According to research cited in LinkedIn Learning’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, 90% of U.S. companies now offer some form of digital learning to their employees. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2018, 5.7 million of the 155.6 million people employed in the United States had a disability. With nearly 4% of all workers having a disability, and with so many of those learners being exposed to digital learning platforms, it is important to design content that is accessible for everyone, including those with vision, hearing or learning impairments.
When designing accessible content, there are two main references developers and instructional designers use: Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Section 508 requires that all electronic and information technology developed for or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG is an international set of guidelines that is considered best practice for all organizations. It has three levels of guidelines, each one more thorough than the last. Level A is the minimum recommended guidelines, Level AA further improves accessibility and Level AAA is the most rigorous.
The Benefits of Accessible E-Learning
When you make your content accessible, you make it more effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities. For example, creating a course or website that is navigable with a keyboard is necessary for users with visual impairments but also helps sighted laptop users who use a track pad instead of a mouse or who find that using a keyboard is more efficient.
Similarly, closed captioning audio content is necessary for learners with hearing impairments but can also help people who prefer to learn information by reading it. Closed captioning also helps second-language learners by allowing them to see unfamiliar terms or phrases in text form. Adding a text alternative to non-text elements provides all learners with additional information that they could have otherwise missed or misunderstood.
Types of Disabilities: Barriers and Solutions
Color blindness affects 8% of men and 0.5% of women, with red-green color blindness being the most common. It can range in severity from not being able to see any colors (rare) to seeing colors as less bright. If a course uses color to present vital information, such as charts or diagrams, a colorblind learner will not be able to fully grasp the material.
When creating content, appropriate color combinations are essential to ensure that all learners can see the content easily. Because red-green color blindness is the most common, designers should avoid using red and green together. If it is necessary for the visual to be red and green, designers can use a light green and dark red to help colorblind learners distinguish the two colors. While blue is a good color to use, because it can be seen by most people with color blindness, it should not be used with purple; purple is usually made from mixing blue and red, so purple can look too much like blue for people with red-green colorblindness to differentiate the two.
Vision impairment can range from minor nearsightedness or farsightedness to complete blindness. Learners with vision impairments have the most difficulty with e-learning, because it relies so heavily on imagery and video content. Hard-to-read fonts, small text or fast-moving graphics are all difficult for people who have vision impairments.
People with limited nearsightedness or farsightedness might just need a zoom in/out feature within the course to adjust the font size. Learners with more severe vision impairments might require a screen-reading software to help them navigate the course. Screen readers use the website’s or course’s code to read onscreen text to the learner. They require simple, streamlined code to enable the software to recognize the headings, body, links and navigational buttons. The code should also include clear instruction tags for buttons and links. Courses should ideally have a text alternative for any non-text elements, such as images or diagrams.
Many learners with a vision impairment navigate with a keyboard instead of mouse, which means anything that uses a mouse link should have a keyboard alternative. For example, allow learners to navigate links using the tab or arrow keys, and then pressing “enter” to select a link.
Learners with hearing impairments will usually have fewer barriers when it comes to e-learning, but there will be still some hurdles. Any audio within the course needs to include captions and/or a transcript. Captions should be in an easy-to-read font and stay on screen long enough for the learner to read them. There should also be a pause option so that learners can read the captions at their own pace if they wish. If you provide a transcript, it should also be in an easy-to-read font and organized clearly so that learner can quickly find their place if they step away from the course.
Disabilities such as dyslexia (difficulty reading), dyscalculia (difficulty with math) or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can making learning more difficult for some people. To accommodate these learning disabilities and other impairments, present content clearly, limit acronyms, and define concisely and with as much imagery as possible. A simple way to accommodate employees with learning disabilities is to remove any time elements and allow them to view content and complete assessments at their own pace.
Accessibility in e-learning will not only give people with disabilities the opportunity to use online content; if done properly, it will improve all learners’ experience. Vision, hearing and learning disabilities can make online learning a challenge, but if you build courses to accommodate these impairments, you can lessen or even eliminate their challenges.