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A MindEdge Learning White Paper

How can we ensure that any online learning we develop remains accessible to people with disabilities?

Since most online courses and simulations are delivered to learners via a web browser and an Internet connection, course developers are lucky to be able to draw on the best practices already in place for making websites accessible.

British author Jeremy Keith has long argued we should talk about keeping websites accessible for the disabled, instead of focusing on making them barrier-free. Keith notes that in designing and coding webpages "good markup is accessible by default" and that it's through what we add— "visual presentation, behaviour, etc.—that accessibility is removed."

Keith's insights serve as a reminder that effective instructional design, good web design, and learner-focused accessibility are synonymous.

Here are five ways to keep your online learning accessible:


  1. Focus on true accessibility for learners rather than on complying with government standards. Simply meeting the federal government's Section 508 requirements doesn't mean disabled learners will automatically find your courses easy to use. Instead, design courses in a way that makes them accessible and usable—they should be easy for the disabled to access, navigate, and use rather than increasing the extraneous, or unhelpful, cognitive load of your learners.

    For example, Section 508 encourages us to allow users to skip repetitive navigational links and enable keyboard access whenever possible. But it doesn't mandate what parts of a course should have keyboard shortcuts enabled. Designers need to consider how disabled users are likely to use the course and incorporate keyboard shortcuts for commonly performed actions like accessing a tools menu or moving between assignments.

  2. Make accessibility an ongoing part of your course development process, not an afterthought. Incorporate accessible elements (alternative text, closed or open captioning for audio and video, etc.) as the course or simulation is built, not as something to be added later. You will need to get your development team on board with understanding your standards for accessibility and how to achieve them. Showing your team ways to achieve their instructional goals in an easy and accessible way increases buy in and ensures that accessibility kludges aren't tacked on at the end.

    Integrating accessibility into the development process allows accessibility to be checked in the many quality assurance processes that occur during course development rather than as the course is going out the door. Planning for accessibility also improves "speed to market."

  3. Test from the perspective of the learner. While usability checkers (such as the WAVE toolbar plug-in or the FANGS Firefox add-on can be helpful for quick checks of page content compliance, accessibility concerns the overall usability of the learning resource. There's nothing so eye-opening when it comes to assessing accessibility as using the assistive technology that the learners actually use.

    JAWS, the most common screen reader software, as documented by WebAIM's December 2010 screen reader user survey, can be downloaded from Freedom Scientific as a demo for free. Though there are many competing platforms, including two free versions (NVDA for Windows systems and VoiceOver for Mac systems), there are few standards around how assistive technology should process website content. If you can't test on all configurations, just pick one, aim for usability on that system, and let your learners know in advance the extent of your testing.

  4. When making complex interactives accessible, look to translate them in a way that conveys the learning experience to the disabled learner in figurative—not literal—ways. For example, it's better to transfer the key concepts in a Flash exercise to a learner through a text-based activity that allows the learner the same level of interaction and cognitive stimulation as a sighted user will get from the activity.

    And remember to hide the Flash content from the assistive technology once you've provided a more usable equivalent! The days of screen reading software not being able to see Flash files are over. The latest version of JAWS can see Flash, but because the text is disassociated from its context, the Flash piece is read in a disordered and confusing manner, leaving the user puzzled about what just happened. (As a side note, many technologies such as Flash and Flex are billing themselves as accessible "out-of-the-box" or "by default." In our experience, developers in these platforms need to know how to work with their software to turn accessibility features on and plan accessibility into the feature.)

  5. Let learners know how your accessibility features work in an online guide or FAQ section, and provide a live person who can help them through any obstacles they encounter. Developing—and updating—this guide is an excellent opportunity for a comprehensive review of your accessibility efforts. It also ensures that your development team understands what users are expecting, so that when new features are added, accessibility features can be built in a way that seems cohesive based on previous decisions you made about accessibility.


There are numerous benefits—legal, commercial, and practicalâ— in keeping your online learning accessible. Achieving accessibility can expand markets for your courses while demonstrating your commitment to the principles of universal access and learner-centered learning.


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