Inclusive digital learning content that is accessible for learners with disabilities and changing needs (e.g. through age) is guided by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This article will introduce you to the four main principles of these WCAG and how you might apply these accessibility guidelines to digital learning content design.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops standards to ensure the web is an accessible place so that websites, online learning tools and learning platforms provide an equivalent experience for all users. In 2008, WCAG 2.0 was published, then updated to 2.1 in 2018. The most recent version, 2.2, was published in autumn 2023. These international guidelines explain how to make web content (including digital learning content) accessible to people with disabilities.

WCAG is backwards compatible. This means that web content that meets WCAG 2.1 will automatically meet the standards in WCAG 2.0. If you are aiming to conform with the new 2.2 guidelines, your content will need to conform to the 2.0 and 2.1 guidelines. To see the guidelines and supporting information in full, please visit the W3C website.

W3C identifies WCAG as the underlying guidelines for the Equality Act 2010, which states that all organisations have an ‘anticipatory duty’ to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure their services are accessible.

Public sector organisations are also subject to the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (or PSBAR). This states that public sector organisations must demonstrate level AA conformance with WCAG 2.1 (read on for more information on the conformance levels). From October 2024 these organisations will be monitored for compliance with WCAG 2.2 level AA.

Although public sector organisations are currently subject to more rigorous regulations where digital accessibility is concerned, more stringent accessibility legislation for the private sector is anticipated over the next couple of years. 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. Now is the time to establish your accessibility roadmaps and start reviewing your content.

All organisations have a responsibility to create accessible digital spaces, just as they are responsible for making their buildings accessible. Digital learning content that is designed with the learner at the centre of the process is better for everyone. It allows flexibility and a richer learning experience because everyone gets to participate fully. Learn more about accessibility in a digital learning context in our article What does accessibility mean for digital learning content.

The WCAG framework is divided into four main principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. Within each of these is a number of guidelines, and there are three levels of conformance:

  • Level A: the minimum level of compliance with accessibility standards.​
  • Level AA: the foundation for many accessibility regulations worldwide. Consider it an acceptable level of compliance.​
  • Level AAA: the optimal level of accessibility (which should be considered best practice).​

We will now consider each of the WCAG principles in turn and share Larmer Brown’s interpretation of how some of these guidelines can be applied to digital learning content design.

1.    Perceivable

Information and user interface components must be presented to users in ways they can perceive.​

Suggested applications to digital learning content design:

  • Provide alternative text descriptions (alt text) for visual elements so that non-visual learners can have an equivalent experience.
  • Provide transcripts or audio descriptions for pre-recorded multimedia content.
  • Consider how you are using colour within your content and how this may be experienced by someone with colour blindness, for example.

2.    Operable

Course navigation and functions need to work with a variety of input methods, not just a mouse.

Suggested applications to digital learning content design:

  • Can you navigate through all your course content using just a keyboard, including interactive elements?
  • Do your learners have enough time to read and interact with your content, or are there timing restrictions or moving content that might make this difficult?
  • Do your titles, links and buttons have logical labels so learners can navigate easily through your learning content?

3.    Understandable

Content must be readable and operate in a predictable way.

Suggested applications to digital learning content design:

  • Is your content free from jargon and written at an appropriate reading level?
  • Is there a way learners can check the meanings of complex words or abbreviations?
  • Is your learning content design consistent?

4.    Robust

Maximise your content’s compatibility with current and future users, including a variety of assistive technologies.

Suggested applications to digital learning content design:

  • Have you tested your content with a screen reader to check how interactive items are communicated?

This article has hopefully provided you with a starting point for applying digital accessibility guidelines to your digital learning content, through the lens of WCAG 2.1. For further support and guidance, Larmer Brown has created a virtual training course, how to create accessible learning content. This course is designed to help content authors and instructional designers apply the WCAG guidelines to their learning content design, using the content authoring tool dominKnow | ONE.