What does accessibility mean for digital learning content?

You are likely to have heard the term accessibility within a physical spaces context, where our spaces and facilities are designed so that everyone can have equal access regardless of their needs. But with our lives increasingly taking place online we need to ensure that our digital spaces are also inclusive and accessible to all users. This means designing our websites and other digital content with our users at the centre of the process.  In this article we consider accessibility specifically in relation to digital learning content, i.e. who is it for, why it is necessary and the legislation and standards that organisations must become familiar with.

Why should we design and create accessible digital learning content?

Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions indicate that 16 million people in the UK were considered to have a disability in 2021/22. This equates to 24% of the working age population. But what does this mean for digital learning content?

Learners with sensory disabilities

Learners who have sensory disabilities that affect their sight may be using assistive technology such as screen readers to interpret the text and visual elements in an online learning environment. These users rely on the presence of alternative text for visual and interactive items and a logical structure of headings and items so they can navigate content meaningfully.

Learners with specific learning disabilities

Those with specific learning or cognitive disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may struggle to engage with pages that have a lot of interactive or multimedia content.

Learners with physical disabilities

People with physical disabilities may rely on the use of a keyboard or keyboard equivalent to navigate a course so will be unable to engage with mouse-reliant activities.

Until recently many organisations did not consider the requirement for accessible content applied to them, particularly if their employees had no known physical or sensory disabilities. However, it’s important to consider the changing needs of your users. Disability rates increase with age. Your learners may not have accessibility needs right now (as far as you’re aware), but that doesn’t mean their needs won’t change in the future.

Though 1 in 5 employees may have a declared disability, there are also many people who choose not to disclose their disabilities for fear of discrimination. With that in mind, it’s estimated that more than 20% of your require accessible learning content.

How and where people access their digital learning also determines the type of content they can access. In the UK, 44% of employees work remotely. Those working on public transport may prefer transcripts to multimedia content. Those working in noisy environments may share this preference. Alternatively, audio may be the most convenient way to engage with digital learning if someone is accessing it whilst walking, driving or juggling other commitments. To summarise, accessible digital learning content is better for everyone. It allows flexibility and a richer learning experience because everyone gets to participate fully. Digital learning content design should place the learner at the centre of the process, encompassing all needs. If a learner is unable to access elements of a course, they aren’t going to have the same opportunities as other learners and are therefore subject to discrimination.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed WCAG as international standards for accessibility across the web, including digital learning. These guidelines are separated into four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.

Within these guidelines there are also three levels of conformance: A, AA and AAA, where level A is the basic level of compliance that all organisations should be meeting; AA is an acceptable level of accessibility and the foundation for many international accessibility regulations; and AAA is best practice, the optimal level of accessibility.

WCAG 2.2 was published in October 2023, though public sector bodies will not be monitored against this version until October 2024; they are currently expected to be level AA compliant with version 2.1. WCAG is backwards compatible which means that in order to be level AA compliant with version 2.2, you must be level AA compliant with version 2.1. Version 3.0 of WCAG is currently in draft and expected in 2028, but we can expect a change in structure, name and conformance model.

It is not always easy to interpret the language for some of the WCAG standards. Historically, the guidelines were created for web developers so the language can be complex. It can also mean that applying these standards to digital learning design is not always straightforward. Larmer Brown has created a course based on our interpretation and experience of WCAG 2.1 and 2.2. The course is designed to support content authors and instructional designers in how to create accessible learning content. Follow the link for an overview of the course and full course outline.


What are my legal obligations for accessibility of digital learning content?

The Equality Act 2010 aims to protect people from unfair treatment and discrimination. It states that organisations have an ‘anticipatory duty’ to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure their services are accessible. This means that your organisation should be proactive in creating inclusive online spaces.

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (or PSBAR) came into effect in the UK in 2020. These regulations apply to public sector organisations’ websites, intranets and extranets and any digital content held within them, including digital learning content. The PSBAR determines that a public sector organisation’s digital services meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1). Specifically, these services must be level AA compliant (we discuss these in more detail below). WCAG 2.2 was released in autumn 2023, and from October 2024 public sector organisations will be monitored for compliance with this newest version. WCAG is considered to be an underlying guideline for the Equality Act so it’s important for all organisations, not just the public sector, to be familiar with its principles.

Although public sector organisations are currently subject to more rigorous regulations than the private sector, this is anticipated to change within the next eighteen months. From June 2025, the European Accessibility Act (EAA) will expect each member state to have transposed this Act into national law. Companies will need to ensure that newly marketed products and services covered by the Act are accessible. If UK businesses sell products or services to EU customers they must also comply with the EAA.

How do I start creating accessible digital learning content?

Creating digital learning that is accessible should not just be a case of ticking boxes. Inclusive content design demonstrates that your organisation values all learners. Start by becoming familiar with the legislation that applies to your organisation. The next step is to review your digital learning content with all your learners at the centre of the design process. Learn how to start applying the WCAG to your learning content with our article How to apply Accessibility Guidelines to digital learning content design.