Skip to main content

The Study Hall

Deaf-First Design: Re-defining “Accessibility”

Deaf Learn Now is the world's first online literacy program for Deaf and Hard of Hearing adults, offered through George Brown College. The program is tuition-free for adult residents of Ontario, Canada. A licensed, white labeled (fee for service) version of the program will be available to Deaf learners globally, next year. The program employs a Deaf-First perspective to its learner experience framework and course design. Special considerations for the Deaf learner's experience will be embedded in each part of the learning platform, courses, and overall user experience. This will ensure that cultural expectations and accessibility standards are met. To the team, “Deaf-First“ means, not adapting existing solutions to sort of meet some of the needs of Deaf or Hard of Hearing learners. We are developing an engaging, scalable learner experience from the ground up with Deaf person input, to be tested and used by Deaf people. This program aims to establish a new standard in Accessibility—Ground Up, Deaf-First Design. 


As many educators are aware, the widespread need for inclusive design practice, accessibility (ADA / IDEA) standards, and universal design for learning has been a hot topic at many of our schools. Cross-functional teams and faculty are working together to ensure that there is, at minimum, an awareness to help realize these crucial initiatives. 

The typical accessibility checklist at organizations in North America focus on very low-hanging fruit and do not always consider a broad range of users. For instance, there is mounting pressure to create videos that offer closed-captioning. This feature is the minimum that can be done for Deaf, Deafened or Deafblind users—and if a Deaf person were to be honest, captioning (for a variety of reasons) is not Deaf-friendly at all.  

This program aims to establish a new standard in Accessibility—Ground Up, Deaf-First Design. 

Deaf learners are rarely brought into Accessible Design conversations and very little has been asked about their needs as instructors, students, and end-users of software. Even fewer opportunities have been extended to this user group to be included in preliminary design discussions and needs analysis. At best, Deaf users are brought into discussions after designs are near complete and asked to weigh in on aesthetic elements and features. In 2012, when Deaf Learn Now was being conceived, very little formal research and design standards existed for how Deaf people navigate online spaces, including social media. We knew from our faculty, students and members of the community, that Deaf persons are very active online, often first to market, and push the envelope for video chat apps. We also knew that young users were very engaged with online gaming, however, formal scholarship about designing software for Deaf learners is not readily available. 

Deaf Learn Now was presented with a unique challenge: to create an online program for low-level literacy adults who live in Ontario (population 12 million). The program needs to help individuals with the following: improving literacy skills (language and math), assisting learners with transition to post-secondary, encouraging employment prospects, and empowering independence through skill mastery. Our user group is a mix of Deaf, Deafened, Hard of Hearing, and Deafblind students aged 19–65. For most learners, English literacy was very low (on par with a Kindergarten or Grade 1 student), with American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language. And even for many, ASL was actually the students’ second or third language if they immigrated to North America. This means English was often the third, fourth, or even fifth language for our learners.

After our LMS selection process, Canvas stood out as the only solution that would give us the flexibility and adaptability required to create an accessible experience for Deaf learners. The open API and LTI flexibility Canvas offers is crucial for our development process. We are working with a Toronto game-based learning company to incorporate gamification elements and a serious gaming front-end experience, a solution that would not be possible with most LMSs on the market today. In addition, the team at Instructure has been very respectful and understanding of our unique and exciting design challenges and solutions. All of the development work is directly informed by a focus group comprised of members from the Deaf community within Canada and the United States. The future for our program is very bright. We are keen to discuss the program (re-launching Fall 2018) at upcoming Instructure/Canvas events; check back in the fall for our go-live date:

Keep learning,

Amineh Olad
e-Learning & Teaching Innovation, George Brown College 

Matt Foran
Manager of Academic Upgrading Programs, George Brown College