Proactive Planning for Safe and Accessible Online Learning Environments

Creating safer and more accessible online learning environments

Many professors had become accustomed to this scenario at the end of the first day of class:

A crowd of students approached, each with a paper in hand, outlining accommodations and official paperwork from disability services departments. Students had no choice but to out themselves to faculty and peers. Now, the accommodations arrive by a message in the LMS, or students may choose not to disclose their disability or need for accommodation. Students retain their privacy while still communicating. The move to online learning makes it imperative that learning environments are safe and accessible for all learners.

The Babb Group proposes three areas for institutions to focus on to contain the rising instances of ableist microaggressions in online learning environments, including design, training, and culture.

Defining Ableist Microaggressions

Ableist microaggressions combine the attitudes and actions of ableism and microaggression to be specifically harmful to the disabled community. Heung et al. (2022) define ableist microaggressions as “subtle forms of discrimination that disabled people experience daily, perpetuating inequalities and maintaining their ongoing marginalization.”

Ableist microaggressions can be subtle and include questions such as “Can you really do that?” “What happened to you?” Often, people with visible and invisible disabilities feel ignored.

The impact of ableist microaggressions can be long-lasting and very destructive. One study (Ackerman-Barger, et al. 2021) found they can increase stress and depression while negatively impacting academic performance, including retention. It is imperative for instructional designers, educators, and online course facilitators to prevent, identify, and manage microaggressions to create safe learning environments for all students.

Proactive Solutions for Creating Safe and Accessible Online Learning Environments

As organizations begin to understand the impact and frequency of ableist microaggressions, The Babb Group recommends a proactive approach to instructional design instead of retroactively making adjustments in response to students’ disclosures of disabilities.

As a first line of defense against ableist microaggressions, instructional designers and institutions can ask and reflect upon this key question: Must they maintain practices that force students to disclose their disability status in order to have their learning needs met?


Instructional designers can use two familiar tools to create safer online learning environments: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and The American Psychological Association (APA) style guide.
According to UDL Cast, UDL is “an educational framework that guides the design of learning goals, materials, methods, and assessments as well as the policies surrounding these curricular elements with the diversity of learners in mind.” There are various ways to apply UDL in online higher education, focusing on accessibility.

Instructional designers and instructors can incorporate these methods into online learning environments.

• Give students multiple ways to express themselves by giving video or written response options.
• Organize course materials.
• Use clear headings and icons.
• Microlearning: group content into smaller segments such as short videos, an infographic, or slide presentation, or limit reading to 8-10 pages.
• Provide checklists and self-quizzes that are auto-graded for immediate feedback.
• Create consistency across online classrooms so students can easily navigate and know where to find the tools they need.
• Give exemplars for assignments with annotations.
• Use tools such as graphic organizers in addition to text and media.
• Provide students with various tools for note-taking or annotating material.
• Provide captions and transcripts for media so students can access content without disclosing perceptual disabilities.
• Allow late work policies that do not require students to disclose disabilities, trauma, or health issues.

APA now outlines a path to using positive, person-first language and avoiding language contributing to harm or offense. Person-first language emphasizes the person, not the disability. This is in contrast to identity-first language, which focuses on disability. Instructors can incorporate these terms into written and verbal communications.

Here are examples:


All learners can benefit from instructors and peers who are open-minded, respectful, and empathic. In addition to understanding microaggressions and person-first language, instructors need training on how to incorporate accessible design, use LMS accessibility tools, and understand accessibility for documents, media, and other resources. Instructors also need training on cultivating environments with a blend of openness for students, allowing for their privacy.

Students need training, too. It is incumbent upon institutions to set ground rules for expectations in online learning communications. Institutions can do this through student orientation courses, including information on diversity, equity, inclusion, non-biased language, and accessibility. Student-focused training also provides information for students who may need to take advantage of services offered by the institution.


While virtual classrooms can help students with privacy, they can create new challenges for classroom culture. For some, asynchronous classes are less engaging, and requirements for accessibility can be missed or overlooked by instructors. It’s essential to go beyond and design and create open, empathic, accessible, and resource-driven cultures.

Instructors can start by educating students, establishing a positive, person-first culture, and clarifying that microaggressions will not be tolerated. Provide students examples of person-first, identity-first, and microaggressions, so they understand the differences. For many, this may be new information. Students may not know their language could be construed as offensive or ableist.

In introduction videos, instructors can set a welcoming tone for student questions and concerns so students can bring up any concerns regarding microaggressions.

Check on students who are not participating, especially in group work and discussions. They may be uncomfortable with the language of their peers, which is not a marker of laziness or unwillingness to complete assignments.

Use various images and examples throughout teaching materials to provide students with examples of representation. They can see themselves as part of the academic community. It also provides an example of how to be inclusive with their work, leading to empathy.

Create a culture where feedback is built in, and improvements are easily received and quickly applied. Don’t wait until the end of the semester and improve for the next term-help the student in front of you.

Finally, the online learning environment is rapidly changing as more learners of all ages and demographics take advantage of online classes, even when they live and participate in traditional campuses. Be patient with yourself and always strive to learn from students and peers. Ask questions. Be empathic. Strive to continuously improve your classrooms to create safe and accessible learning environments for all students.


Ackerman-Barger K, Jacobs NN, Orozco R, London M. Addressing microaggressions in academic health: A workshop for inclusive excellence. MedEdPORTAL. 2021;17:11103.

ADA National Network. (n.d.). What is the definition of disability under the ADA?

Aydemir-Döke, D., & Herbert, J. T. (2021). Development and Validation of the Ableist Microaggression Impact Questionnaire. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin.

Heung, S. et al. (2022, October). Nothing micro about it: Examining ableist microaggressions on social media. ASSETS. Pp. 23-26.

Pressley, J.P. (2022, May 25). Online learning can help minimize racism and ableism in and out of the classroom.

Torres, F. (2018, January 5). Managing microaggressions for more inclusive online learning.

Vaishnav, S. & Wallace, D. (2022). Navigating microaggressions in online learning environments. Journal of Technology in Counselor Education and Supervision. 2(2): 11-14.

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Angela Britcher

Angela Britcher is an instructional designer and content creator with The Babb Group. She is also an adjunct professor of business and communications.
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