“Difficult.” “Confusing.” This is how the challenge of providing e-learning to employees with disabilities is often described.

Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are over 18 million people with disabilities working in the U.S. alone, and these employees desire – and deserve – opportunities to learn and grow in their professional careers.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Disabilities can include blindness or low vision, color blindness, deafness or hearing loss, limited movement, and cognitive limitations.


When e-learning is accessible, it’s designed for people with disabilities and works with tools they already use, such as keyboards and screen readers. Typography, color schemes and screen design are tested and adjusted. The learner can receive, navigate and understand the learning material.

As a learning professional, you understand the importance of attracting, upskilling and retaining talent in your organization, and for this reason alone, accessibility is important. But what you may not think about is the message it sends to your entire learning audience. When you provide accessible e-learning, you demonstrate that your company cares about all its employees and that you are doing your part to create an inclusive workplace. Your actions strengthen a company culture and brand based on values, which are particularly appealing to the younger generations and our future leaders.

Why do L&D professionals approach accessibility with trepidation? Part of the reason is that as e-learning has become more sophisticated and expectations and standards have advanced, the requirements for achieving accessibility have likewise become more challenging.

Demand has changed the nature of e-learning and accessibility.

As demographics shift and digital natives make up most of the workforce, demand has increased for highly interactive, multimedia-rich e-learning. The new workforce grew up with games and avatar characters in video for entertainment, and it now expects the same level of engagement from learning. Did anyone ever want to sit through a boring e-learning course? Probably not. But years ago, that was the bar, and we grudgingly accepted it. Not anymore.

Advances in graphic design, multimedia and programming present an enormous challenge to accessibility. As we seek to provide an effective learning experience to people who have, for example, vision impairments or limited mobility, we need to consider what we can make universal without defaulting to creating e-learning that is so basic it fails to engage our audience.

At the same time, what used to be the standard in accessibility, Section 508, is now considered the bare minimum. The more stringent Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 are the new bar to meet, addressing the four principles of perceivability, operability, understandability and robustness. The focus is shifting from “checking the box” to providing a usable, relevant, fully functional and well-tested learning solution to people with disabilities.

A Case Study: Accessible E-Learning for Customer Service Engineers

This desire to create more functionally and visually complex e-learning and to meet higher standards of accessibility is exactly the challenge a Fortune 500 technology company faced recently. The company’s customer service engineers were strong technically but needed upskilling on soft skills such as communication and empathy – a mission-critical need that would help the business retain and grow customer relationships. Yet this largely millennial team had a decidedly negative perception of soft skills training, so it was essential that the design be inspiring, motivational, relatable and engaging. The approved design integrated best-practice learning techniques and high production values, including nano-learning, social learning, storytelling, 3-D characters and animation, and gamification.

At the same time, the company wasn’t just giving lip service to accessibility; it had a strong commitment to providing an effective learning experience to its engineers with impaired hearing, vision or mobility. The organization decided to use WCAG 2.0, Level AA requirements as its standard.

The company’s e-learning partner researched off-the-shelf e-learning authoring tools, but none could fully meet the company’s desired standards for e-learning and accessibility. They needed a tool that was capable of advanced interactions and that allowed access at the source code level in order to troubleshoot accessibility-related issues.

The vendor’s engineers modified their internally developed authoring tool to meet the project goals. The tool allowed the team to include descriptions for non-text elements, captioning for recorded media, keyboard navigation, audio control and control over text size. Where possible, engineers included code to detect details about the user’s environment (for example, when he or she uses a keyboard) to optimize the experience. At the same time, designers optimized visual contrast and deemphasized the use of color as a means of relaying information.

User testing for accessibility is essential when the goal is usability. All courses underwent rigorous testing, including code inspection, keyboard navigation testing, visual inspection and screen reader testing, and the developers made numerous improvements based on user feedback.

Raising the bar on accessibility requires innovation.

When it comes to accessibility in e-learning, can we move beyond trepidation and embrace innovation?

The e-learning standard cannot return to the page-turning approach of past years, and neither can the standard of accessibility revert to less rigorous requirements that merely “check the box.”

It won’t be easy, but when all parties have a commitment to innovation, it can be done. Learning professionals can help their organizations demonstrate that they care about opportunities for learning and growth for all and bring us closer to the goal of equality and inclusion in the workplace.