Adding captions is not sufficient to make content accessible to a deaf person who, essentially, uses English as a second language, according to accessible eLearning designer Wanda Blackett. There is a solution: universal design, which also addresses other barriers to access or understanding.

“Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners” explored the reasons for creating accessible eLearning content. This spotlight article launches a four-part series on how to do that; each part will address a different type of barrier that learners might face.

To be considered accessible, eLearning content must meet these attributes, captured by the acronym POUR:

  • Perceivable—Content is available to the learners’ senses, primarily seeing and hearing for online content
  • Operable—Users can interact with the content using standard input devices, including a mouse or keyboard, or an adaptive technology
  • Understandable—Content is clear and unambiguous
  • Robust—Content is accessible using a wide range of technologies and abilities

What makes content accessible?

While some accessibility solutions work for multiple access barriers, developers often encounter what Dmitri Belser, executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology (C for AT) in Berkeley, California, calls “dueling disabilities.”

In this series
Accesible eLearning Benefits All Learners (10/3/16)


“The needs of people with disabilities are incredibly diverse and sometimes completely opposite. It’s a really hard thing to work out,” Belser said, describing issues in constructing physically accessible spaces. “It also happens in technology. For deaf people, you need to have text and you need to have icons. But blind people can’t access that. The needs of those two groups are completely opposite.”

Accessibility online, Belser said, “is really all about redundancy, having it in multiple formats so people can do what they want.”

An additional challenge in creating accessible eLearning content, Belser points out, is that it is a constantly changing arena. Technology, tools, and adaptive devices change: A tool that was compliant with accessibility standards is discontinued, or the new release isn’t compliant. An operating system upgrade means that your laptop or phone no longer works with your favorite software program or app.

Despite the “moving target” nature of creating accessible eLearning content, some general design principles apply. Universal design, also called human-centered design, aims to create content that is usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations; it addresses issues facing people with visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive disabilities, as well as learners with low literacy or for whom English is a second language. In fact, designing for accessibility builds in flexibility that may make it easier to keep content current.

“There is a pretty big overlap between usability and accessibility,” said Jared Smith of WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility consulting organization based at Utah State University. “A lot of building in accessibility is building in flexibility and compatibility.” Smith cited design for mobile, where many of the same features that constitute responsive design, content that adapts itself to the learner’s environment—laptop, tablet, or smartphone—seamlessly accommodate screen magnifiers and other assistive technologies.

The P of the POUR acronym, making content perceivable, pertains primarily to learners with visual and auditory disabilities. But even that means different things to different learners.