What do we mean when we talk about making online courses “accessible”? Does accessibility mean the same thing as accommodation or Universal Design for Learning? While the concepts are interconnected and all work in support of creating inclusive learning environments for students in higher education, each also has its own characteristics and definition.

Accessibility

In the context of teaching & learning online, the definition of “accessible” is rooted in technical standards and most often refers to content and tools that meet the internationally-recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. If you create and/or procure content that conforms with WCAG 2.1 Level “AA” standards, you can proactively remove or minimize many online accessibility-related barriers for students with visual, aural, motor, or cognitive disabilities – and you will automatically make your content more compatible with assistive technologies (e.g. ReadSpeaker, JAWS, Kurzweil, etc.) In short, if your content meets the technical WCAG 2.1 AA standards, all students in your course benefit.

Universal Design for Learning

“Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn… The UDL principles…take into account the variability of all learners—including learners who were formerly relegated to “the margins” of our educational systems but now are recognized as part of the predictable spectrum of variation. These principles guide design of learning environments with a deep understanding and appreciation for individual variability.” (from UDL on Campus) There are 3 key principles to UDL, all based on the premise of student diversity and the importance of providing students with options. According to the UDL Guidelines, we need to provide options in the formats of course materials, options for how students engage in a course, and options for how students demonstrate their learning.

In the context of teaching & learning online, UDL Principles are supported by the technical standards determined by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. For example, if your course materials and digital tools are designed to meet the WCAG 2.1 AA technical standards, you will more prepared to support key UDL Principles like providing Multiple Means of Representation.

Accommodation

“Academic Accommodation is a required adaptation or alteration to the physical and/or instructional environment aimed at providing equitable access to education by lowering barriers for students with documented disabilities. These may include, but are not limited to, the provision of alternate formats and methods of communication, the use of adaptive technology, and adaptations to the examination environment and/or mode of instructional delivery.” (from the Centre for Accessible Learning)