Why Should We Care About Accessibility Standards for Elearning?

Photograph of a desktop with a computer monitor displaying an accessibility symbol.
March 31, 2020
Photograph of a desktop with a computer monitor displaying an accessibility symbol.

As eLearning professionals, we are tasked with providing training and support to all personnel in our organization.

Often in embarking on this task we don’t fully know what the totality of this audience encompasses.

In fact, it’s very easy to focus solely on the content and how we can communicate the desired information in an engaging manner that we and our learning audience can easily digest. While the big picture rarely escapes us, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the realities that many of our colleagues face. Too often, if we do realize them, it’s too easy to simply brush them aside as unimportant or something that can be addressed in another way, later.

There are any number of reasons why accessibility standards in eLearning should be at the forefront of our minds when we create and distribute content – being inclusive, creating better content, meeting legal requirements, helping with literacy and language challenges, reducing bandwidth concerns, improving access from multiple types of device including mobile. And, well, it really all boils down to just doing the right thing.

Wait, you might be thinking, what do accessibility standards in eLearning have to do with creating better content or reducing bandwidth issues?

As the COVID-19 crisis has brought to our attention, we are more interconnected than we often imagine and the principals and efforts that one applies to accessible training are also intertwined with some of the same goals and technology we use to address other issues in training.

There’s nothing better than accomplishing multiple goals with individual changes!

Standards (or “the rules”) that affect accessibility for elearning

Standards are the sets of rules that provide us guidelines on how we can collectively meet a given goal.

In the training world we benefited greatly when SCORM was adopted and content could plug and play across systems (well, mostly!). xAPI has extended that capability and brought innovations such as tracking two-way data streets and has opened a whole new world of possibilities for training in the greater organization.

In the world of accessibility, the standards have largely derived from two areas:

  • web-based standards aiming to make all content over the internet accessible to all, and
  • government standards designed to make the world accessible to a given country’s populace.

In the web world the primary standard is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA), which provides a set of global guidelines for making web content accessible.

Governments also have their own standards that address all aspects of living, from streets and building construction to web content.

Fortunately for us, the various government standards such as United States Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, Europe’s EN 302 549, and Canada’s Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act have all started to align their internet-based aspects with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA).

This makes it easier for tools, developers and users to create and consume content that adheres to the accessibility standards for eLearning and works for everyone.

Legally speaking

Let’s get to the elephant in the room.

Now I know people can have very strong feelings about lawyers, but laws (and by extension, lawyers) are designed to help us do the right thing, and sometimes steer us in the right direction. Of course, legal rulings and how they affect you can depend greatly on the country and industry your organization operates in and one can certainly find instances where “fair” and “equitable” don’t seem to enter the equation.

Fortunately, in the area of accessibility, many of the laws are written ways that try to encourage organizations to become compliant, and only penalize them for not making concerted efforts to do so.

In other words, suing for damages is typically not the approach these laws support and thus the lawyer looking to “get rich” doesn’t typically work in this area. The lawsuits are aimed at covering legal fees and working towards enforcing that the organization corrects the website or applications that do not meet these standards. While many of these laws have been on the books for quite some time, how and what attention they gain can have a monumental effect.

In the United States, there had been private cases filed where organizations didn’t meet various aspects of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (which includes all aspects of accessibility not just web content) for some time, but when the Department of Justice became more involved in 2017/2018 the number of cases jumped dramatically. Likewise, similar trends have been seen around the world when respective government organizations have become more involved.

How concerned you should be that your organization will be sued can vary greatly depending on what country, state, province, and industry you are in, but while fear and monetary consequences can be a great driver, this isn’t the only reason why we should all continually seek to do the right thing.

In line with that, you may be thinking, “But we don’t really have any needs that aren’t being met.”

Just like you don’t assume all your employees come to you trained and if they don’t ask for information they must not need it, you also shouldn’t be waiting for someone who is disabled to “speak up” and request that their needs be addressed.

Adhering to accessibility standards in eLearning will set you up for success no matter what. For one, you may not even be aware of who even has these needs.

Who are these “disabled”, anyway?

As any good instructional designer knows, understanding who your audience is and where they are coming from is essential to developing quality training.

As such, adhering to accessibility standards in eLearning needs to be considered from the start of a project and not be an add-on after the training is developed.

When people think of creating accessible content, too often they focus solely on blindness and making content screen reader accessible or simply adding an audio track. Too often they only complete these items often after the content is “done”.

If you aren’t considering accessibility from the start you lose the opportunity to take advantage of design decisions that can help to make your overall content better for everyone, including, yes, variations of vision afflictions.

The Center for Disease Control in the United States says that approximately 25% of Americans have at least one disability.

Does that statistic surprise you?

At some point in our lives almost everyone will experience a disability either directly or through a friend or family member. Did you need reading glasses for this article? Do you turn up the volume more than you used to? Do your fingers or wrists ache after a day of typing?

Disabilities can come in the forms of a broken hand, arthritis, aging eyes or ears, cognitive issues and more.

Further, many of these disabilities won’t become obvious to us even if we were to do a thorough audience analysis as part of our instructional design.

By the time an elearning course goes out an employee might have been injured in an accident or a new hire has been brought on board, and the scope we were originally targeting gets changed.

Designing from the beginning with accessibility standards in eLearning in mind just makes sense. It’s also much easier than retrofitting your content later.

When you start to expand your understanding of the scope of the problem it becomes clear there are most likely a greater number of people with a disability in your learning audience than you originally thought, and a great many of them are not readily visible or apparent.

Separate but equal is never actually equal

Okay, so I need to think about accessibility from the start. Can’t I just create an alternate version of the materials to meet the accessibility standards in eLearning?

Embarrassingly one of the ways people used to, and in some cases still do, meet accessibility standards in eLearning was to create a text-only version of the training material and include this so that their training could meet accessibility requirements/needs.

From a certain point of view, the goal was met, in so far as the essence of the material was available to all, but in terms of current standards, legal rulings, and just simple equality you are walking a fine line if this is your current approach.

Now to be fair, for a long time creating accessible content, just like creating anything for the web, took a lot of effort. However, just as rapid authoring tools eliminated most of the need for programming skills in elearning departments, there have been very positive strides made across the technologies and standards we utilize that have greatly diminished that excuse.

Take this idea in a different context. Look back to the history of many countries throughout the world and we can find plenty of examples where separate but equal was practiced. It’s obvious now that it wasn’t the right approach and it wasn’t even equal. Of course, in the end it’s all a matter of perspective, which this excellent video from the Institutionnel Diversite truly illustrates.

Supporting accessibility standards for learning is better for everyone

Our primary goal with any training course is to maximize change across the organization and ultimately improve participants’ skills and understanding of the material.

One of the beautiful aspects of creating content which adheres to accessibility standards in eLearning is that many of the strategies and changes that address the needs of various “disabilities”, actually make your content better for everyone.

Heavy and bloated content with overly large images or videos might not cause a problem for most of your audience who have superior Internet bandwidth, but they can wreak havoc with different tools used by people with disabilities and also cause incremental pain to anyone who has an older computer, limited bandwidth, or who experiences slow ups from too many movies being streaming in their vicinity.

In today’s world we have shifted towards a mobile-first or responsive design approach to almost all web content. The primary driver has been the increased adoption of mobile devices and a desire to reach that audience, but the technology behind responsive design also helps facilitate better access for a variety of technologies used by people with varying disabilities.

In other words, a win-win!

Some organizations are realizing the benefit of centralized content management systems and using tagging to make it easier for authors to search and locate files as well for learners to even search when taking an elearning course. These same descriptions can often be used for alternative (alt) text or descriptions of visual elements, sometimes seamlessly accomplishing all three goals in one step (a win-win-win!).

These are just a few examples of how doing the right thing can have an exponentially positive impact on your training materials for multiple audience members.

The time to start is now

Hopefully this has opened your eyes to some of the key reasons why it’s critical to address accessibility standards in eLearning head on at the start of your content design.

Doing so not only helps better serve all people in your organization but can also have an extremely positive effect on your entire organization.

In future articles we’ll review related topics such as Universal Design, various disabilities and how to make content inclusive for them, testing content for accessibility compliance, the details of various accessibility standards in eLearning, and authoring training content for accessibility.

dominKnow | ONE offers the best set of authoring options available to support accessibility standards in elearning. The tool takes care of many critical aspects of content accessibility for you, supported by many years of continual accessibility testing of published content by clients and partners. And we also have an Accessibility Settings Tab available as you work on a page to help you make better design decisions that improve the accessibility of your content.

Check these features out with a free trial today.