It’s easy to understand why training professionals are passionate about the vital role that learning has to play in the success of organizations and the positive impact it can have on individuals. What is harder to understand, then, is why the majority of learning content produced today remains inaccessible to people with disabilities, excluding an estimated 12% to 26% of our learners (according to Jonathan Hassell’s book “Inclusive Design for Organisations”). Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the necessity of accessible digital learning in promoting fair and equal access to opportunity, has largely failed to change attitudes in our industry.
Busting a Common Myth About Accessible Learning Content
Why is this the case? One reason may be long-held misconceptions about accessible learning content. Perhaps the most common and damaging of these myths is that designing content that is accessible for disabled learners harms the learning experience for everyone else. This opinion is often based on the belief that accessible learning cannot be visually engaging, interactive or innovative.
Yet, as anyone who has created accessible learning content is aware, these assumptions are not true. For example, visually engaging resources can be accessible if they provide alternative text for any images used to add meaning (rather than for decoration). This text enables learners with visual impairments to have an equivalent learning experience.
Interactive resources can also be accessible as long as the interactions are accessible to learners who navigate using a keyboard and/or screen readers. Many eLearning interactions, such as multiple choice questions, are accessible, and interactions such as hotspots can be as well, if the equivalent information is provided in text. In addition, more and more authoring tools now provide alternatives for inaccessible interactions, such as ordering drop-downs instead of ordering drag-and-drops. Accessible design also has the benefit of making content authors think differently, often leading to more creative and innovative learning solutions.
But if it is true that well-designed, accessible learning content does not harm the experience for non-disabled learners, is it also true that it is better for everyone? My experience as an eLearning accessibility consultant suggests that it can. One part of my job is evaluating and auditing learning resources, and I’ve assessed a wide range of both accessible and inaccessible content. The evidence undoubtedly suggests that accessible learning content consistently provides a better experience for everyone. I believe this fact is primarily due to the fact that accessible design encourages eLearning practitioners to be more empathetic and considerate of all their learners’ needs.
Two Accessible Design Models
Two design models with particular relevance for learning and technology support this view. The first, universal design for learning (UDL), recognizes the “individualistic nature of learners and the need to accommodate such differences in order to produce effective learning experiences,” according to CAST (previously the Center for Applied Special Technology).
The second, inclusive design methodology, also supports the idea that taking the diverse needs of users into consideration benefits everyone — an idea often referred to as the “curb cut effect.” As explained in the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit, “Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally.” This statements highlights the idea that since we all have different abilities and needs, designing learning to accommodate people with disabilities helps to ensure that we make the experience inclusive and more effective for everyone.
Consider the many temporary and situational impairments experienced by learners, such as:
- Captions are essential for someone who is hard of hearing but are also useful for learners who accesses training videos on their commute to work.
- Transcripts are essential for people who are deaf and blind but are also useful for students who use them as study aids.
- Keyboard navigation is essential for someone who has Parkinson’s disease, which may make it impossible to use a mouse, but is also useful for someone with an injured wrist or repetitive strain injury (RSI).
- Alternative text is essential for a learner with a visual impairment who uses a screen reader but is also useful for someone working at home with slow broadband that doesn’t allow them to download images.
- Good color contrast is essential for someone with such as cataracts but is equally important for someone who is long-sighted and can’t find his or her reading glasses.
- Simple, clear instructions and consistent navigation are often essential for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but they are also useful for someone working at home and/or in a distracting and stressful environment.
Other Benefits of Accessibility
But creating a better learning experience is far from the only advantage of accessible learning content. Other benefits include avoiding the legal risk of a lack of accessibility; serving the rapidly growing aging population and demonstrating an organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Another crucial benefit for learning and development (L&D) businesses is the boost that accessibility credentials deliver to profits and market share. An increasing number of learning content and authoring tool providers are recognizing the business benefits of accessibility, with one market leader recently confirming to me, “Accessibility has a significant impact on our sales strategy, which in turn has enabled us to extend our market reach.”
“Building an equitable workplace” was identified as one of the five key trends for the future of learning in Training Industry’s 2021 trends report — yet a mere 36% of companies have a top-down commitment to creating accessible digital experiences. As L&D leaders, isn’t it time we did more to enable everyone to experience the benefits of accessible learning content?