eLearning Accessibility: What It Is and Why It Matters

Shauna Carson

“I don’t think this course should be available to people with disabilities,” said no eLearning developer, ever. Yet that’s often what happens, through neglect rather than intent. While it takes some effort to ensure your courses are accessible, it’s effort that pays off. We’ve discussed accessible eLearning on this blog before, but I think it’s time for another look. We’ll start at the beginning, with a review of the benefits of making your eLearning accessible.

It's been said that the internet removes barriers to communication and participation, allowing people everywhere to exchange ideas and information. Unfortunately, it's not always true. According to the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops Web standards,

The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability. ... However, when web sites, applications, technologies, or tools are badly designed, they can create barriers that exclude people from using the Web.

Given the diversity of human needs and abilities, eLearning accessibility means many things. They can include:

  • Designing eLearning so it can be accessed with a screen reader
  • Building modules that can be navigated easily by keyboard
  • Remembering that some learners lack access to high-speed internet and may have strict data limits
  • Using responsive design so content works on any device and at different levels of magnification
  • Writing at a lower reading level for leaners with cognitive challenges and those developing their fluency in the language of instruction
  • Engaging in plus-one thinking
  • Offering alternative approaches for every interaction between a learner and the material, for example:
    • Providing transcripts or closed captions for information presented by audio
    • Offering an audio recording or document download of text-based content
    • Allowing learners to choose between drag-and-drop activities and standard multiple choice

In more general terms, accessible eLearning is learning that is available to the widest audience possible. It's learning with the barriers removed - or, perhaps more accurately, learning built without including barriers in the first place.

Why accessibility matters

1. Everyone deserves to access learning

Whatever the reason for creating eLearning material, the point of developing it is to make the learning available to the people who need or want it. Inevitably, some of the people who need or want it will happen to have disabilities that could affect their ability to access the learning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Disability and Health Data System, one quarter of adult Americans have a disability. That's a large segment of your potential audience to overlook.

The need for and benefits of inclusion have been recognized more widely in the past several years. Whether you're engaged in corporate training, building eLearning for clients or producing learning material for the public, making the effort to reach your full audience has always been the right thing to do. Increasingly, it's also seen as the only acceptable thing to do.

2. Accessible eLearning benefits everyone

Have you heard of the curb cut effect? Curb cuts are the lowered curbs at intersections. While first developed for people in wheelchairs, they're now a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape much appreciated by those on bicycles, with carts or strollers, using walkers and many others. The curb cut effect is a common phenomenon in which an accommodation developed for a population with special needs turns out to benefit the whole of society. The curb cut effect is easy to find in accessible eLearning. Examples include:

  • Poorly designed web content can become garbled when viewed through a screen magnifier. The characteristics that make content work well when magnified also make it easily viewable on different devices, allowing learners to access learning on their computers or their phones.
  • Reducing the reading level of learning content can make material more accessible for learners with cognitive disabilities, learning differences or limited fluency. For others, a lower reading level may not mean the difference between success and failure, but it still makes the material easier to learn by reducing cognitive load.
  • Learners with hearing loss may require transcripts or closed captions of audio, while those with vision loss often appreciate audio presentation of written material. And those who are able to make do with either format are now offered a choice, able to select a preferred or more convenient form of learning.

3. Accessibility may be required

Many countries have legal requirements for accessibility, especially for government departments and those working with them. In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) establish accessibility standards that apply in certain circumstances. Legislation In Australia, the United Kingdom and some jurisdictions in Canada requires compliance with W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Many corporations that are not obligated to meet legal accessibility standards have nonetheless developed their own accessibility policies that apply to eLearning, often centered around WCAG. As the demand for accessible eLearning becomes more widespread, developers without the capacity to build accessible content may find their business opportunities becoming increasingly restricted.

It's important to note one limitation of these legal requirements. WCAG is a technical standard. As such, it does not cover all aspects of accessibility. Compliant eLearning works with screen readers, keyboard navigation and other assistive devices or software, but it does not necessarily address the needs of those with cognitive, learning or linguistic challenges. Competent and knowledgeable instructional design is necessary to develop eLearning that is truly accessible to all.


Accessible eLearning is learning without barriers: learning that can be accessed by the widest possible audience. Accessibility matters because all members of society deserve access to learning, it benefits not just those with diagnosed disabilities but everyone else as well, and it's required by law and necessary for business. What will the ability to create accessible content offer your organization?

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.