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Accessible Learning: Why eLearning is Not Always Enough

Mobile phone showing someone using the siri voice function

The below is an exclusive extract from Designing Accessible Learning Content by Susi Miller.

An important principle of disability activism, known as the ‘nothing-about-us-without-us principle’, is based on the idea that ‘persons with disabilities know what is best for them and their community’.

It helps to avoid any assumptions or misconceptions about disability which can influence products and services if disabled people are not involved in designing and creating them.

However, this leaves many eLearning professionals facing a challenge unless they have a lived experience of disability or work with disabled people who have experience of a range of impairments and disabilities.

While the best long-term solution to this situation is for organizations to employ more disabled people, in the short term, one way of mitigating against assumptions and misconceptions is to use disability personas. These highlight common barriers which disabled users face and can be very helpful, particularly when content authors are starting out with accessibility.

Understanding disabilities and impairments from the Government Digital Service and Stories of Web Users from W3C are both recommended resources. Another useful strategy is to gather first-hand learning experiences of disabled people, such as this account from Esi Hardy:


Impairment - Esi Hardy, disability inclusion expert

I am Esi Hardy. I am an entrepreneur, a business owner and a student. I am a physically disabled person. I have cerebral palsy and have limited mobility in all four of my limbs and very limited dexterity in my hands. The way I describe it is that ‘I can do a little bit of most things but nothing of everything’.

When I was at school everything needed to be done for me. Throughout my education that made it harder for me to learn because I learn by doing. Now technology means I can study independently. This has opened up learning for me and I am currently studying for an online degree in business management.

I use a keyboard and trackpad to navigate around my computer and Siri to read aloud content. I also use Siri to dictate notes to my phone. If I’m writing something that’s going to be long, I’ll either dictate through Siri or speak it into my phone and then upload it onto a transcription service. I can then send this to my personal assistant who types it up for me. I also download books onto my Kindle to read course material.

Although technology has made learning more inclusive and I have had some very good experiences of learning online, there are still many cases where eLearning continues to create barriers and exclude disabled people. My learning experiences while studying for my degree have provided examples of both.

Before I began my course, I had a disability assessment which allowed me to outline my access requirements and everything I needed to learn successfully. This was taken into account in my first two years. I was given the tools I needed to succeed without question. I felt that the university were genuinely inclusive and mindful of disability and access requirements. This boosted my confidence and helped me to achieve high merits in all my assignments and distinctions for my modules.

Unfortunately, this changed in my third year when one of the modules I studied had an assessment method that was inaccessible for me, yet the faculty refused to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate my disability. Despite making a formal complaint and the university accepting that my disability profile had been incorrectly recorded, this was not taken into account and I barely scraped a pass mark for this module.

From an eLearning perspective, the issue I had was simple. It was a problem caused by the fact that only one form of assessment was allowed, and that the criteria for that assessment didn’t take into account the diversity and differing learning needs of the students.

Yet, the implications of the issue and the university’s refusal to take responsibility or to make accommodations had far-reaching consequences. I felt I had no option other than to take legal action. Eventually, however, the stress and anxiety involved with this process took such a toll on my mental health that I wasn’t able to carry on. I still feel bad about this.

I am someone who always tells people to stand up for what they believe in and not to back down when they face oppression. I’m saddened that because of the mindset that I was in at the time I didn’t feel able to do this. But I’m also saddened that the only way to make some universities take action over discriminatory practice is to sue, so that it becomes public knowledge. I am determined not to let this experience stop me getting my degree, but it has definitely undermined my confidence and it still affects my mental health.

I shouldn’t have had to go through this, and neither should other disabled people.

We are people who are disabled by the barriers which we encounter all the time in our daily lives. Equal rights to services and learning should not be an option or luck of the draw, it should be taken for granted by us as students and consumers. Too many disabled students still put up with less-than-average support because society has made us feel as though we do not deserve this.

Educational establishments have a duty to role model equality and best practice for others to follow so that disabled people and their families expect and are empowered by true inclusion. We must have equal rights to access learning and educational services so that we can move on in life, instead of being forced into situations that perpetuate the stereotype that disabled people aren’t able to achieve.

The main message that I’d like people to take away from my story is to be aware that disability and impairments affect so many people at different points in their journey in so many different ways. This means that the only way to be inclusive of the majority of people is to gather their lived experiences and learn from what they are telling you. I urge you to take this understanding and use it to create better and more inclusive learning experiences.


Lack of awareness about disability can make it more difficult to understand accessibility and how to implement it. It can also lead to harmful assumptions and misconceptions.

Disability is often underreported. This can be due to a reluctance to disclose or because people are unaware that they have a disability. The aging population will have a significant impact on the number of people who have disabilities and impairments in the future.

Considering temporary and situational impairments makes it easier to understand that the positive impact of accessibility is universal. Disability personas and learner case studies help content authors to better understand the barriers which face disabled learners and how to avoid them.  

Designing inclusive and accessible learning practices and content means that everyone is able to experience education, work and life without discrimination.