Why Online School Programs Need Digital Accessibility

Why Online School Programs Need Digital Accessibility



Technology is transforming the way we do everything, and education is no exception. More educational institutions are aware that implementing accessible online learning gives students equal opportunity to thrive and excel. The need and demand for inclusive online school programs is growing, and with due reason. Online school programs and eLearning markets have experienced 900% growth since their inception in the year 2000 – the fastest growing niche in the education sector. 

The National Center for Education Statistics shares that nearly 33% of American pre-kindergarten to high school students with disabilities have specific learning disabilities, like dyslexia. 

With the outstanding growth rate and popularity of online school programs, some questions we’re left asking are: 

  • Do online classrooms offer an equal learning opportunity for students with various disabilities, especially learning disabilities? And, what’s missing? 
  • How can digital accessibility nurture and support a more inclusive experience in online classrooms?

Bridging gaps of accessible online learning: fixing shortcomings

In the late 90s the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was amended to ensure that US learners with disabilities were guaranteed the right to an appropriate education, (originally decreed in the ADA (American Disabilities Act). 

Research from the International Journal for Applied Science and Engineering Technology looks at educational institutions’ efforts to adapt the remote or online classroom for students with disabilities and special needs. Accessibility short fallings created educational efficiency and learning gaps and issues, including:

  • A lack of access to gadgets, devices, and high bandwidth internet connections in rural communities.
  • School-provisioned laptops that were not customized with learning aids like assistive technologies. 
  • Challenges working with computers overall due to lack of technical knowledge, or interactivity barriers for learners with cognitive or physical conditions.
  • Barriers navigating websites and digital learning environments that lack engaging and attractive design and universal usability. 
  • Parental concern of a child suffering academically in transitioning to remote learning because of sub-par teaching strategies and a lack of structured routine. 
  • Primary school students with autism or ADHD experienced increased difficulty with concentration at home. 
  • Lack of one-on-one full-time support with remote learning, regardless of whether it was granted to students in need on site. 
  • Overall insufficient resources and adjustments to accommodate students with disabilities resulting in knowledge gaps of students. 

Online school programs for all ages, disciplines, and learning abilities need to prioritize digital accessibility. Today’s online classroom must meet social, ethical, legal, and educational needs. This holds true for children, young adults, higher education students, and professionals in online training courses in the workplace.  

Now, let’s look at some of the benefits the accessible online classroom delivers to students, educational institutions, and businesses.

Benefits of Accessible Online Learning

October is dyslexia and blind awareness month. So we thought it would be particularly relevant to look at how the inclusive online classroom removes obstacles and benefits learners with dyslexia and visual impairments.

Creating inclusive online courses can make a huge difference in leveling the playing field for students with dyslexia and visual impairments. Integrating accessibility tools into a virtual education space can help simplify the learning and understanding of materials for students with full or partial blindness, and/or dyslexia. Engaging with educational content becomes a more fluid process, empowering students with knowledge that would otherwise be less accessible, or out of reach. 

Navigating online classes with dyslexia with accessible UX 

Dyslexia is a condition that results from impairments with reading abilities that individuals can’t automatically adjust.

There are four different types of dyslexia. So, understanding how people with various forms of dyslexia perceive and process written content can shed light on how digitally accessible online classrooms can enhance their learning and user experience (UX).

Phonological dyslexia: challenges processing sounds and of letters and syllables, and then matching them to their written form.

Surface dyslexia: can be a compounded condition that creates challenges recognizing full words, often due to vision impairments or the brain experiencing challenges processing visuals. Since it’s harder to identify whole words, people with surface dyslexia could have challenges internalizing, memorizing, and learning words.

Rapid naming deficit dyslexia: challenges quickly naming letters, numbers, colors, or items/objects, since it takes more time to process them.

Double deficit dyslexia: this type of dyslexia often leads to the greatest challenges reading, since they face difficulties with speed and ability to process sounds, and thus naming of letters, syllables, numbers and objects.  

How can a business or educational institution make learning in the online classroom for dyslexia?

Inclusive content and interactivity of online high school programs, online training courses, and all online classrooms can make all the difference for learners with dyslexia. Businesses and academic institutions can help learners with dyslexia process information and acquire knowledge more easily with accessible design. Integrate specific digital accessibility resources, and learners with dyslexia can more efficiently develop vocabulary, reading, and writing skills. 

Implementing a digital accessibility solution can support a range of these inclusive learning resources and online classroom features with the touch of a button:

  • Dyslexia-friendly fonts: learners with dyslexia may experience challenges reading letters, distinguishing them, and processing them in parallel to one another. This can make it difficult to silently or audibly read words. Dyslexia-friendly font adds a serif to letters and symbols that are easily and frequently confused (like ‘b’ and ‘d’, for example). It’s easier on the eyes and can open a world of understanding symbols in a new way to dyslexic readers and learners.
  • Screen readers: empower people with dyslexia to learn through listening to online content scanned, processed, and read aloud. This can be especially useful to a learner with double deficit dyslexia who may be challenged reading and processing all symbols, like letters, and words. If identifying or reading the word poses a challenge, then screen readers simplify identifying, understanding, and pronouncing words. This tool can be especially useful when engaging with complex sentences and text-heavy learning materials.
  • Voice navigation: learners with dyslexia can browse online classroom environments with voice commands, helping them search for specific content with oral instructions. The tool reduces the need to search for materials by typing out keywords that dyslexic learners may struggle to spell or write correctly. This can increase accuracy of search for specific information, leveling the opportunity to access relevant resources. 
  • Text spacing, alignment & line height: can make it easier for learners with dyslexia to digest symbols, letters, and words in conjunction with visual elements of online classrooms. Part of the challenge for people with dyslexia in processing written text is converting visuals into understandable words or information. Keeping the layout and spacing of text clean, organized and easy to read can help remove learning barriers.

Some other learning resources that support inclusion of learners with dyslexia

  • Visuals (video, images & infographics): insightful infographics with a narrative and strong storytelling can help engage and relay messages with impact. Images and video content can bring online school programs to life and add an innovative dimension to interactive learning. Visual media can ultimately simplify the process of understanding ideas when reading is a challenge.
  • Text-To-Speech Technology (TTS): like screen readers, Text-To-Speech (TTS) can be useful to people with dyslexia, and even more so if they’re a second language learner. TTS technology will process and convert letters into audible words, particularly useful when working with complicated instructions, or generally vast amounts of text. 

A new vision to online learning for visual disabilities 

Vision impairments can come in varying degrees and forms – including lowered vision, color blindness, partial blindness, deaf-blindness and more. When it comes to engaging and learning in the online classroom, people with visual disabilities can face common learning challenges. Some of these include difficulty or the inability to read content, and/or challenges engaging with visuals like images, GIFs, infographics, and video content. This can result in knowledge gaps and missed educational value of visual learning materials. 

Navigating online school programs with a mouse can also be cumbersome and often affects the flow of engagement and UX for learners with visual disabilities.

Some best practices for online learning & visual impairments

Visuals can often serve as enriching and interactive resources for online learning platforms. Implementing some best practices of inclusive design can help people with visual impairments gain value and insights of visual content. Like individuals with dyslexia, learners with visual disabilities can ultimately benefit from a well-organized, clean, and logical structure of the UI in online classrooms. Minimize visual clutter, with adequate space between content sections. 

Online school programs can also help learners with visual disabilities get the most from enriching visual content inclusive design and interactivity. Online learning materials with graphs, tables, and detailed infographics can deliver a more seamless user and learning experience for visual disabilities with:  

  • Zoom and magnification: allows users to see visuals enlarged and with greater clarity if the original size of visual elements pose difficulty reading and understanding them. 
  • Enlarged cursor: helping low vision users hover and click through content with more ease.
  • Paused or enabled animations: can give learners the choice to automatically activate streaming of animated visuals or not. Paused animation can also reduce friction when using screen readers or braille displays when scanning and relaying content. 
  • Sufficient, adjustable color contrast: makes it easier to read colored text on backgrounds for everyone. 
  • Tooltips: written content that helps give direction or instructions to best understand features and functions that can be especially useful.
  • Legible fonts: makes it easier to read content – the last thing you want is to impair legibility levels when vision impairments can already pose these challenges.
  • Reading guide: is a highlighted 180-degree line with an arrow pointing upwards that can help guide learners through content with better focus. This tool can help people with cognitive disabilities, and often helps sustain concentration levels of learners with ADHD and/or dyslexia.

A robust web accessibility widget powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) gives users the option to select their accessibility profile based on their needs. Choosing the profile for visually impaired can offer all of the above accessibility features instantly with just one click. 

Online school programs can also prioritize learning needs of user with vision disabilities with: 

  • Alt text: a brief, clear, and simply articulated description of images or other visual media content. Alt text should shed light on the essence and value of key takeaways visuals offer. Integrate complex infographics but make them digitally accessible and understandable for learners using screen readers and braille displays. These assistive technologies will scan and relay the text.

Remember to highlight key points of interest and contextual value of visuals in alt text. Think of how you’d describe visual content to a friend in a casual, straightforward conversation, and put it in writing. 

Added bonus: alt text can boost SEO performance with search engine crawlers indexing the content. If you’ve created public-facing online learning materials, including alt text means increasing potential for traffic to an online learning space.

  • Transcripts of video/animations: give learners of diverse abilities equal opportunity to benefit from messages of video content with transcripts in text format. Written text can be scanned and relayed with screen readers and braille displays, minimizing friction or hiccups in the user flow and experience. 

Assistive technologies for online school programs and visual disabilities 

We touched on the common use of assistive technology like screen readers and braille displays for learners with visual disabilities. Both solutions are powered by AI, but rely heavily on text-based content to relay messages effectively to people with visual impairments. Hence, the importance of keeping content as easily accessible, readable, and straightforward as possible. Clear language and messages is paramount for smooth and understandable delivery of content, especially when users can’t see it at all.

Online courses with accessible page structure and organization also simplify keyboard navigation. With logical page structure, headings, properly coded HTML tags and links, navigating an online learning environment with a keyboard becomes a more fluid and simple process. 

Delivering messages loud & clear: accessible online school programs for hearing impairments

Online school programs can support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for learners with hearing impairments by providing sign language videos of written and audio content. 

Curriculum and learning materials rich in videos, podcasts, or audio-based e-books can be made accessible to learners with hearing impairments with closed captioning and transcripts. 

Because people with hearing impairments or deafness can be challenged to read or pronounce words, they can also face difficulty reading. Another reason to keep language simple, clear, and direct, so it’s universally accessible and understandable. 

Online school programs and online training programs can adopt key web accessibility principles and tips enhancing the online learning experience for hearing impairments.

Explore why digital accessibility is crucial for online education.

How do online school programs accommodate disabilities?

People with physical disabilities that depend on wheelchairs or mobility solutions can inherently find online school programs more accommodating of their needs. There’s no need to commute, the concerns of accessing a physical learning space are eliminated, and strain on the body is reduced. 

Forbes’ article “By The Numbers: The Rise Of Online Learning In The U.S.” shares researched statistics that show a serious uptick in online learning since the onset of the pandemic.  An astounding 75% of American high school students took online classes in the fall of 2020. Yes, 14 million teenage learners in the US opted in for online learning due to Covid restrictions. And while some schools reinstated in-person learning in 2021, the fact is, secondary school level online learning in the US still saw a 60% enrolment rate that year. 

Online learning empowers learners to choose their physical environment, and it can often be done at a pace that’s better suited to diverse learners’ needs. Some of the top academic institutions offer accredited programs, degrees, and certifications online. 

The increasing shift to online learning

Online communication channels and learning platforms are transforming how we consume information, granting better and more accessible pathways to learners of all abilities. And with the rise of virtual meetings and conferences that enable collaborative learning and enliven online courses, we can expect this phenomenon to continue. 

The facts generated from ongoing research and studies point to a drastically increasing demand and shift from traditional, in-person learning to online school programs.

Below are just some of the noteworthy statistics that tell us online learning is thriving, while also explaining why online school programs are increasingly preferred:

  • 80% of businesses currently provide some form of online training, and over 40% of Fortune 500 companies use online learning
  • Several years ago, about 98% of universities indicated they offer a form of online learning.
  • A 75% majority of US schools for students in kindergarten up to 12th grade will be shifting to fully online and remote learning, or a hybrid learning model. 
  • 80% of American schools have planned to or already have purchased technology to empower students with the resources required for successful online learning. 
  • The number of online learners is expected to reach 57 million by 2027. 

But there are still some evident digital accessibility gaps to bridge in order to meet the needs of learners with disabilities. 

A survey conducted in early 2023 indicates that nearly 80% of both students and professionals feel digital accessibility should be prioritized. 50% of students felt their educational institution wasn’t doing enough to support digital accessibility. And around the same percentage of students found colleges talk the talk to support digital accessibility, but don’t walk the walk, falling short of taking sufficient action. Lastly, nearly 50% of both students and professionals surveyed felt that resources for students with disabilities should be easier to access & barrier-free.

Accessible online learning in the legal landscape

7.2 million (15%) of all public school students ages 3–21 received special education services under IDEA in 2020–21.

And from a legal perspective, digital accessibility in online learning shouldn’t be taken lightly. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. DOJ’s Civil Rights Division recently collaborated on a letter that increases public awareness of joint efforts to address obstacles to online education services. It specifically covers initiatives and activities funded by colleges, universities, and other academic institutions.

The information and technology are readily available to make online learning fair for everyone. So, it’s time for online high school programs, online schools, colleges, and all online courses to embrace inclusivity. It’s the right choice for educators, the right choice for learners, and the right choice to make the world a better place.   

UserWay: helping make online learning accessible

Online education has never been more critical, and it needs digital accessibility to ensure learners of every ability have a fair chance to succeed. UserWay’s AI-powered accessibility widget can help customize user experience, reducing and even removing barriers to drive inclusive online learning. With just one click, any student and learner can select the profile to simplify and enhance engagement & interaction with online learning environments.

Answers to Common FAQs

Why is digital accessibility essential for online school programs & online learning?

Students with disabilities gain equal access to educational technology and materials. Accessibility of online courses can also increase student and employee engagement, broadening their opportunities for academic, personal, and professional growth & success. Academic institutions and businesses also gain a competitive edge, positioning themselves as leaders of innovation and equitable online learning.

What can online school programs do to increase digital accessibility?

By creating an online learning environment that conforms to web accessibility best practices and guidelines, organizations can help provide digitally accessible online learning experiences. Students of all backgrounds can engage with educational materials and learn more and better with inclusivity prioritized. Integrating key design and interactivity elements with assistive technology can give students with disabilities and diverse learning needs a barrier-free learning experience.  

What are some key digital accessibility elements & assistive technologies that can enhance online learning experiences?

Online courses that strive towards creating an inclusive digital learning environment can focus on optimizing accessibility of digital learning environments with inclusive design. Implementing inclusivity best practices for a digitally accessible learning environment can improve everyone’s UX.

Optimize visual and audio resources for students with visual and hearing impairments by including image alt text, transcripts, and closed captions. Integrate a web accessibility solution for a cost-effective way to give users with disabilities an equal opportunity to learn effectively online.

A comprehensive web accessibility widgets can offer:

  • Voice navigation and screen reader
  • Visual guide of content
  • Enlarged cursor
  • Zoom and magnification
  • Layout adjustments to view of web pages

And, much more.

Digital accessibility solutions also benefit learners with disabilities like dyslexia or conditions like ADHD. Students with motoric and cognitive disabilities can also enjoy better interaction with online learning environments with a web accessibility solution, along with assistive technologies like keyboard navigation.



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