Course Accessibility: How to Find LMS Platforms that are WCAG 2.1 AA Conformant?

This is the question I began to wonder as I looked for course software for my ADA Compliance Course. At first I thought I would have my choice of LMS platforms – surely education of all sectors would prioritize accessibility, right?

As I sifted through Google search after Google search and tried keyword after keyword, I started to realize that learning management system (LMS) platforms aren’t even self-interested enough to care about accessibility, let alone to provide a learning environment that’s accessible to students with disabilities.

And you can forget searching for reviews on LMS accessibility. There really aren’t any reviews for multiple reasons, one being most people don’t understand accessibility enough to write a review on the matter.

With the thousands of public education entities affected by the new ADA Title II web accessibility rule, I’m writing this guide to help schools, colleges, universities, learning centers, programs, etc. in their search for the most accessible LMS.

For more on what the new Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means for public schools, read my Digital Accessibility in Education guide.

This first section gets into my experience with the LMS I choose – and I provide these details because my situation is not unique, it’s common. And you will very likely come across accessibility issues no matter what platform you choose.

By the way, I refer to WCAG frequently in this post. WCAG is the acronym for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines which are technical standards for accessibility. These standards have been incorporated into many laws concerning digital accessibility.

What LMS Software Did I Choose?

After multiple searches over days, I finally came across Sensei LMS. Sensei is the WordPress LMS plugin by Automattic. Automattic is the company that owns WordPress.com, WooCommerce, and Jetpack.

I can’t remember everything I read and/or that was featured, but as of now, Sensei LMS’s most compelling accessibility write-up is a blog post titled, Section 508: A Checklist For 508 Compliant eLearning Sites, from November 2022.

This post includes a section titled, “Why choosing the right LMS is important for online course accessibility.” It also features the line, “Take a look at Sensei LMS’s demo site as an example of how you can create a course that’s accessible to everyone.”

After hours of research, Sensei was the only viable LMS option for me. The only other options that even addressed accessibility required a demo and I didn’t need an enterprise solution, I just needed a software I could use to make and sell courses. I looked into several alternatives including LearnDash, Teachable, and Kajabi, but all had glaring accessibility issues on their website (Teachable’s website accessibility appears to have improved, though).

And while Sensei LMS does have very good accessibility out of the box, there are definitely issues (that have not been resolved by updates). And although the support has claimed they prioritize accessibility, in my first-hand experience they absolutely do not.

In fact, even after asking about a lesson keyboard navigability problem – that Sensei LMS admitted was a bug – over a month before a new version update was released, that fix didn’t make it into the new version. For context, one of my development contractors fixed this within two days.

And the last time I asked about a non-accessibility feature that should be built into the plugin, they responded that that was a unique user case and told me to find a developer.

And that’s what has happened – both myself and my contracted developers have had to fix several accessibility issues in Sensei LMS. Obviously this is Sensei’s plugin so I’d much prefer they make the fixes, but it’s clear that’s not going to happen. And even if they were to fix something, it’s likely going to be months of wait.

The reason I go into this level of detail is because this is the reality when it comes to accessibility of not only LMS platforms, but software and application vendors in any niche: they talk a really nice accessibility game, but when it comes down to accessibility actions, their actions don’t match their words.

This means that unless you find the best LMS platform, you will likely have similar experiences in getting the vendor to make fixes.

A somewhat related example of the de-prioritization of accessibility from platform providers of can be found with YouTube live streams. Depending on the latency of your YouTube live stream, you cannot use closed captions. Why would not having closed captions even be an option on YouTube?

VPATs / ACRs

A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a document that, when completed, creates an Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR). Even though most procurement agents are technically requesting an ACR, most use the term VPAT.

Merely having an ACR does not mean that a product is accessible. Rather it just means that there is accessibility documentation that provides an accounting of the accessibility of a product.

So for our case, an LMS platform could possess an ACR, but that just means we have an accounting of their platform’s accessibility – it doesn’t mean that the platform is 100% accessible, WCAG conformant, etc. In fact, we could look at the ACR and see numerous accessibility issues (although that’s rare because that doesn’t do the vendor any good anyways).

But even a vendor has a gleaming ACR, that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. There is no requirement on who creates the ACR so a vendor may have actually filled in a VPAT themselves. Additionally, an overlay widget seller (e.g., Userway, Accessibe, etc.) may have issued the ACR.

So we always want to know who issued the ACR, but even if a reputable digital accessibility company does issue the ACR, we still don’t want to only rely on the ACR. Especially if we’re a large educational institution and we’re making this LMS software the foundation of all our classes, training, etc.

Because once you integrate the LMS, it’s hard to unwind. So we want to make sure we get this right the first time.

Let’s go over signs that you’re choosing the right learning management system.

Evaluating LMS Accessibility

The following items are good indicators that the LMS platform is truly committed to accessibility:

  • The main pages of their website are accessible.
  • They have an accessibility statement posted.
  • You can get a real response when you contact support about accessibility.
  • There is a page dedicated to the accessibility features of their software.
    • They go into detail about accessibility.
  • They outright claim WCAG 2.1 AA conformance.
  • They have an ACR for the latest version of their software / application.
    • The ACR covers all aspects of the software.
      • For example, teacher mode vs. student mode.
  • They have a guide on how to ensure you upload accessible content and create lessons that maintain WCAG 2.1 AA conformance.
  • They’re consistently detailed when it comes to accessibility.

Here’s a quick illustration of how this can play out in real life. In 2023, Moodle announced, “Moodle LMS 4.2 achieves WCAG 2.1 AA Accessibility compliance,” in a news post. There was even a press release.

Which is very smart marketing strategy, but the problem is/was a one second WAVE accessibility scan returns errors on their homepage (note: scans only flag approximately 25% of accessibility issues). And if you look further, there are more accessibility issues on their website.

However, to balance this out, it’s clear Moodle has put real effort into accessibility because their website has much less accessibility issues than it did when they originally posted the news.

And, by the way, I haven’t evaluated the Moodle LMS platform itself so it may indeed be WCAG 2.1 AA conformant.

But I use Moodle merely to illustrate that just because an LMS platform claims WCAG 2.1 AA conformance, that’s merely going to put them in the qualifier pool of candidates – it’s not going to mean I automatically choose them.

As practical insurance, it’s worth auditing a finalist LMS software independently because which platform you choose is a big decision with a lot on the line.

It’s analogous to buying a home. Even if the home owners promise that they’ve had the home inspected and everything is fine, it’s worth having 1-2 of your own home inspectors certify that everything is good to go before making such a heavy investment.

Contracting for Accessibility Support

As a buyer – and especially as a large buyer – you have a tremendous amount of leverage before you purchase an LMS (or before you renew with an LMS). If I was your consultant, I would insist that we have a dedicated LMS developer support line that we can access should we need any technical fixes made.

Even if this is a premium add-on that results in additional cost, I need this provision.

It is imperative that you’re able to get technical fixes made within a few days. A nightmare scenario for a school is that a critical barrier to access is uncovered and there’s no way to fix it. And then when you contact the LMS support, you get non-substantive replies that don’t fix or delay fixing the issue.

The problem when using many LMS platforms is you cannot access the code. You can make customizations such as changing the theme and uploading the content, but you cannot fix HTML, PHP, or JavaScript issues.

So even if you have a great development team, you’ll be walled off from remediating accessibility issues.

LMS Platforms with Code Access Enabled

If you have a development team, a potentially nice selling point is if your team does have code access. At the same time, we don’t want to buy LMS software and have an accessibility project on our hands.

So code access is a plus feature, but it’s more of a just-in-case feature than something we want to rely upon. Fixing accessibility issues – especially issues on an unfamiliar third-party platform – can be extremely time consuming and expensive.

WCAG 2.0 AA Conformance

Because WCAG 2.1 AA conformance is the technical standard under Title II of the ADA and because we’re going to increasingly see WCAG 2.1 AA conformance required under the law, I’d rather avoid selecting an LMS platform that claims WCAG 2.0 AA conformance.

While WCAG 2.0 AA conformance still provides strong, foundational accessibility and even vendors that claim WCAG 2.1 AA still likely have accessibility issues, I’d rather not start out knowingly not meeting the technical standard required for compliance.

There are currently multiple LMS platforms including Absorb LMS Learner Experience, Paradiso LMS, and TalentLMS that claim WCAG 2.0 AA conformance, but as nice as that is, I need to see WCAG 2.1 AA as a qualifier to be in my LMS candidate pool.

Summary

Even though course platform providers are still only warming up to accessibility, I expect there to be a race to WCAG 2.1 AA (and possibly even WCAG 2.2 AA) now that WCAG 2.1 AA conformance is a requirement for ADA Title II compliance. So that’s the great news.

The bad news is amidst this race, there will be many LMS companies who try to rush through accessibility, get an ACR that states their platform is WCAG 2.1 AA conformant, and make sales. Of course, it’s easy to envision that platforms rushing accessibility might miss accessibility issues.

And we don’t want to buy into those accessibility issues.

I highly, highly recommend that schools practice diligence in deciding what LMS to use and invest time in the procurement process.

Accessible.org provides several digital accessibility services, including accessibility consultation. Should you need help in your LMS selection process, we are happy to help.

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