What if you’ve been asked to provide “accessible eLearning?” Either you need to build new courses that are accessible, or to re-develop existing courses to make them accessible.

First step—figure out what “accessible” means. What? You mean there isn’t a cut-and-dried standard out there that says exactly what needs to be done?

Here’s the part where I’d love to give you a simple, one-sentence answer. Actually, I can do that: “Accessible eLearning is eLearning that can be experienced by everyone, even those with disabilities.”

Unfortunately, the simple answer doesn’t begin to capture the complexity and variation in how the term “accessibility” is applied to eLearning, so I’m going to attempt a more thorough definition here.


Accessible eLearning involves understanding a few key factors: standards, learners, and design.

Standards and guidelines: Compliance with standards and guidelines is a key component of accessibility, and often the one that gets the most attention.  There are many guidelines to encourage compliance with various accessibility laws and regulations, but the 2 that are most often applied to eLearning are Section 508 and Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

Looking at these detailed and extensive guidelines, you might think, “Oh, this is accessibility,” but accessibility is more complicated than just meeting these standards. Mainly because what qualifies as “meeting” these guidelines is often open to interpretation and in many areas it’s not even close to as cut-and-dried as many believe it is.

The goal of accessibility is to provide an equivalent learning experience for all learners. This involves more than checking off compliance with each technical standard. Designing for non-disabled learners and then applying accessible standards and guidelines like tags and transcripts might provide an equivalent experience some of the time, but it’s not really a reliable approach. We’ve learned that the best way to ensure a truly equivalent learning experience is to consider all learners and design for them.

Learners: The best learning experiences are learner-centered, and accessible eLearning is no exception. Accessible eLearning means defining your audience to include those with disabilities, and then designing to meet the needs of the entire audience. You may be familiar with meeting the needs of learners with visual or hearing impairments, but the scope of learners included in the “accessible eLearning” definition is broader than that.

Accessible Learning Fredrickson Learning Jill Stanton

For example, some learners are not able to use a mouse, or have limited keyboard use. These differing abilities have to be accommodated in the design and construction of the course. At Fredrickson, we start by developing personas to represent each learner group—to represent both roles who are an audience for the content and different ways of accessing the courses.

Design: Designing for accessibility is designing for good learning. It should be thought of as more than meeting a set of guidelines—rather an approach of creating an experience for all learners. In the same way we would design to meet learning objectives, we design to meet accessibility expectations…and to do this accessibility has to be integrated into our design process.

A key credo of accessible design at Fredrickson is, “Design accessibility from the beginning!” Understanding learners and thinking through their experience throughout design and development is key.

Which brings me to the point about “adding” accessibility to existing eLearning courses. Simply put, making eLearning accessible when it’s already built is essentially re-engineering. Believe me, I wish there were a magic “Easy Button” that provided a fast, cheap, and 100% foolproof way to make courses accessible by just uploading them into a tool that would then spit out an accessible version of the course, but that’s just not reality. We’ve developed best practices at Fredrickson for re-designing to create equivalent learner experiences when existing courses need to be made accessible, so we can streamline this part of the process. But then we still need to build it, so while experience and methodology can help make the process more efficient, there is no shortcut to accessible learning.

Understanding these factors of accessibility will help you start to think about how to approach accessible learning at your organization.

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