In the U.S., 26% of people live and learn with a disabilities. Visual impairments affect 20 million Americans and to the average person, are recognizable. But some disabilities are invisible. Researchers estimate that 15-20% of people are neurodivergent, including roughly 5.4 million adults who have autism, 8 million adults who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and 20% who struggle with dyslexia.

It is not difficult nor costly these days to provide adequate accommodations in training programs and in the workplace. A 2022 study by the Job Accommodation Network reported that nearly 50% of accommodations are free and for those requiring an investment, the median cost for implementation amounted to a one-time spend of $300. I would argue, however, that there is an equally important driver to making every accommodation possible available to your learning content — inclusion.

Sometimes accommodations are driven by threats of punitive actions. However, with the realization that today’s trainees are tomorrow’s high performers, most companies are driven by the realization that creating and delivering inclusive training content not only is it the right thing to do, but also puts them ahead of the curve in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Add to this that today’s consumer demands multiple ways to engage with content.

Here are some critical points that every training professional should be thinking about when determining how to meet the needs of people who not only need voice accommodations, but also those requesting additional ways to learn and engage with content.

  1. Prioritize support for neurodivergent learners.

First off, recognize that there are many people who are neurodivergent — a disability that is often invisible to most people and therefore is highly taxing to the individual who has to go through their day constantly adjusting to the environment around them. This population thinks, learns, perceives events, and interacts with others and information in unique ways and knowing this makes the focus on disability more productive. If we adopt a goal to maximize how neurodivergent individuals engage with learning content then we are one step closer to making the experience highly enriching and accessible for everyone.

  1. Make multiple language offerings available across all content.

An equally important goal is to support individuals who speak multiple languages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 22% of people speak a language other than English at home. Robust text-to-speech (TTS) tools include embedded language translation and multiple voices within the language choices such as a male or female-sounding voice. Individuals can choose to listen in their own language or simply to slow down how it is read back to them in English, which is a critical component to increasing comprehension.

  1. Take a cue from the “curb-cut effect.”

The curb-cut effect was the discovery that when curb cuts initially were installed in communities so that people in wheelchairs could navigate urban areas safely, it was soon discovered that people with bikes, strollers and roller bags also benefited. In the same way, TTS accommodations make training content more engaging and easier to understand for everyone, not only for those with neurodivergence or visual impairments.

  1. Invest wisely.

TTS is exactly what it sounds like; it produces audible speech from text and meta text on a webpage or a static document like a PDG. For auditory learners, TTS can be transformative, but it is critical to design and build content correctly from the start to ensure the appropriate tags are in place.

When choosing a solution to embed in your company’s learning portal/website or within learning materials, it’s important to invest in solutions that are:

  • Universal: TTS needs to be available everywhere including on PDFs and webpages. Equally important is that it be available regardless of device, browser, computer system, program or format. Make sure that the access point to engaging the TTS is consistent across all these platforms so that learners don’t have to relearn where or how to engage the features.
  • Multilingual and natural sounding: Tinny or robotic voices can be unnerving, boring or even unsettling to learners, so choose one that utilizes the latest techniques to create humanlike voices. With artificial intelligence (AI), voices can continually be updated and “taught” the correct pronunciation. The takeaway is that realism matters, and it’s highly noticeable especially by those whose primary language is not English. Being able to select one’s own dialect or choose a female or male voice simply for preference is important. Furthermore, when you think about the individual with a visual impairment whose only choice is to listen to a lesson or fill out a form, this choice becomes critical. It conveys that the learner is valued.
  • Customizable and designed for learning: Learners prone to distraction benefit greatly from page masking to blur out unneeded information, or being able to choose font, color, and size. This is even more critical for those with visual impairments. We find that in K-12 schools, having a ruler and the ability to slow down text are particularly important for emergent readers, but these same tools help adult learners and especially those who have trouble concentrating, which is sometimes due to today’s fast-paced business environment.
  • Interactive and adaptable: Annotation within the learning content mimics how individuals have learned new content for ages. Make sure that everything produced at your company either includes downloadable audio files or provides the capabilities through your TTS tools.

Final Thoughts

In the accommodations business, we understand the sea-change moment of the curb-cut effect not only for its immediate benefit to those perambulating through city streets. When curb cuts became the design standard for sidewalks, not only did we discover how multiple populations benefitted, but also we also discovered entirely new design methods and enhancements. Design and construction costs dropped. We found that blister bumps — yellow plastic tiles and domes embedded in the concrete — improved visibility and slowed down errant strollers while also giving people with total blindness one more sensory input to keep them safer.

In a similar way, TTS technology continues to grow and evolve. 10 years ago, the ability to download or stream audio files was groundbreaking…but today’s it’s both commonplace and necessary. Technology to enable audio downloads and streaming is improving in lockstep with demand.

Ultimately, the driving force for making inclusive training content and capabilities universally available is no longer compliance regulations or the threat of lawsuit. Rather, it’s the demand to meet learners where they are, with the inclusive content they not only want but expect. And from this, everyone benefits.