Learning Solutions has published a large number of articles dealing with making learning accessible to people in the workplace who have some kind of disability. These articles have most often dealt with the instructional design or the technology that delivers the learning. In this article, I will be more concerned with the target audience and their approach to a task. By applying some basic principles, you can bake accessibility and inclusion for all users (not only those with disabilities) into your instructional design process.

The key ideas that will help you make learning accessible

There are three key ideas in this article. These are personas, WCAG 2.0, and design thinking. Applying these as you design for accessibility will lead you, the designer, to better learning support.


In 1999, Alan Cooper published The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, a book that introduced software designers (and eventually instructional designers) to personas. Personas are “pretend users” that the design team makes up in order to help focus the final product on specific people. Cooper’s experience in designing software helped him learn that designing for specific people will be more successful than designing for “generic users”. I recommend reading Chapter 9 in particular. Chapters 10 to the end of the book will be useful for some instructional designers, depending on the industry or company they are in. The first eight chapters of the book are not going to be useful for instructional designers—they are more of an extended backstory that Cooper wrote when he was first presenting the idea of personas to IT managers and programmers. But definitely read Chapter 9, and where he says, « It’s a User persona, not a buyer persona » substitute, « It’s a User persona, not a learner persona ».

Learning Solutions published an article on personas that explains the concept, but remember you are going to be developing user personas.

In a research article published in 2012 (see references) Trenton Schulz and Kristin Skeide Fuglerud suggest not only inviting persons with disabilities to act as SMEs, but also to include such persons in a persona workshop. See the last paragraph of this article (« Add Real SMEs to Your Design Team ») for some specifics.

WCAG 2.0 conformance levels

The WCAG 2.0 conformance principles for accessibility make this effort more international in scope than does US Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Section 508. Under WCAG 2.0, eLearning content must meet four attributes, captured by the acronym POUR:

  • Perceivable—Content is available to the learners’ senses, primarily seeing and hearing for online content
  • Operable—Users can interact with the content using standard input devices, including a mouse or keyboard, or an adaptive technology
  • Understandable—Content is clear and unambiguous
  • Robust—Content is accessible using a wide range of technologies and abilities

Design thinking: Empathy

Design thinking is a set of tools and methods for creative problem-solving. Design thinking focuses on empathy by helping the designer adopt the mindset of the people you are serving. In designing accessible instruction, it is more essential to understand how your audience approaches tasks than it is to identify specific technologies.

The need for accessibility

Diane Elkins, co-owner of E-Learning Uncovered and of Artisan E-Learning, and a national eLearning expert, asks, « Accessibility starts with instructional design. Would someone with a disability perform a given task the way you are teaching it? Is the language you are using inclusive? Are you factoring in cognitive differences such as reading and language ability? »

How many people in the workplace have some kind of disability? Think about the target audience, not about the design.

  • Vision impairment (worldwide, WHO): 1 billion
  • Disabling hearing loss (worldwide, WHO): 466 million
  • Cognitive disabilities (worldwide): 17% of users (Disabled_World.com)
  • Impaired mobility (US) (at least one basic action difficulty or limitation): 31.9% (Disabled_World.com)

Your task in designing accessible learning is not about technology, and that is true no matter what kind of learning or performance objectives you are supporting. Make your task and your mindset about how a person with a disability approaches a task, but take accessible technology into account.

  • Captioning/transcripts
  • Screen reader
  • Help for persons with MS
  • Help for persons whose « disability » is ESL (English as a second language)/dealing with jargon

Add real SMEs to your design team

The real subject matter experts, where designing accessible learning is concerned, are persons with disabilities. Although individuals with professional credentials on working with people with disabilities can be helpful and will share what they have learned, you are not designing your instruction for those professionals. Do your research, but start by interviewing persons with disabilities to learn how they approach tasks.

Schutz and Fugelrude make the following very helpful suggestions:

“Looking at the AT (assistive technology) used by people with disabilities also helps in creating personas with disabilities. Some personas will be using AT for accessing information. It is important to know how these technologies work and how people work with them. It is vital that someone in the design team has actual experience working with people with disabilities, either from user tests or from teaching them to use technology. You should at least include people with this kind of experience in the process of creating personas. »

One way to do this could be to invite them to a persona workshop. “If we want to aim for universal design, targeting the four main groups of disabilities is a good start. That is, create personas with vision, hearing, movement, and cognitive impairments. Yet, as mentioned in Section 2, one should keep in mind that each of these impairments group are diverse and have different abilities. Another option to consider is to create an elderly persona. Elderly personas usually have a combination of several milder versions of impairments from these groups. In our experience, we have found that three to six personas is a manageable amount of work and covers important aspects of our target groups. »

Want more?

The three key ideas presented in this article will be helpful, but there is more you need to know. Diane Elkins will fill in the rest during Session 101, Designing for Different Abilities at The Learning Guild’s Online Conference « Deepening Your ID Skills » on Feb 17, 2021.

Register today!


Cooper, Alan (1999). The Inmates Are Running The Asylum. Indianapolis: SAMS. (New edition published in 2004).

Schulz T., Skeide Fuglerud K. (2012) Creating Personas with Disabilities. In: Miesenberger K., Karshmer A., Penaz P., Zagler W. (eds) Computers Helping People with Special Needs. ICCHP 2012. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 7383. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-31534-3_22