When done well, eLearning can be a truly effective and engaging learning tool. But an eLearning module that works for some learners, but leaves others unable to access the content, isn’t doing its job. This is why accessible eLearning is so important. In this post, you’ll find insights about disability and learning and some practical steps to take in order to develop accessible eLearning content.

accessible elearning

What is disability?

Disability and impairment can refer to a huge range of things, including but not limited to: sight, hearing, chronic health conditions, dexterity, and mobility.

According to the Papworth Trust:

  • In March 2013, 8% of the working-age population in the UK had a disability (and the 2010 US Census showed that 1 in 5 Americans have a disability).
  • Almost twice as many adults with impairments experience barriers to education and training opportunities compared to their peers.
  • For adults with impairments, the two main barriers to learning are financial reasons (48%) and lack of time (21%).

eLearning is often touted as an accessible enterprise, removing barriers of location, cost, and time from training programmes. But a huge barrier exists for disabled users if eLearning isn’t designed for their needs.

Accommodation vs. accessibility

When discussing accessibility it’s important to understand the difference between accommodation and true access. Accommodation means only providing content designed for people with disabilities when it is requested. For example, a person with a visual impairment attends a class with worksheets printed in a small font that they can’t read. They have to explain their disability in order to ask for a large print handout, and if this isn’t available then they have to go without the resource provided to their peers.

Accessibility means making things accessible for people with disabilities all the time. People with disabilities can be sure that they can access content, and know that it was designed by people who anticipated that they would be a part of it and wanted them to be a part of it, as well. Continuing the example above, an accessible class would provide additional large print handouts or just make all the handouts large print by default.

How to make accessible eLearning

As an eLearning creator, you don’t always know exactly who your content will be going to. But based on the statistics above, you can see that it’s pretty likely that someone with a disability will need to complete the courses you create. Accommodating disabled users after creating a whole eLearning module is difficult at best and impossible at worst. So, it’s important to consider the needs of disabled users from the start so that they can access the eLearning content you create.

It’s likely that you already consider how well your eLearning content will work for learners with different levels of subject knowledge, different levels of tech-savviness, even different speeds of internet. Accessibility involves widening this view of users to include the factor of disability, and should be considered at of each stage of the eLearning creation process: from initial design to quality control and testing.

The initial stage of learning design is a make-or-break time for accessibility. Be sure that your ideas for interactions and navigation can be implemented in a way that is accessible. If you intend to use video or audio in your eLearning, plan how you will provide an alternative media form (such as open or closed captioning). And be sure to test out accessibility during your quality control tests. For example, you can download an open source screen reader – like this one from NVDA – and test out how well your module works with keyboard only navigation.

Practical steps to make accessible eLearning

Practical steps you can take to make your eLearning accessible include:

  1. Using readable fonts in appropriate sizes
  2. Keeping language simple and inclusive
  3. Enabling keyboard only navigation for learners using a keyboard and screen reader to access the content
  4. Making sure that colour contrasts are appropriate for colour-blind or visually impaired learners
  5. Providing text scripts for audio and closed captioning for videos, and summarise charts and graphs in text form so that the story they tell is still accessible
  6. Creating ALT tags to describe images and diagrams: ALT tags provide a description of what is shown in an image to be read out by screen readers
  7. Abolishing time constraints on slides or interactions: this helps users with impaired motor skills, dyslexia, or even English as a second language

Using your authoring tool

The authoring software you use can also help you to create accessible eLearning. Section 508 is a legal requirement for accessibility; it applies to all eLearning created for federal bodies in the US. Most authoring tools will have capabilities to help with Section 508 compliance, for example Articulate Storyline 2 has:

  • Flicker reduction to prevent seizures
  • Screen reader support
  • Interactions with keyboard support (except for drag-and-drop and hotspot interactions)
  • Captioning and audio descriptions

Creating accessible content means considering the needs of all the potential users of your eLearning. Use these tips to broaden the range of learners who can access your content and – by including alternative learning strategies and options within the module – make all your learners more likely to succeed.

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Written by

Shay O’Donnell

Managing design consultant

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