, i.e., one to two internal university organizational units. At the same time, these also provide the most diversified offerings. At universities with fewer than 10,000 students, on the other hand, support consists primarily of providing external links and textual references. 

Overall, a large influence of internal organizational responsibility on the scope and forms of offerings becomes clear. The central actors in the provision of support services are the IT services of the universities. They alone provide 40% of the services. At the same time, they are the organizational unit involved in implementing the services at 14 of the 20 universities surveyed. This is also the reason why the focus of all the offerings is on technological aspects of accessibility – such as the barrier-free design of websites, documents and pictorial representations – and why the majority of the offerings are not aimed at any specific target group. Other important organizational units are the centers for didactics and digital teaching, which are involved in the implementation of specific offerings at 16 of 20 universities and are also responsible for 24% of the offerings. Their focus is on teaching and learning technologies and on aspects of inclusive teaching. The offerings of the centers for didactics and digital teaching are significantly more diverse than those of the IT services. They mainly include workshops, webinars or tutorials and are mainly aimed at teachers with the aim of supporting them in the accessible design of images, videos, websites and documents for teaching. Important contents are digital forms of teaching and examination as well as the use of learning management systems. A third important actor is Disability Services, which offers support in 15 out of 20 universities and provides one fifth of all websites and offers evaluated in the study. The services provided by Disability Services are primarily aimed at students. Organizational units such as libraries, academic departments and public relations departments, on the other hand, play only a minor role in providing web-based support services.

Overall, it can be seen that there are almost twice as many offerings at universities where the university IT department is primarily responsible for the offerings as at those where the centers for didactics or digital teaching are primarily responsible for the support services. Only at the Ivy League universities do the IT departments or university administrators have a smaller influence on the number of support offerings. Even though the study cannot prove whether the differences are strategically determined, it is clear that internal organizational structures have a major influence on the location of measures and offerings within the universities.

Transferability and Outlook

The results of the study cannot be transferred one-to-one to the German higher education landscape. This is due in particular to the fact that the U.S. higher education system differs greatly from the German higher education system in terms of its historically evolved legal framework, structures and level of digitization. Nevertheless, the analysis offers various insights that are interesting for the consideration and further development of the German higher education system. In particular, the study makes it clear that organizational structures within universities have a major influence on the number, structure and target groups of support services. For a comprehensive and overarching implementation of digital accessibility, clear responsibilities within the university organization are required, as well as extensive involvement of IT services, the centers for didactics and digital teaching, and the university administration. Only in this way can sufficiently diverse offerings be developed for diverse target groups that also take pedagogical-didactic aspects into account in an appropriate manner. 

It is at least as important to bring about a change in values and culture through which (digital) accessibility is thought about and implemented across statuses, proactively and as a matter of course in everyday university life. Awareness-raising and education are important building blocks for recognizing and addressing the different needs of students with health impairments. The university administrations have a central role to play in initiating this change in values and culture, both in terms of the programmatic formulation of guiding principles and goals and in terms of shaping the organizational framework for concrete implementation. This includes reviewing existing internal university structures and measures for their suitability and adapting them where necessary. In this context, higher education policy is also called upon: the implementation of appropriate measures requires financial resources that allow the relevant service facilities to be adequately staffed. Another important measure could be the establishment of central information portals that provide information about assistive technologies or offer guidance on didactic issues. Both those affected and the broadest possible spectrum of relevant players should be involved in the conception in order to ensure the success and acceptance of corresponding initiatives.

If you have any questions about digital accessibility in the context of the HFD, please contact:

Dr. Corinna Porsche 

T 0228 887 – 187


Dr. Inken Rabbel 

T 0228 887 – 122


If you have any questions about the study, please contact the author:


Dr. Axel Oberschelp  

T 0511 450670 – 348





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