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Return to SENDA? Implementing accessibility for disabled students in virtual learning environments in UK further and higher education

A project for City University Centre for HCI Design

Sara Dunn
October 2003

The complete final report is available in three formats:

An executive summary is included in the complete report, and is also available separately in two formats:

(To view PDF files you will need Adobe Acrobat reader, which is available as a free download.)

An archive copy of the survey questionnaire is at

For further information, or if you have problems downloading these documents, e-mail Sara Dunn.


A virtual learning environment (VLE) is a form of e-learning software that allows online interactions of various kinds to take place between tutors and learners. Within the last five years, over 80% of UK further education (FE) and higher education (HE) institutions have acquired a VLE.

During this period, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) has been introduced, which requires UK education institutions to ensure that disabled students are not treated less favourably than their non-disabled peers.

With appropriate use of web technologies and an understanding of user requirements, learning material presented on a web-based VLE can, in theory at least, be made accessible to disabled students.

This study, which combines an extensive literature and web review with a survey and interviews, reveals a widespread lack of accessibility in VLE materials. The inaccessible elements are both within the VLE software itself, and within the content the institutions put into the VLEs. This lack of accessibility is shown to have a number of origins, principal amongst them:

  • a lack of awareness within FE and HE about the needs of disabled students
  • a lack of user-centred design processes (on the part of VLE developers and education institutions)
  • a lack of knowledge of web technologies on the part of VLE content authors
  • a general ‘skills gap’ in the area of instructional design, and
  • a lack of strategic leadership within institutions in tackling the overall issue of inclusive learning and teaching.

A series of recommendations for ways to tackle these and other causes of inaccessible learning provision is addressed to the principal VLE stakeholder groups.


All pages and content copyright © Sara Dunn 2003, unless otherwise stated.