How do we create ACCESSIBLE
online learning experiences?


Accessible design benefits all learners.

If our goal is to create valuable learning experiences for all our online learners, accessibility has to come first, period. If we can’t access a learning experience, how can it be useful, or desirable, or credible, or intuitive? 

Designing with all learners in mind communicates
that all learners are valued

Accessibility and Universal Design 

Accessibility refers to design that removes barriers experienced by people with disabilities. In a teaching and learning context, this means proactively designing with diverse learners in mind, to improve access for as many learners as possible. 

Accessible courses allow students to focus on learning content
rather than accessing content

Accessibility is an important component of Inclusive Design (see OCAD’s  Inclusive Design Research Centrenew-window) as well as Universal Design frameworks. Three Universal Design frameworks have been developed for educational settings: 



Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
(see UDL: The UDL Guidelinesnew-window)


Universal Instructional Design (UID)
(see Universal Instructional Designnew-window)


Universal Design of Instruction (UDI)
(see Universal Design of Instructionnew-window)


Of these, UDL has become the most widely implemented. 

Universal Design recognizes that removing barriers for learners with disabilities benefits learners without disabilities as well.

Example: Closed Captions

cc-logoClosed captions do not just benefit those who are deaf or hard of hearing – captions can also potentially improve learning for students who

  • are still mastering the English language,
  • process information better from seeing the written word,
  • might struggle to understand an instructor who speaks with an accent,
  • are viewing a presentation video in a noisy home or coffee shop, or
  • experience technological glitches that affect audio.

Important note: Universal Design does not eliminate the need for accommodations.  
While it is a very good idea to design your online materials to be universally more accessible, accommodations for specific disabilities will still be needed. AccessAbility Servicesnew-window will provide a list of accommodations required for individual students.

Creating Accessible Online Learning Experiences 

It often requires more effort and, sometimes, specialized knowledge to create online content in a way that does not pose barriers to learning. The following ‘top tips’, which incorporate elements from all the Universal Design frameworks, provide a good place for you to start.

Top Accessibility Tips 


Designing Assessments

  • Offer flexibility in due dates by providing grace days​ (also known as ‘slip days’ or ‘late days’);
  • Avoid high-stakes grading schemes and final exams where a substantial proportion of the majority of a student’s grade relies on how they perform on one day;
  • Provide ungraded opportunities to practice skills being taught (e.g., self-assessment activities);
  • Use a variety of assessment methods;
  • Provide clear step-by-step instructions for assignments and assessments.

Designing Content

Many of the multimedia design principles listed on the Usefulnew-window page (which work to prevent cognitive overload), also promote accessibility by reducing barriers to learning. Incorporating these principles into your content design will go a long way towards creating more accessible learning experiences for your students. For example, segmentingnew-window content into smaller sections makes it less overwhelming for students, and can help them see the structure and understand how the material is organized, which facilitates learning. 

In addition to the Useful principles, we offer the following tips, which will further help to ensure that your content does not pose unnecessary barriers to your learners: 

  • Provide specific examples to illustrate important concepts so that students can make connections that they will remember;
  • Provide closed captions and transcripts on videos whenever possible;
  • Ensure that all text is searchable and selectable and that links accurately describe the link destination or purpose; 
  • Create meaningful/descriptive titles
  • When presenting visual aids, give a verbal explanation so that everyone can follow along even if they have difficulty perceiving the visual.

Facilitating Synchronous Sessions

  • Reinforce key terms by presenting them in written form to help students follow along;
  • Repeat a student’s comment or question posted in the chat before responding so that all students can hear the context for your response – following a chat while listening to a presentation can be distracting and cause cognitive overload for learners.

The following resources provide more information on how to create online content that is accessible to all learners. 

What Accessibility Legislation Says

In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)new-window outlines the accessibility standards that organizations must meet. The Ontario Human Rights Codenew-window works together with the AODA and guarantees the rights of Ontarians with disabilities.  

The OHRC and AODA recognize that people experience discrimination and exclusion because of barriers constructed and perpetuated by societal norms. These laws recognize that without appropriate considerations, capable and qualified people would otherwise be excluded from higher education which would result in further exclusion from the workplace. The University of Waterloo is committed to supporting accessibility (see Policy 58 Accessibilitynew-window).  Complying with accessibility requirements is not a choice; it is the law.

The OHRC outlines the specific roles and responsibilities for instructors and for post-secondary students with disabilities who seek accommodations. At the University of Waterloo, the Secretariat’s Student Accommodation Guidelinesnew-window outlines expectations and responsibilities for educators and staff, based on the roles and responsibilities set forth by the OHRC. In short, these guidelines describe our responsibility to promote a respectful, welcoming, and non-discriminatory environment for all learners. For more information about individual student accommodations, contact AccessAbility Servicesnew-window


The Centre for Extended Learning strives to meet the needs of all our online learners. Our ongoing efforts to become aligned with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) are guided by University of Waterloo AccessAbility Services Policy and the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

(CEL Accessibility Statement)