Understand how accessibility laws, user needs, and technical guidelines fit together, so you can proactively design for a diverse audience.

Educators and communicators strive to get their messages and ideas across to other people. Their ultimate goal is to communicate, but are they reaching everyone? According to Employment and Social Development Canada (2021), over “6 million [adult] Canadians” (para. 1) have a disability, and many find communication troublesome. Whether navigating the internet or reading documents at work, many people have difficulty obtaining or understanding information. Because of barriers, they may struggle to read documents, navigate web pages, interact with slides, or understand spreadsheets. Yet, in Canada, people have a right to interact with material without barriers.

What is Accessible Design?

Accessibility refers to the ability of people to obtain, understand, or interact with content. Accessible design includes designing for everyone and putting the audience first (Brannon-Hamilton, 2021, para. 1). It sounds simple enough, but content creators often struggle with designing material for accessibility because it’s not as easy as following a list of requirements. Accessible design involves understanding three main factors: accessibility laws, user needs, and technical guidelines.

Understanding Accessibility Laws

In Canada, as in many other countries, accessibility laws ensure citizens have equal opportunity without barriers (Parliament of Canada, 2019, p. 5), and this includes the area of communication. Communicators and educators are required to create barrier free material to the best of their ability. Noncompliance can lead to frustrated audiences and even fines. Legal requirements create equality, but following the law is just the beginning.

Designing with the User in Mind

Understanding user needs ensures content creators recognize barriers that might stop someone from obtaining or using their material. Although there are many types of physical and learning disabilities, some challenges are similar. For example, people with diminished sight and those with reading disabilities both struggle to obtain material in documents or on webpages. Therefore, both benefit from information in audio format. Those with hearing difficulties and people with listening disabilities can both benefit from visual information. Designers can group needs together instead of trying to design for each individual type of person. User experience testing is not new to design, but the focus on accessibility might be. By ensuring disabilities are understood and included in testing, barriers can be eliminated before design begins.

Following Technical Guidelines

Once legal requirements and user needs are understood better, technical guidelines make more sense. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (2021) established a set of technical guidelines to ensure people everywhere were using the same standards for creating online material (p. 1). These guidelines include using proper heading levels, alt tags behind images, captions for videos and more. Today, many of these recommendations can be used in documents, slides, web pages, spreadsheets, and courses. Technical guidelines are divided into three levels with suggested technical methods for each one (W3C, 2021, p. 1). Only by understanding accessibility laws, will designers know which level to use, and by understanding user needs, content creators can go beyond the minimum legal requirements to design for a diverse audience.

Designing for Accessibility

Educators and designers who understand how laws, needs, and technology fit together, can proactively design for a diverse audience instead of reacting to accessibility requests after the fact. With a clear understanding of the why and how, content designers can concentrate on developing a process to speed up the work. They can create checklists for designing different types of material, use accessibility checkers for testing specifics, and conduct user testing to ensure nothing is missed (Brannon-Hamilton, 2020, p.1). Eventually, creating accessible material will become second nature, much like designing for mobile technology is today, ensuring that a large segment of the Canadian population is not overlooked.

About the author

Michele Brannon-Hamilton is an online course designer, writer, and professor who specializes in designing accessible material. She has created courses for school boards, colleges, and universities. Her latest course, Accessible Design, was recently rated a 9.6/10 by CourseMarks and can be found on Udemy. Currently, she is working on a series of accessible design courses while writing a paranormal novel for young adults. She can be reached at


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