What are the ethics of accessibility?

A collection of pictograms used by the United States National Park Service, representing accessibility methods, including Braille, closed captioning, sign language, wheelchairs, etc.

People with physical and cognitive impairments as a group are some of the least frequent users of the Internet and other digital technology. This lack of engagement is largely due to the barriers created through the use of this technology, such as poor resolution, unstructured page hierarchy, or undescribed visuals. When these barriers are presented in an online or hybrid classroom, they call into question the ethical practices used to design courses. Learners are no longer able to participate fully as students and instead do not receive the education they deserve. Therefore, it is imperative that instructors incorporate features of accessible design in their classroom materials.

While this task may seem daunting, many helpful tools and guides have been established to assist online content developers with including accessible design features. These resources can be explored in the tools section below.

Universal Design

A group of silhouetted people with varying mobility and and visual abilities on a train platform

Additionally, instructors should be thoughtful regarding the specific design features they use and how their choices may affect people with varying abilities in the classroom. In his seminal work about accessibility in the digital humanities, George H. Williams describes the concept of universal design, the idea that web developers and online content creators should work toward digital technology designs that are helpful to people with or without impairments. For example, using bright, contrasting colors on a webpage can improve the visibility of content for both low-vision and visually-able, neurotypical viewers. However, universal design often further marginalizes people who do not conform to common or well-known disability expectations. Going back to those bright, high contrast colors, individuals who are not neurotypical and have cognitive impairments, like autism, may find them to be distracting or overwhelming.

The competing needs of students can make it more difficult for instructors to provide accessible materials for their online classroom. How can we negotiate the complex, as sometimes competing needs of students? At what point do we forego design for some impairments and support others? The key seems to be striking a balance, recognizing the limits of the individual instructor while bearing in mind that some students may ultimately not have their needs met. Incorporate accessible design where possible, and, while instructors should never ask a student to disclose or expect them to have official accommodations from the institution, they ought to acknowledge and respect those who make their needs known and do their best to integrate design that makes the course accessible to the individual.

Making your class more accessible


Using the UK Home Office’s accessibility posters or the HTML_CodeSniffer extension, evaluate the materials below. For whom are these materials made accessible? For whom do they remain inaccessible? Create a chart to compare the positive and negative features of each item below.


Now that you have explored items made accessible by others, consider the materials (syllabus, reading, media, etc.) from your latest course. Using a venue of your choosing, write a short description of how these materials could have been more accessible. Then consider who remains on the margins in terms of being left out? How can you address this lacuna?

List of Readings


Designing your materials

Testing your materials