Accessibility in E-learning

"But I don't have people with a disability in my course, when I do, we'll deal with it then", "People with a disability can't do our jobs anyway", "We can't afford to do all that", "If I have to make transcripts for my online videos, then forget this I'm never doing E-learning again", "They can't police what everyone is doing, so why do it."

These are real statements I have heard when conducting training to Education Professionals about the importance of Accessibility in E-learning. You may feel this way or know others that do. The reason this is chapter three of my book and not chapter 8 is because it is such an important area to understand with E-learning development that it can and must influence everything else we do. If you take anything at all from this chapter let it be this, that creating accessible E-learning is not about THEM and their disabilities, it's not about US and our need for compliance, it is about EVERYONE having equal opportunity to access a great teaching and learning experience. In digital spaces there is much to consider in this regard and this chapter is hopefully a good starting point.

accessible E-learning is not about THEM and their disabilities, it's not about US and our need for compliance, it is about EVERYONE having equal opportunity to access a great teaching and learning experience

Accessibility is good for everyone

Accessibility as it applies to Educational Technologies in the broad sense is about creating reasonable access to your learning digital content/community/experience. I don't have a disability of any kind that makes it challenging for me to access digital content, however I think how you design for accessibility and how much your adhere to web accessibility standards does matter in regards to learners having effortless and meaningful engagement with your course. If your navigation is not well structured for a blind person, it's probably not good for me either. If your images aren't clearly labeled and your font colour/background contrasting is hazy, nobody is having a good time.

The good news is that all digital designers are 'kind of' heading in the same direction now. The same goals and web standards digital content developers have, are practically the same goals as digital accessibility designers in terms of;

  • Quality User Experience (UX)
  • Device Interoperability
  • Variety of Learning Modes
  • Efficient Access Points
  • Semantic Code
  • Elegant Content
  • Transferable, Open & Portable Content
Plant growing on wall in metal basket with sketch of a tree on the wall just behind the plant representing what the plant might become

Accessibility First

Design for Accessibility First. It's too important to ignore and too hard to add-on later. An Accessibility First approach makes sense from a design perspective. The best way to make an educational video is to write a script, this then can be used as your plain text alternative. It is the same when you write text content for a course, it would be bad practice to write your first copy in Authorware, you would make a plain text version first. So when creating a digital object from scratch, your early output should include plain text, heading hierarchy, labeled images, transcripts for videos or animations, colour schemes and more.

Accessibility in E-learning can sometimes become all about meeting Government requirement or ticking off on web standards. It should really be more about making a better user experience, for everyone. If you want best practice in Accessible E-learning, work with your learner group to go beyond the standard to improve your UX. This will mean talking to your learners and asking them what can make the UX better. Standards are one measure but mix this with the feedback from your learners and you'll be on your way to approaching accessible products.


Then again, let's talk about standards. Web Content Accessibility Standards (WCAG) is a benchmark for many Government departments and Educational Institutions around the world. As I've mentioned the main driver for Accessibility standards in E-learning should be that it makes the digital content better for everyone. I do acknowledge that the other pressing element in all this is the need for education providers to meet acceptable levels of compliance under local, national and even international laws and benchmark standards.

Here are just some of the many factors that are shaping accessibility in education policy today in Australia;

  • UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities
  • Disability Discrimination Act Australia 1992
  • Aus Federal Government Requirements under WCAG 2.0
  • Access and Equity Principle for RTOs
  • Reasonable Adjustment is 'as well as', not 'instead of WCAG2.0'

The WCAG standard applies to 'Web' content but many of the principles can be applied to offline content also. eg. eBooks, text docs, Apps. The WCAG standard was created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is an international community where Member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards. Web Browsers, Web Developers and makers of Assistive Technology developers 'generally' adopt these standards but also expect these standards as shared and hopefully a common best practice amongst digital content developers. The standard itself can seem overwhelming so I've provide the very useful 'at a glance' list below and encourage you to become familiar with the common principles of WCAG.

Accessibility: WCAG2.0 at a Glance


  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Provide captions and alternatives for audio and video content.
  • Make content adaptable; and make it available to assistive technologies.
  • Use sufficient contrast to make things easy to see and hear.


  • Make all functionality keyboard accessible.
  • Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures.
  • Help users navigate and find content.


  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


  • Maximize compatibility with current and future technologies.


Making Accessible Content

It is tempting to make beautiful looking E-learning content with all the colours, animations and interactions available to us through HTML, CSS and Scripting languages, but as WCAG outlines, accessible content is both Understandable and Perceivable, and sometimes this means by having less you are communicating more. Embrace the beauty of simple design and you might be surprised at how much better things look without the clutter. There are some simple questions I ask when looking at digital content that are underpinned by WCAG principles.

  • Are the technologies used here limiting access points from device/OS/browser?
  • Can a Screen Reader read the text on the screen?
  • Is there broken links or un-necessary menu items on the page?
  • Do images, videos, include alternative text?

The challenge of producing accessible digital content in the mobile age is exacerbated by the fact that we have inconsistency in accessibility features across devices, browsers and applications. Some smart phone OS have great Accessibility features built in, some require external apps to add to the availability of all features. Just be aware that a Mobile OS might support some Accessibility features that rely on the hardware/sensors/design of the mobile device but we don't see every feature of an OS work on every device. This can make it hard in a buyers market to work out what Accessibility features a mobile device actually supports.

Some tips for accessibility with mobile content;

  • Aim for Thematic Consistency, between Desktop and Mobile designs of your content
  • Avoid using CSS actions that aren't intuitive to 'touch' controls, such as 'Hover'
  • Limit the number of key strokes to navigate to content
  • Test on actual devices not just emulators

Providing alternatives

Rule of thumb: If I can't access your content as it is then give me a different way that I can. If I can't see it then tell me about it. If I can't access it in Real-Time, let me access it at another time. Every image that is communicating a message (diagrams, graphs, photos) should have that same message communicated in text form somewhere. Every video or animated sequence needs a transcript. If you conducting a Webinar make a recording and have equivalent notes ready for the audience. The extra work required to make accessible alternatives to your content shouldn't become an excuse to not have accessible content in the first place. It is important to provide multiple modes of your content so everyone can access it one way or the other.

You may have noticed that many websites now provide text alternatives for non-text content (and in some cases vice versa) such as the Australian Broadcasting Channel offering transcripts for every video or podcast. Youtube now has auto generated text based scripts for some videos or you can upload and sync your own transcripts. I enjoy having both media and text as a learner and Iike I've said before, having a text alternative shouldn't be a problem if you've used text to plan out your media in the design process. Maybe we should think of it as 'Visual Alternatives' instead, but I digress.

The proximity of alternative content is important as the place a learner is seeking option B will be the same place they are trying to access option A. The alternative content in itself needs to be easy to find or even better be put forward as an option early in the UX. For this reason a video transcript needs to be clearly labeled and placed in the context of the video itself.

Alternative text can be applied to offline digital content also including image descriptions and the Alt Text for images feature is built into all Microsoft Office products, iBook Author and many other content development tools. I hope you are not at this point 'freaking out' at what extra work is required to meet Accessibility Standards but I want you to know that I personally struggle with getting this stuff right all the time, but I am finding that making Accessibility a key priority from start to finish with all projects is helping me make a better quality product. Did I mention it's a better product for everyone?

Post-Screen Computing

The future of computing may not have much to do with a screen. Since the 80s we have thought of computers as being interacted with via a screen, the same could be said about the internet, but audio, mechanical, gesture based and wearable technologies are changing dependence on 'Screens'.

Think about the rising popularity and functionality of speech recognition technologies such as Siri for iPhone that allow speech input and output to apps and web services. Post-Screen Web developments have a long way to go but are to the benefit of everybody. I find transcripts provided for non-text content also makes my web experience better and obviously provide a valuable access point for people who cannot see or hear the multi-media increasingly used in web content.

Wearable technology, dictation tools, gesture controls and location based actions are all part of the rising non-interface or non-screen web. It is exciting to think that the push for Accessible E-learning is actually running parallel with driving innovation in the area of alternative input and output devices and once again we see that Accessibility is about a better experience for everyone.

Go and...

  1. Become familiar with WCAG as a standard and it's implications for your existing content design approach.

  2. Plan and Design for Accessibility first - put a checkpoint at every stage of the project plan
  3. Think about...

    • What aspects of your current training may not consider the ideas explained here?
    • What is an example of an online experience that improved accessibility for you?
  4. Work with your learners to beyond the standard to improve your UX.

Forget everything you just read! Meet with a learner or colleague who lives with a disability that affects their experience accessing content in an online/digital form. Simply ask them to share what getting information online is like and what they find helps/hinders their experience. I've done this and I can tell you now that this may be the most valuable thing you do after reading this chapter.

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