Nuts and Bolts: It's Not Just About “Compliance”: Accessibility in eLearning

A couple of days ago I was talking with a vendor that resells eLearning courses. Their “eLearning strategist” explained at length about how carefully she vets the products they resell. When I pointed out that the courses from one of the companies are not accessible to, for instance, learners with visual impairments who use screen reader software like JAWS (Job Access With Speech), the vendor said, out loud: “Well, we have a lot of clients and no one has ever complained about that before.”

I’m not sure which is worse: that an eLearning “strategist” is so unconcerned about accessibility issues, or her belief that complaints don’t exist because she hasn’t heard them.

Disability and different ability

For me the idea of making our products usable for everyone isn’t about some theoretical user in some theoretical company. My work involves contact with the state School for the Blind and School for the Deaf as well as our vocational rehabilitation division, all of which employ multiple workers with myriad challenges while serving a public with special needs. My Google-loving husband will always struggle with low vision, a significant recent life change for him. A friend lost most of his hearing when a bomb exploded near him in Afghanistan. Many people have learning disabilities or physical conditions that can affect memory or problem solving.

And it’s not only about disability but different ability: I was hired into my first training job ever as a literacy tutor for workers threatened with job loss if they could not meet new state standards for completing written certification tests. 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median age of the American worker is 41.9 ( ). We’re talking about a lot of people who would appreciate a larger font or the ability to turn the volume up.

How well do you know your users and their needs?

So it’s disturbing to me that awareness around this continues to be such a challenge even in a time when everyone preaches universal and user-centered design. I’ve found in my career that many in L&D, especially novice designers, are usually more unaware than badly-intended. An SME recently pushed back about helping create a rich description of a training video because, “Blind people will never do this work anyway!”

That’s a big assumption, and there’s a lot of room between 20/20 vision and complete blindness, and that person’s boss who has low vision might want to review the video, and, well, so what? It’s an hours’ worth of work. Arguing about it took longer than just doing it. I’m frustrated that awareness is still such a challenge. Why don’t more people care?

“Accessible” means accessible to everyone

For those of you newer to this field (after all, this column is supposed to be “Nuts & Bolts”) accessibility in eLearning may be something that’s just isn’t on your radar—yet. Briefly, your eLearning materials really should be accessible to everyone, including those with challenges like low vision and blindness, hearing loss and deafness, learning disabilities, and mobility problems. This means having captioning for narration, and avoiding making learners make decisions using only color (for instance, indicate “correct” with a green check instead of a green dot), and avoiding interactions that can only be completed using a mouse or trackpad. It means giving choices between, say, listening to or reading an assignment. It may mean providing ALT tags for images or richer description of an onscreen idea, or adding controls for videos. It means rethinking your overall approach.

There are myriad resources for the designer with little knowledge of this. If it’s new territory for you please look over the universal and user-centered design resources mentioned above. Do a dive into (US) Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

If you’re still wondering why you should care, take a look at this settlement between the Pennsylvania State University and the National Federation for the Blind in which accommodation was addressed as a civil rights issue. Other countries have their own requirements, often largely mirrors of the US standards, so search a bit for guidelines pertinent to the country where you work—or where your products are deployed. Testing for accessibility is easy: Google around for accessibility checker tools. Sometimes basic testing is built into software you might be using already, like PowerPoint or your favorite authoring tool. Take a look, too, at the assistive technologies that may be in place in your workforce, like screen-reading software or big keys for typing.

I can’t cover the details of all this in 1,000 words, so if I’ve piqued your interest I’ll try to boil it down: Don’t think of it as making eLearning “accessible” for special people. Think about making it usable for everyone.

  • It’s not just about “being blind.” It’s also having low vision, difficulty detecting contrast, or difficulty with colors. Per the 2010 US Census data, of the eight-million people who have impaired vision, two million are completely blind.
  • It’s not just about “not hearing.” One of the agencies I work with sends front-line workers to eLearning kiosks that have no sound. Government funding being what it is, that reality is not likely to change soon.
  • Reading issues may have nothing to do with vision: many organizations employ workers with low literacy skills.
  • It’s not just about “mobility.” Many of us employ workers who rarely use a keyboard in their work and find them awkward and frustrating.
  • It’s not about extremes or just designing for the disability. It’s about designing for every user who might access your work.

Finally? It’s not just about being “compliant.” It’s about doing the right thing.

Want more?

 While I was researching this piece I found a great article by Martie Buzzard that offers a much more in-depth view of accessibility. It’s 11 years old, but mostly holds up. Do give it a look.

Jean Marrapodi offered a great session on this at the 2015 eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions conference. See her slides and resources.

My November 2010 column provided an overview of color blindness and other vision issues.

Editor's Note

The eLearning Guild's October 28 & 29, 2015 Online Forum, "The Business Side of Learning: Management, Measurement, and More" will have a session on accessibility, led by Stevie Rocco.

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