Joel, a journalist, struggles to complete required online training. His media organization, which has more than 200 employees, uses an online training program that includes videos and webinars. Joel is hard of hearing; the videos do not offer captioning or even a transcript.
Anya, a university professor, is legally blind. She uses a computer with assistive technologies, including a screen reader. Each year, completing required compliance training is a frustrating experience. The eLearning program does not allow her to control text size, color, or contrast. She simply cannot read the screens. To make matters worse, it is not compatible with any screen reader Anya has tried. “It’s complicated to be disabled,” she says, exasperated.
Jordan is a public policy expert with multiple master’s degrees; she’s a savvy longtime computer user. She also has multiple sclerosis. Sometimes, she says, her brain sends the wrong signals to her hand; her taps, clicks, or keystrokes go awry. Text on her phone disappears, or she can’t get programs to launch on her computer. Why not use voice commands? Her high-pitched voice, altered by a bout with a thyroid tumor, doesn’t always register accurately with voice-recognition software. It misses part or all of what she says. Repeated failed attempts to enter information can cause her to give up in frustration or, at a minimum, sap her limited energy.
Esteban is an aeronautics engineer and a group manager. When he attempts to complete the annual managers’ training at his company, he struggles with the Americanized idioms, jargon, and complex words used in the courses.
These examples offer compelling reasons for web- and mobile-based eLearning content to be accessible to people with different abilities and backgrounds. There’s another powerful reason: Accessible content improves the experience of all learners.
“In a lecture, if someone is writing on a whiteboard or drawing a diagram, it leverages the visual. I need to provide an auditory equivalent through a description. I’m not visually handicapped, but I’ll often listen to lectures from MOOCs [massive open online courses] driving in my car, relying only on the auditory. That’s a form of universal accessibility, available for me in a just-in-time format, so I can learn it in a way that’s convenient for me,” said Jean Marrapodi, the chief learning architect at Applestar Productions and a Guild Master. “We have to be aware of that when we’re designing eLearning—that it’s not necessarily for ADA but it may be for the convenience of learners.”
Helen Walsh, an accessible-media consultant and executive director of Diverse Disability Media, expresses frustration with the lack of accessible content. “Most people are thinking about their design instead of thinking about the target audience,” she said. They argue that no one has requested accessible content, but “there is no audience if the content is not accessible; you develop the audience by providing accessible content.”
Many individuals who need to enlarge type, enhance contrast, or use captioning on videos do not regard themselves as disabled, yet they benefit tremendously from accessible eLearning content. Even if no one in a particular company or university course requests accommodation for a disability, accessible or universal design makes sense.
“Our focus is accessibility for people with disabilities,” said Jared Smith of WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility consulting organization based at Utah State University. “But by implementing that accessibility, there are significant benefits for all users; there are benefits on the development and design side with standardization and by following the guidelines and thinking about good design and usability.”
“Things that may cause minor usability issues for some users may have a more notable impact on users with disabilities,” Smith said. But addressing those issues can make using eLearning easier, more convenient, and less frustrating for everyone. And if eLearning is easier to use, learners are likely to be more engaged and willing to complete the training.