Sarah Lewthwaite, University of Southampton,

Sarah Horton, University of Southampton

Andy Coverdale, University of Southampton,


Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set is a 5-year study researching the pedagogy of digital accessibility. Digital disability rights legislation and the digital transformation spurred by COVID-19 expose a lack of accessibility capability in the workforce that indicate major gaps in graduate education and other programs. This pedagogic research responds by examining how accessibility is taught across a range of contexts, working with educators to provide an evidence base and enrich pedagogic culture. This paper describes the study’s rationale, methodology, focus and activities. We also reflect on how pedagogic research methods can make a sustained contribution to computing education practice through research outputs, and a methodological process designed to stimulate dialogue, networks, reflexive teaching and learning development.


Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set is a 5-year research study funded by UK Research and Innovation, that investigates the teaching and learning of accessibility in academic and workplace settings. This major cross-case study utilizes a research design that builds insight by engaging the field through four strands of research (workpackages), at multiple levels through distinct research methods for pedagogy.

The study has three goals. First, to establish a substantial body of ‘pedagogic content knowledge’ [1] for accessibility education to enhance digital skills in academia and the workforce so technology can be harnessed more effectively to meet the needs of disabled people and aging populations. Second, to forge new collaborations and dialogue between academic and workplace domains to develop pedagogical culture and learning networks. Third, to deploy innovative ‘methods that teach’ [2] to build pedagogical culture and catalyse expert, teacher and learner participants through the research process. This paper is the story of our research trajectory to date.

Demand for Digital Accessibility Education

Digital accessibility is increasingly recognised as a core-competency for digital professionals. The acceleration of ‘digital first’ public services, education, commerce and work in the course of the pandemic, alongside growing legislation to ensure disabled people’s digital rights have underscored the need for robust, accessible digital platforms and systems that ensure societal participation for disabled people [3]. More disabled people are using digital tools and services than ever before [4]. Yet capacity has not kept pace with demand, and the technology sector’s accessibility skills gap remains a critical issue [5]. In response, major initiatives are developing foundational resources for accessibility educators to build from. Leading examples include the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative’s development of Curricula on Web Accessibility in their Developer, Designer and Content Author Modules and the work of TeachAccess to broker collaboration between higher education, industry and disabled people’s organisations to spur teaching, professional development and shared practices. However, more work is needed to secure digital accessibility as a field and develop the robust pedagogical culture necessary for effective and sustainable teaching and learning.

The Challenges of Teaching Accessibility

Accessibility is challenging to teach. It is interdisciplinary. It requires a unique combination of theoretical knowledge, procedural understanding and technical skill [6].  As an academic topic, accessibility can lack visibility and is typically characterised as a sub-group of HCI, and sometimes of web development [6].  At the same time, while content knowledge changes as technologies and development methods evolve, accessibility activity is commonly presented as evaluation and repair of existing resources, rather than the application of a comprehensive inclusive design strategy that keeps pace with innovation [6].  This indicates a disjuncture between accessibility as a complex expert practice, and the introductory 101 that constitutes the majority of teaching. Learner attitudes can also be challenging, with some Computer Science students considering HCI ‘easy’ and somehow ‘commonsense’ [7]. There is no formally agreed curriculum and despite accessibility being explicitly represented in the competency frameworks for Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) that ostensibly guide international education in digital skills, digital accessibility is not always a requirement.

Another challenge is the lack of pedagogical culture. Pedagogical culture is ‘the exchange of ideas within a climate of systematic debate, investigation and evaluation surrounding all aspects of teaching and learning in the subject’ [8, p75]. Prior work has established a lack of pedagogic culture in accessibility education [6, 9]. A lack of pedagogic culture is shown in limited debate and a fragmented literature, characterized by small, opportunistic studies and individual reflective accounts of teaching a single course or cohort [10]. Therefore, teachers cannot inform their practice by calling upon a substantial body of resource or knowledge. Instead, they are reliant on immediate peers, trial-and-error and technical know-how, rather than pedagogic knowledge informed by theory or evidence base. Notably, in this type of context, pedagogic knowledge may be developed in a very tacit way, making it hard to recognise and share. This ‘invisible pedagogy’ [11] limits the potential for teachers and learners to optimise ongoing learning and engagement. Our research seeks to make teaching and learning processes visible [12] and also make visible the connections between practice in different fields, modes and settings. Dialogic, collaborative methods are particularly salient here, as the project seeks to democratise the research process and establish community knowledge and collective understandings in an inclusive way [13].

Building Pedagogic Content Knowledge

There is a real need to develop the pedagogic content knowledge that is unique to digital accessibility education. Pedagogic content knowledge (PCK) refers to the intersection of general pedagogic knowledge (broad multi-disciplinary understanding of pedagogy) and content knowledge (about the subject matter) [1]. Many teachers of accessibility in higher education have strong pedagogical knowledge – generalised strategies concerning how to teach a range of learners in different contexts. However, despite a desire to embed accessibility within the curriculum, teachers of accessibility often report a lack of content knowledge [14]. As a result, teaching can be limited and shallow [14].

At the same time in the tech sector, the majority of accessibility educators do not come from educational backgrounds. These accessibility specialists may demonstrate cutting-edge content knowledge (of accessibility strategy, principles, techniques) but they do not necessarily have the pedagogic repertoire required to facilitate or scale excellent learning experiences. As a result, research is needed in which i) researchers work co-productively with accessibility educators for pedagogic development, ii) dialogue is stimulated between accessibility educators and iii) pedagogic development is sustained through the building of pedagogic culture.

Researching accessibility pedagogy

Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set investigates the pedagogy of accessibility education to establish the pedagogic content knowledge that is unique to digital accessibility. The study seeks to be pivotal in developing an evidence base and helping to build pedagogic culture around accessibility, looking at how it is taught across different settings and recognising the social-cultural facets of learning. At the same time the research seeks to develop pedagogical culture through the use of participatory and dialogic methods, deploying innovative ‘methods that teach’ [2]. These methods we argue are particularly salient for accessibility as an emerging teaching field where pedagogy is particularly ‘hard to know’ [15] and PCK is underexplored.  The study has three primary research concerns:

  1. What are the catalysts and barriers in the development of accessibility pedagogy?
  2. How is accessibility pedagogy adapted for diverse learners, disciplines, roles and educational contexts?
  3. How can accessibility pedagogy scale and innovate to meet the challenges of new technologies in social use?

Research Methods for Pedagogy in Accessibility Education

The study’s research design is grounded in participatory methods that foster dialogue between teachers, learners and researchers in ways that educate and transform one another. This involves the co-construction of knowledge, working to understand and elicit different perspectives and bringing them into dialogue, to build new pedagogic knowledge [15]. Teachers’ pedagogy is often implicit in their practice, with educators not necessarily having the language, theory or concepts to describe it. Across education, pedagogic knowledge often develops in implicit and unreflected ways, making it difficult to identify and share - ‘teachers themselves have difficulty articulating what they know and how they know it’ [1: p6]. The study thus seeks to make pedagogy explicit and shared, stimulating pedagogic culture, dialogue, and development. 

Our current study: Teaching accessibility in the digital skill set


The project combines innovative qualitative methods to examine the pedagogy of accessibility, reflexively engaging and surfacing tacit pedagogies so they can be shared and developed. Methods including Expert Panel Method, Video Stimulated Dialogue, ethnographic case study and Participatory Action Research are used in distinct workpackages (WPs) that shift the level of focus from the overarching actors and discourses shaping accessibility education, through individual and community accounts of pedagogic expertise, down to a fine-grained account of the tacit practices of teaching and learning practice in academic and professional settings. In doing so, the research addresses the overarching governance of accessibility education alongside three key aspects of pedagogy defined by Nind, Curtin & Hall [15]: pedagogy as specified (the teacher’s intent), pedagogy as enacted (how the pedagogy is manifested in a classroom or learning resource), and pedagogy as understood (how learners experience pedagogy). We also use Theory of Change as a meta-method to ensure that the aims and objectives of the study are maintained and adapted according to the requirements of a complex research area and multi-site research environment. This ensures progress is evaluated at regular intervals across the workpackages to avoid project-drift.

Previous work

Workpackage 1: Discursive conditions and pedagogic leadership in accessibility education. (2019-2020)

WP1 investigates the push/pull factors (policy, resource, research, politics) currently shaping digital accessibility as an educational field. It asks: What are the key challenges and strategic drivers shaping digital accessibility in academia and the workplace? What does pedagogical leadership look like in these contexts?

Methods: Beginning with stakeholder consultation (inclusive of disabled people’s organisations) and developing through research reviews of competence frameworks, educational standards and directives, relevant policy, legislation and predominant resources (for example, those relating to accessibility standards), WP1 established key sites of pedagogic expertise, the issues at stake, and identified dominant pedagogic discourses across a range of interrelated resources. To establish site of pedagogic expertise, the notion of ‘pedagogic leadership’ was applied; recognising educators who ‘set the cultural tone’ in the field [16, p15]; recognising expertise accrued through extensive teaching, and recognising expertise marked by shared reflections on teaching, development of learning communities and strategic posts in learning societies. The notion of pedagogic leadership stems from academia. Applying it within professional spheres, where teacher-identities may give way to identities defines by technical roles, has tested and developed it.

A policy analysis in light of recent accessibility legislation was conducted [17], alongside a systematic literature review of accessibility pedagogy (forthcoming) and its protocol [18] to establish what is empirically known about pedagogy in accessibility education across technical disciplines. 

Workpackage 2: Identifying Pedagogic Approaches and Values in the Field (2020-2022)

WP2 uses Expert Panel Research with pedagogic leaders and educator focus groups in academia, government and industry. Research questions include: What are the pedagogic approaches and strategies that characterise accessibility teaching? How does pedagogic content knowledge vary by discipline and professional context?

To this end, WP2 has co-produced new pedagogic knowledge in dialogue with teachers of digital accessibility. Pedagogic leaders have been recruited from different fields, representing distinct facets of education in digital accessibility. These facets (identified in WP1) include software engineering, Human Computer Interaction, Inclusive Design, User Experience and Web Development, recognising the differing and related competencies necessary for accessible design, development, authoring, testing and compliance. WP2 makes this pedagogic content knowledge (PCK, [1]) visible, and open to development through and across these groups using Expert Panel Method.

Expert Panel Method [19] takes dialogue as its guiding principle. WP2 has involved a series of qualitative, semi-structured interviews with UK and international experts who are then invited to respond to an early analysis of the group’s data, to share conceptual insights and establish the salience of the researchers’ account of the co-produced knowledge. Two panels were conducted, one focussed on Higher Education (n=14), the second on the workplace (n=16). In each panel, experts were invited to respond via a shared (online) forum over a 4-week period, foregrounding opportunities for dialogue around the data. The expert responses and interactions then constituted a second wave of data collection [20], deepening qualitative insight and establishing the credibility of established themes through participant validation [21]. WP2 surfaced pedagogic knowledge making it open to reflection, discussion and debate - all critical to the development of pedagogical culture. By moving from individual interviews to shared discussions, the surfaced pedagogies gained the communal dynamic necessary to substantiate teaching culture. Next, WP2 tested the resonance of established themes with academic and workplace teaching communities through 10 focus groups including experienced teachers from different learning environments and different content specialisms. This validation across different communities developed our findings, and also gave educators the opportunity to meet and reflect on accessibility pedagogy in depth.

First papers from this work are now progressing to publication, inclusive of our recent paper at W4A 2022 [22] focussed on the socio-cultural context of accessibility education. Recognizing accessibility as a shared responsibility across disciplines and professional roles highlights “the need for academia and the workplace to learn from each other and adapt together to generate pedagogies that will better prepare learners for accessibility practice” [22].

Work in Progress

Workpackage 3: Ethnographic Case Studies of Teaching and Learning in Practice (2022-2023)

WP3 moves from discourse and discussion of teaching to a practice level. It explores how pedagogy is enacted and understood in accessibility courses and, training sessions and other learning contexts. We are conducting a series of 5 in-depth ethnographic case studies to engage with instances of teaching and learning at leading and innovative education programs. The selection of case study sites focusses on programs in the UK, Europe and internationally, recognising differences in regulatory frames governing accessibility practice (and by extension, accessibility education) and their impact on content and pedagogy. We seek to recognise a mix of formal and informal educational teaching situations, such as degree modules, summer-schools, internship programmes, e-learning, workplace training and workshop programmes.

Case studies involve multiple methods used explicitly to move the level of focus from the reflective interview, to identify classroom pedagogy and ‘knowledge in action’ [23]. In this way the research design moves from accounts of pedagogy and re-voicing of pedagogic acts – what people say about their teaching - to instead focus on the details of pedagogic decision-making and pedagogy as it is enacted and experienced [15]. WP3 case studies will include observation, interviews, focus groups and learning resource analysis.

In addition, Video Stimulated Dialogue will be used in focus groups with teachers and learners directly after teaching and learning sessions. Video Stimulated Dialogue [23] involves recording video of educators and learners during an online or in person session, and then using excerpts of video, selected by researchers and participants to stimulate recall, reflection and dialogue during follow-up focus group discussions. This proximity embeds observational data within research relationships, creating a sense of common experience and understanding through exchange of perspectives. With facilitation, the video stimulus and dialogue create opportunities for participants to voice differing accounts of engagement, ‘allow the dialogue outside [the teaching event] to gesture to internal processes within’ [2: p.406].

Building on analysis from WP2, data collected from WP3 will inform development of a new typology for accessibility pedagogy developed in WP4.

Next Steps

WP4: Impact Residencies and the Teaching Accessibility Portal and Database (2023-2024)

WP4 seeks to identify and stimulate innovative processes in the applied design and delivery of accessibility education. In WP4 we will apply the knowledge of digital accessibility pedagogy and PCK produced across WP2 and WP3 in two ways.

First, we will develop a typology of accessibility pedagogy and a teaching development tool for accessibility educators that allows users to access pedagogic knowledge surfaced by WPs 2 & 3 and use that knowledge to enhance their understanding of pedagogy in the context of their own disciplines, roles and contexts. Second, we will conduct ‘Impact Residencies’ to further iterate the typology through application and evaluation in innovative learning environments.

The Teaching Accessibility teaching development tool will build on our typology for accessibility pedagogy, providing educators with access to a wealth of peer-practice and expertise that is conceptually structured and empirically generated. Using the data and analysis of pedagogic knowledge and practice from WP2 and WP3, the tool will support new teachers of accessibility to enhance their understanding of digital accessibility pedagogy by mapping relationships between teaching approaches, teaching strategies, teaching tactics and learning tasks that educators can relate and deploy for their own content and context.

WP4 also includes a series of ‘Impact Residencies’, which are short and intensive episodes of Participatory Action Research consisting of a researcher working alongside a partner organisation for a short intensive period – usually between 2–6 weeks. This aim of these residencies is to develop effective training for new accessibility educators and actively research our training approach and typology through three cycles of participatory action research. Reports on each residency will be coproduced with partners and inform guidance materials supporting use of the typological framework. 


Indications in the accessibility literature suggests that many educators are increasingly drawn to constructivist approaches to learning, recognising the importance of student-centred approaches that echo the human-centred ethos that is at the core of accessibility and HCI research (Lewthwaite et al, forthcoming). But development of these pedagogic approaches may be constrained by a lack of engagement with learning theory, pedagogy and research associated with their use. Further, accessibility specialists who are new to teaching may lack the specialist educational language to discuss such approaches and share and develop their teaching repertoire. Importantly, while more high quality, cross-case digital accessibility education research is becoming available, it is not guaranteed that accessibility educators will access and make use of research.

We are also finding differences in how accessibility education is prioritised across national and geo-political lines, in light of pedagogic norms, and disciplinary, methodological and role-based subcultures. These resonate with ‘signature pedagogies’ for different professions [24] that incorporate deep structures that ‘reflect a set of assumptions about how best to impart a certain body of knowledge and know-how’ and ‘a moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values and dispositions’ [24, p.54-55].

Notably, we observe digital accessibility as a field where research and practitioner expertise are valued more highly than pedagogical expertise, where pedagogy can be a location of potential resistance. We see value in surfacing what is unique about teaching accessibility and highlighting the range and potential richness of teaching approaches, in ways that bear out the values of the field, and interrogating discourses of ‘best-practice’ that may limit innovation.

To date, analysis of our growing dataset is generating greater knowledge of the pedagogical approaches, strategies, tactics and tasks that accessibility educators deploy across a range of settings. Our initial design had siloed data collection and analysis between academic and industry participants. However, recognising accessibility as a shared endeavour with common objectives in academia and the workplace, we are now combining these data sets to establish common themes (for example, the universal position that the teaching of accessibility must itself be accessible). This combined approach allows us to consider the ways that pedagogic approaches and strategies can be extended or challenged in varied and diverse contexts. Importantly, as our understanding develops, we are sensitised to the ways in which teaching knowledge is invested with disciplinary language and approaches. And we continue to learn ourselves about this rich emergent field.

At time of writing, our case study research is underway, and our research design is flexing to recognise the centrality of online teaching and learning during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. We recognise that our focus on pedagogy in action and learners’ perspectives constitutes only a part of what’s needed to build pedagogical culture and substantiate digital accessibility education as a field and discipline. As our recent Web4All communication paper states, we are clear that capacity building and the teaching of accessibility must be a shared endeavour [22].

Interest in digital accessibility education is growing. We rely on and are grateful for the engagement, time and insights of teaching and training professionals to focus our work. We are optimistic about the future, with new initiatives and growing teaching networks that offer opportunities for accessibility pedagogy to enrich and diversify. Within this, Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set seeks to build an evidence base and develop a repertoire for accessibility pedagogy that enriches learning, teaching and research. 


We would like to thank all our participants for their generosity in contributing to our project. This study is funded by UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship MR/S01571X/1.


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About the Authors

Dr Sarah Lewthwaite is a Senior Research Fellow and UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellow in the Southampton Education School at the University of Southampton. Sarah leads the Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set study. Her research interests focus on the intersections of accessibility, critical disability studies, higher education research, pedagogy and inclusive research.

Sarah Horton is a Research Fellow working on the Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set study at the Southampton Education School at the University of Southampton. Her focus is digital accessibility and disability inclusion.

Dr Andy Coverdale is a Research Fellow in Southampton Education School at the University of Southampton. Andy is experienced in conducting inclusive and participatory research with people with disabilities and his research interests include digital accessibility, research methods and pedagogy.