For most websites in the world, online accessibility is shaky at the best of times. Educational websites are hit-and-miss for students using assistive technology. Before Covid-19, online access to learning was a strategy to increase opportunities on a relatively limited basis, and progressed slowly.

Add a pandemic, and suddenly students everywhere were thrown into a jumble. With Covid-19, we saw people scramble to figure out new ways of learning and delivery. Schools at all levels moved to an online model very quickly, some accelerating plans already in motion, others kicking into panic mode to move learning activities and lectures online as a stopgap that wasn’t ideal.

As difficult as it was for students, disabled students who use assistive technology were left facing additional obstacles. In the decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed, public schools have improved physical and online accessibility because of legal requirements. But as Ji Young Kim and Dr. Daniel Fienup at Columbia University noted, when Covid-19 hit, “there were alarming reports of children missing out on online special educational activities due to a lack of access to those resources.”

Was it Bad News For Everyone? No.

Some students in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues who have requested online access for years finally could access classes online, skipping the unique burdens it takes to be on campus for classes. Students who sometimes had to navigate through campuses with uncleared snow, or try to coordinate city bus schedules with class times could suddenly take courses from home.

But as Jessica Campanile wrote in 2020, the sudden move to online was “an acknowledgment that when [disabled people’s] needs become the convenience of the majority, they are quickly accomplished.”

After the pandemic subsides, how many of these opportunities will remain?

The pandemic showed how we are capable of making fundamental changes quickly – and at scale – but we are stuck in the profit-loss paradigm, always asking if the investment we make is worth some payoff. We already know technology changes quickly, but accessible technology is slow to catch up. Disabled students find a constant stream of hurdles, a perennial problem for groups without a majority voice.

Inclusive Design Does Not Exist to Help the Majority

Those who need Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) compliant websites as they navigate learning are not a majority, but education needs to serve all students. Some schools with online-only education models – and others with online components – have reached a level of compliance with WCAG standards that make it easier to navigate online learning. But technology itself moves at such a speed that keeping everything compliant takes deliberate effort, and a budget.

As a regular practice, WGU Labs incorporates accessibility and inclusivity in our design process. We train learning experience designers and content creators to work collaboratively and include discussions about accessible design at various stages. We have noticed that our designs are better for everyone, even the majority.

Accessible design does more than just meet the needs of the few – keeping these design decisions as a normal, regular part of design can also meet the needs of the many.

Do you want to understand and change the systems that lead to inequity? WGU Labs will engage with your data, students, faculty, and staff to surface actionable recommendations that ensure more equitable outcomes for your learners. Interested in learning more about our Equity Audits? Book a Call.