What steps can developers take to ensure that online learning tools are usable by people with disabilities?

Making online learning tools accessible to students and instructors with disabilities is important to meet legal obligations, to ensure equal opportunities, and to broaden participation in academic and careers where some instruction is provided online. To assist current and future developers of cyberlearning tools,  AccessCyberlearning, a project supported by the National Science Foundation (grant #1550477), created a short publication titled Equal Access: How to Broaden Participation in Cyberlearning Projects to Ensure Access to People with Disabilities. This how-to guide summarizes legal issues, the universal design approach, along with first steps toward addressing accessibility issues.

The publication lists questions that cyberlearning projects can ask themselves as they work toward increasing the accessibility of their products. A few examples are listed below.

Planning, Policies, Recruitment, and Evaluation - Consider disability along with other diversity issues as you plan and evaluate project offerings. For example

  • Are people with disabilities—along with racial and ethnic minorities, men and women, young and old students, and other relevant groups—represented in planning and testing processes? For example, test your product at all stages of development with students with disabilities; AccessCyberlearning can help locate them.
  • Are disability-related issues addressed along with other diversity issues in project data collection, evaluation plans, and instruments? For example, consider asking survey respondents if they have disabilities.

Information Resources and Technology - Ensure that websites, videos, and cyberlearning products are accessibly designed. For example

  • Do electronic resources adhere to accessibility guidelines or standards adopted by your institution, project or funding source (e.g., the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines [WCAG] 2.0)? WCAG 2.0 Level AA is used as the standard by many institutions.
  • Do you structure headings and use built-in designs/layouts? For example, use style features built into the Learning Management System, Word, PowerPoint (PPT), and PDFs and use build-in layouts in PPT. This practice will make your documents easier to navigate by screen readers, since they can skip and read from heading to heading to present an outline of the document to a person who is blind. For more information, see Creating Accessible Documents.
  • Is all content and navigation accessible using the keyboard alone? This is important for individuals who cannot use the mouse or a mouse alternative.

Instructor Preparation - Provide guidance to instructors who use your product. For example

  • Do you include in instructions to faculty information about how to use your product in such a way as that the instruction is welcoming, to, accessible to, and usable by all students, including those with disabilities? Tell the instructor about features you have included to address various abilities, including aspects of the product that can be adapted for specific student populations. Further guidance can be found in the publication 20 Tips for Designing an Accessible Online Course.

Additional information including more publications and videos related to the accessibility of cyberlearning projects can be found on the AccessCyberlearning website