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Published on:
January 5, 2021

Accessibility: eLearning for Everyone

Accessibility in the elearning industry is the use of technology to create learning content that is accessible to all learners, regardless of whether they are disabled or not. In this case, when we hear of the term disability, most of us will think of things such as wheelchairs.

However, in today’s digital world, accessibility is not just about physical accommodations. It involves many other elements such as being able to access learning content irrespective of the device a learner is using.

Instructional designers, therefore, have to incorporate accessibility into each of their projects. Technology should be accessed by people with disabilities. People with different abilities and disabilities should have no problem consuming elearning content. Hence, learning material should be clear and easy to understand for everyone. 

The platform in use should also be user-friendly to assist even those users with hearing, visual, cognitive, and other motor impairments. Even those with earlier versions of software and hardware should be allowed access.

An important thing to consider about accessibility is the legal aspect. In many developed nations such as the US and the UK, inaccessibility to online training is seen as discriminatory. Another aspect to consider is the user’s experience. To achieve a good user experience, learning should be barrier-free and easy to understand.

Accessibility is one of the most common elearning topics. For information on other popular elearning topics visit this page, including LMS Accessibility.

Accessibility versus Usability

Usability is a common term in elearning. It’s all about a user’s experience with a course. For instance, are there any barriers in your course that are hindering learners from getting the full value of your training?

Accessibility deals with discriminatory aspects connected to a learner’s experience, especially, for people with disabilities. Web accessibility in this case means that people living with disabilities can equally navigate, perceive, understand, and interact with online learning tools. They can also equally contribute and collaborate with their peers.

On the other hand, usability entails designing web products that are efficient, effective, and satisfying. User experience is an element of usability and involves general aspects that affect everyone using a web tool and not just disabled people.

Many accessibility requirements usually enhance usability for everyone, especially in limiting circumstances. For instance, including contrast as a visual aspect in your training content will help people using mobile devices in a dark room or in bright sunlight. In another case, captions benefit people both in noisy and quiet settings.

Accessibility includes technical requirements and has to do with code as opposed to the visual appearance of content. Examples include screen readers for people with hearing disabilities, voice recognition software to help in inputting text, and screen magnifiers to enlarge content.

Accessibility also relates to user interaction. An inadequate design can introduce barriers. A good design, for instance, can include easy-to-understand instructions in website forms and other pages with detailed information.

According to ISO 9241-11, usability has been defined as, ‘The “extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction in a specified context of use.’ 

Usability helps to address accessibility in certain cases. For instance, when ‘specified users’ include people with varying forms of disability, and when the ‘specified context of use’ includes aspects of accessibility such as assistive technologies.

Four Principles of Accessibility

According to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), there are four principles governing access to online learning content.

  1. Perceivable: The content and user interface elements must be designed in ways that all users can perceive.
  2. Operable: The navigation and user interface components must be easy to operate.
  3. Understandable: The information presented and the user interface must be well-understood by the users.
  4. Robust: Learning content must be robust enough to be reliably interpreted by a wide range of assistive technologies.

Accessibility Standards

These are the laws and guidelines that govern accessibility. Essentially, they serve one primary purpose: to make learning available to all learners regardless of their age, health, and different abilities and needs.

It is important to know if your training is subject to any laws and regulations. Knowledge of such affects the development of courses and the tools that you will choose. In turn, this will help you make informed choices.

In elearning, there are three major standards:

  1. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  2. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
  3. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Section 508

Section 508 is a federal act that requires all electronic and information technologies being used by US federal agencies to be effectively used by people with and without disabilities. Such technologies include hardware, software, apps, and websites. Individuals in this category include federal agency employees and citizens seeking federal agency services.

Federal agencies are required to be compliant with this standard. However, anyone else working with the government such as K-12 schools, federally-funded organizations, government contractors, institutions of higher learning, and government organizations also need to be conformant.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

WCAG is a comprehensive set of regulations that guide the development of elearning courses, apps, and websites. These guidelines were developed by the World Wide Consortium (W3C), the World Wide Web international regulator.

In terms of compliance, these regulations are only used as a reference for purposes of accessibility in certain projects. Hence, WCAG does not have an official mandate to require compliance for organizations. They are also used as a reference standard by the government.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

ADA is a civil rights law that ensures that people living with disabilities have equal opportunities and the same rights as every other citizen. The primary purpose of this law is to make sure that people with disabilities have access to all areas of public life such as schools, jobs, and transport.

Private and public companies are regarded as ‘public accommodations’ and should, therefore, be conformant to this law. Public accommodation also includes schools, retails stores, hotels, banks, healthcare institutions, and theaters and museums.

Accessibility and eLearning

Education and learning are important benchmarks and enablers of economic and social change. Indeed, the completion of education is seen as a requirement for an individual to enter into professional careers and maintain a comfortable lifestyle.

Traditionally, education was confined to physical buildings with instructors and learners engaging in one-on-one sessions. Technology has affected many industries and elearning is one of them. The landscape of learning has been changed especially by the advent of the Internet. Today, learners can access learning via the Internet during their preferred times and at their desired locations.

eLearning platforms provide a means of managing learning content. Instructors and learners can synchronously and asynchronously interact from different locations around the world provided there is Internet access for all parties. Learners can attend high-quality institutions and receive recognized and accredited qualifications without ever leaving their homes.

This aspect is especially important for learners with disabilities. Their homes and workplaces are usually designed to fit their needs in terms of physical access, assistive technologies, and transport. For instance, a disabled student will achieve more if he accesses learning from home as opposed to commuting daily to and from a physical school.

Inclusive education is achieved when limitations such as physical location are addressed. It would be incomplete if accessibility to elearning is not part of the aspects that need to be inclusive. The design of elearning systems, their user interfaces, and other elements all affect how they are accessible to learners with disabilities.

How to Measure Accessibility

The W3C and WCAG 2.1 define three levels of accessibility: A, AA, and AAA.

A is the minimum level and has 30 success requirements to be met. It is the easiest level to meet since it is mostly about usability. An example is the requirement to have captions for recorded audio and video content.

AA is the medium level and has 20 additional success criteria to what A already has. An example is the requirement that you can’t use images of text except in situations such as when uploading logos. Only text is allowed so that assistive technologies such as screen readers can relay information effectively.

Many organizations prefer this level since it ensures that content is understandable, operable, and suited for visually and hearing-impaired learners.

AAA is the highest level and comes with an additional 28 success criteria on top of what A and AA already have. It is mostly preferred by organizations specializing in accessibility. For instance, it may require sign language interpretation for audio.

Why Your LMS Should Be Accessible

1. One out of five learners is disabled: Disability is prevalent and on the rise. In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US reports that 20% of Americans have at least one type of disability. Such disabilities can be auditory, visual, cognitive, speech-related, learning-related, or neurological.

Accessibility to your LMS will go a long way in providing inclusivity. For instance, a person with visual impairment will need a screen reader to comprehend the content in his lessons. Such a person might also require a screen magnifier to enlarge text and images.

2. Accessibility enhances user experience for everybody: Accessibility is usually understood in relation to disability. However, making learning content accessible benefits everyone by making it easy to interact, perceive, comprehend, navigate, and contribute to your LMS.

Individuals who benefit from accessibility and are not disabled include the sick, the old, someone with an injury, or someone with old computer hardware or a slow Internet connection.

3. Accessibility is required by the law: The introduction of universal design concepts for workplaces over 40 years ago has introduced certain modifications. These changes ensure disabled people are comfortable and contribute fully to activities at their places of work. 

Such modifications include wheelchair ramps, bathroom stalls, parking slots for the disabled, and braille signs.

Unbeknown to many people, the ADA law also includes the web environment. Organizations must, therefore, design their elearning platforms to accommodate everyone. As such, ad hoc compliance to this law as a result of user complaints is insufficient.

How to Make eLearning Content Accessible

A good and modern LMS platform will do most of the work for you. However, instructional designers and content creators must adhere to these 3 basic principles.

Structure, Organize and Make Your Content Clear

How your content is structured and organized in the underlying markup (HTML) is different from how it is displayed on the web. Screen readers usually read the markup and not the information displayed on the screen.

Learning HTML is a plus for every instructional designer and content creator. However, your LMS’s formatting tools will, for instance, produce better markup and, consequently, a better learning experience for screen reader users. Such structure and organization can also be achieved by:

  • Identifying headings in terms of H1, H2, H3, and H4.
  • Using bold letters to communicate importance and italics to depict emphasis as opposed to highlighting text.
  • Using numbered lists and bullets instead of adding hyphens and other characters to manually mark up lists.
  • Only using tables to present actual data but not to style content.

HTML organizes and structures your content while visual styling makes content clear and identifiable for people with visual and learning disabilities. Some best practices include:

  • Using contrast appropriately: placing light and dark elements between visual elements.
  • Avoiding color to distinguish content. Color-blind users might experience difficulties discerning such content.

Present Content in Different Ways

You can achieve this by presenting a text alternative to non-text content. In perspective, this entails:

  • Captions for video to describe the audio bit in form of text.
  • ‘Alt tags’ for images to describe what they depict.
  • Labeling of form inputs.
  • Text input for audio.

Consistency in Content and Navigation

There is always a learning curve for all users of web applications when they start using a system for the first time. This learning curve decreases when there is consistency in how content and navigation are organized and structured.

The result is improved accessibility for everyone. For instance, you can include a ‘welcome course’ or ‘welcome tour’ for new visitors to guide them on how to use and navigate your LMS.


eLearning is an effective and efficient tool for learning. Accessibility is an aspect of elearning that should not be overlooked. The information contained in this article outlines best practices for achieving accessibility. 

Ensure that your LMS platform is doing a good job at this by asking questions to people who use it. Take their feedback and implement it to ensure that you address the concept of accessibility as best as you can.

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