Online training is well established. Whether it’s a how-to video, open and free courses, or closed and paid courses, many people are regularly learning online. In the future, online training will expand into virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR), and we will complete even more training on our phones than we do now. One of the most underappreciated aspects of the future of online training is accessibility.

Accessibility Is the Law

While all the legal questions are not fully settled (there are currently several high-profile cases being heard), U.S. courts have increasingly held that there are federal and state legal obligations for organizations to make their digital content (including online training) accessible to people with disabilities. Sadly, online training — and the internet in general — isn’t there yet. In February 2019, the web accessibility advocacy organization WebAIM conducted a survey of one million websites and found that 97.8% of websites failed to meet at least one technical accessibility requirement.

Accessibility Makes Training Available to All Learners

Perhaps more important than the legal arguments is the basic need to make training available to all learners.

Don’t think that you have people with disabilities working in your organization? It’s likely that you do. Estimates indicate that 30% of the college-educated, “white-collar” workforce fits the current federal definition of having a disability. That number doesn’t even include workers without college degrees or workers in “blue-collar” industries — and it also only includes employees who disclose that they have a disability. Only 39% of workers with a disability disclose it to their manager, and fewer still disclose it to their teams or to the human resources (HR) department. It’s not legally required to disclose, and people don’t do so for a variety of reasons.

In addition, the workforce is aging, and older workers can require accommodation as their eyesight, hearing and other abilities change over time. There are also temporary situations that require accommodation. Someone may have a broken arm, making operating a computer mouse difficult. Perhaps a learner is trying to complete training in a public space, where he or she can’t play audio and needs to use captions.

In all of these situations, ensuring that training is accessible ensures that training is effective.

Accessible Design Is Good Design

Still unsure whether accessibility is the future of online learning? Consider that accessible design is likely to be good design.

Light gray text on a white background is inaccessible, as it fails color contrast ratios for accessibility. But light gray text on a white background is hard to read for everyone. Text that can’t be enlarged is difficult to read for people who have low vision. But text that can’t be enlarged also often can’t be read on a tablet or smartphone. A course with confusing and contradictory navigation can’t be navigated by those with cognitive disabilities — but who really wants to spend their time trying to figure out how to find the next page of training?

Not all accessibility adaptations easily lead to more pleasing training design. Subtle color shifts can make an impact, but animation, while distracting to many users (and often impossible for screen reader users to access), can be delightful for learners without disabilities. Ensuring that all training activities are accessible using a keyboard means that some go-to activities, like click and drag or hotspots, will no longer be part of the instructional designers’ training vocabulary.

The Future of Training Won’t Be Painless … but It Will Be Brilliant

It is not an easy shift. But for legal, emotional, cognitive and aesthetic reasons, training will need to become thoroughly accessible. For designers, it will be a new way to approach training, one that preserves many established approaches (learning objectives will not change; the methods that enable learners to master them will). For developers, it will be important to adapt to make sure that all learning is usable by all learners and available using accessible technologies (such as screen readers).

The most important effect, of course, will be that all learners, whether they have a permanent disability, a temporary disability or no disability, will be able to fully participate and develop the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to be successful.