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Accessible eLearning: Lessons Learned Part 1

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Accessibility is one of those things that gets a lot of lip service everywhere, but for able-bodied designers, it can be something that comes second, something that can be ignored until someone forces you to retrofit some course or other design in order to be in compliance. I know that it was that way with me until, during a recent elearning project, I really began to focus on the tenets of accessible design.

In the interest of working out loud and reflection, and inspired by a group discussion on LinkedIn, I’d like to share some lessons learned, tips, and resources to help you to design with accessibility in mind.

Accessible Design is Good Design

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that, far from being some complicated burden of compliance, accesible design practices really just amount to good design. Consider some of the most basic tenets of web accessibility:

  • Structure and tag your content appropriately: A well-ordered page with headings in descending order and alternate text for images just makes good design sense. You wouldn’t want to see a web page or document, for example, where you couldn’t tell what the topics were or in what order you were meant to read them. Likewise, if you were on a page and an image link was broken, how much more helpful would it be to see a little description of what should be there rather than just the broken image icon?
  • Provide alternatives to media: How many of you use close captioning or subtitles? I would be willing to bet that the majority of you do. I know that my biggest complaint is always that I can’t hear unless I can read. How many times would you rather skip a story made up of video and simply read an article, or at least, read the article first to decide whether the video is worth watching? For me, that’s most of the time. Again, it just makes sense to provide the user, every user, an alternate way to access your content. It’s also great for SEO!
  • Make sure your content is legible and understandable: Granted, there are times when you might make a valid design decision to make some text small. On a poster or flyer, say, small text, when contrasted with larger text can draw your viewer’s interest, making them curious. But for most, if not all of the elearning that you or I design, making sure that users can understand our content is of paramount importance. That means choosing color schemes and fonts that contrast and display well. It means designing forms, links, inputs, and the like so that they are clearly identifiable and users understand how to use them.
  • Consider navigation: Thinking accessibility goes beyond just putting a skip navigation link in your elearning. Consider people who need to (or prefer to) use the keyboard as opposed to the mouse. Can they tab to different things on your page? When they tab, can they clearly see where they are on the page? When they tab, are they going in the appropriate reading order? Can they use the keyboard to choose answers to questions or submit answers? Again, this is just good design.

This isn’t rocket science but it does take some mindfulness.

I can almost hear you saying, “Yeah, Kristin, you make it sound easy but it really isn’t.” In some ways, I’d agree with you. Many of the basics are things that we should be implementing for usability in every design, but there are definitely some special cases to consider for true accessibility and for elearning. But that brings me to another important lesson I learned.

Get Over It

I know that when I first started on the course, not only did I (wrongly) view accessibility as some kind of strange, foreign burden, it also seemed to be specially designed to stunt my creative process. I couldn’t use too much video, I told myself, I couldn’t use animations. Looking back, I can recognize these complaints as my ignorance and my fear of having to do more work. We all have deadlines and, if you’re like me, you’re also the one-stop-shop: graphic designer, developer, instructional designer, editor, and QA person. And developing accessible elearning could mean developing an alternate activity or even a completely separate module. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do that, if that’s what’s necessary.

Furthermore, I found that having to think of equally challenging accessible activities encouraged me to think out of the box. A drag and drop activity to reconstruct a broken glass plane became a logic puzzle with clues in a Word doc. An interactive panorama became a piece of interactive fiction with links for participants to go through the rooms of a crime scene, read about, and collect evidence. Was it tough going? Yep. But it’s important.

Accessible First

The last lesson I have to share is the prime importance of designing with accessibility in mind right from the beginning. It’s really when you try to take something you’ve already designed and try to retrofit it that you start to get frazzled and frustrated. When you’re prototyping or storyboarding or whatever process you use, take time think about and design the accessible alternatives to media and interactions. Without a doubt, waiting until the end is the surest way to shoot yourself in the foot.


Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll share some tips and tools for making your eLearning more accessible.

What do you think? Have you tackled accessibility in your designs? What were your struggles? What were your epiphanies?


  1. April 27, 2015 - Reply

    […] my previous post on accessibility, I shared some lessons I learned about implementing accessible designs. In this post, I wanted to take that sharing a step further and offer you some tools and resources […]

  2. July 13, 2015 - Reply

    […] settled on an accessibility playbook, based on the lessons I’ve learned so far, part 1 here and part 2 here. I thought that it would be a great project to serve as inspiration for something […]

  3. November 15, 2016 - Reply

    One of the biggest issues for me regarding web accessibility when it comes to developing my WordPress site is understanding how screen readers interact because I am deaf.

    This presents a unique challenge because simply put, text to speech software is not accessible to me so without feedback from screen reader users, I have clue if I am on the right track or not.

    Little by little, I am finally getting some answers, especially from the Deaf-Blind users who uses a screen reader interface with a Braille display, or in other words, text to Braille, which is another dimension of accessibility to learn about.

    • November 15, 2016

      Excellent points, Mark. Thanks for sharing! So users are giving you feedback on how well your site works for them? I feel like as an able-bodied person, one of the things that is missing for me is real users who are actually familiar with the tech they need to access information checking that courses and job-aids, etc. work for them.

      For example, this theme is probably not accessible friendly. I didn’t think about that when I used it. So… I’m definitely in the same boat as everyone else.

    • November 16, 2016

      It can be challenging to get answers because some people are just not very engaging as we would like. If you are very committed to accessibility, you do have to reach out to get the answers sometimes. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions through engagement.

      If you are using WordPress, it is worth checking out Joe Dolson’s WP Accessibility plugin which is not a cure-all solution but a step in the right direction.

      There are dedicated site coders and developers if you have the budget for it. Personally, I am learning through “hands on” experience.

      The bottom line is that any platform takes time because it’s a matter of “winning them all” over. WordPress still has a ways to go but they have done well in their efforts to make progress with each update.

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