“Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners”explored the reasons for creating accessible eLearning content. This spotlight article launches a four-part series on how to do that; each part will address a different type of barrier that learners might face.

To be considered accessible, eLearning content must meet these attributes, captured by the acronym POUR:

  • Perceivable—Content is available to the learners’ senses, primarily seeing and hearing for online content
  • Operable—Users can interact with the content using standard input devices, including a mouse or keyboard, or an adaptive technology
  • Understandable—Content is clear and unambiguous
  • Robust—Content is accessible using a wide range of technologies and abilities

What makes content accessible?

While some accessibility solutions work for multiple access barriers, developers often encounter what Dmitri Belser, executive director of theCenter for Accessible Technology(C for AT) in Berkeley, California, calls “dueling disabilities.”

“The needs of people with disabilities are incredibly diverse and sometimes completely opposite. It’s a really hard thing to work out,” Belser said, describing issues in constructing physically accessible spaces. “It also happens in technology. For deaf people, you need to have text and you need to have icons. But blind people can’t access that. The needs of those two groups are completely opposite.”

Accessibility online, Belser said, “is really all about redundancy, having it in multiple formats so people can do what they want.”

An additional challenge in creating accessible eLearning content, Belser points out, is that it is a constantly changing arena. Technology, tools, and adaptive devices change: A tool that was compliant with accessibility standards is discontinued, or the new release isn’t compliant. An operating system upgrade means that your laptop or phone no longer works with your favorite software program or app.

Despite the “moving target” nature of creating accessible eLearning content, some general design principles apply.Universal design, also called human-centered design, aims to create content that is usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations; it addresses issues facing people with visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive disabilities, as well as learners with low literacy or for whom English is a second language. In fact, designing for accessibility builds in flexibility that may make it easier to keep content current.

“There is a pretty big overlap between usability and accessibility,” said Jared Smith ofWebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility consulting organization based at Utah State University. “A lot of building in accessibility is building in flexibility and compatibility.” Smith cited design for mobile, where many of the same features that constitute responsive design, content that adapts itself to the learner’s environment—laptop, tablet, or smartphone—seamlessly accommodate screen magnifiers and other assistive technologies.

The P of the POUR acronym, making contentperceivable,pertains primarily to learners with visual and auditory disabilities. But even that means different things to different learners.


Adding text aids hard-of-hearing learners

Auditory disabilities range from mild hearing loss to deafness, any of which can occur at any time in life. A robust deaf culture exists that includes people born deaf and those who became deaf at some time in their lives. Their needs are quite different from those in an even larger group of potential learners: people who are hard of hearing, which can occur as a result of many causes, including aging.

Making eLearning content accessible to people who are hard of hearing is fairly straightforward:

  • All video should have closed captioning. This is different from subtitling, which shows only dialogue. Full captioning describes ambient sound in the video, such as a door creaking, muffled talking in the background, or music playing.
  • A complete transcript should be available for any audio stream, whether the audio accompanies video or stands alone—a radio show or podcast, for example.

Joel, whom we met in“Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners,”experienced frustration when required by his employer to complete online training that did not offer captions or transcripts. Despite laws that require businesses and employers to make their web content and training materials accessible, Joel’s experience is very common.

Adding captioning provides benefits beyond accessibility. “Captioning was designed for hearing-impaired people, but the biggest users of captioning now are sports bars and airports,” said Belser, citing captioning as one of many accessibility features that provide a better overall user experience.

About a third of college students who participated in a multi-university study on the use of captioning and transcripts, headed by Dr. Katie Linder at Oregon State University, said that these tools help them stay focused on video content and aid in both comprehension and retention of the material. More than half of respondents said that no captions or transcripts were available or they did not know whether captions or transcripts were available; comments indicated that many of these students would use those features if they could.

Do it right the first time

Many employers and educational institutions assume that, if a person requests accessible content, existing eLearning can be “fixed” in a way that makes it usable, said Wanda Blackett ofDeaf Heart Design, an accessible eLearning company in Ontario, Canada. Adding captioning, such as in Joel’s case, might be possible, but it is time-consuming and expensive. If a journalist like Joel must meet a deadline—or a student cannot take a required class until the materials are retrofitted—that person is forced to confront illegal and unfair barriers that other learners do not face.

What Joel’s employer—and millions of other eLearning providers and users—might not realize is that waiting until someone requests accommodation is too late. Even when it can be done, adding accessibility features after the fact is just a “Band-Aid,” Blackett said. “For eLearning to be accessible, you need to build it in.”

If Joel were deaf, the situation would be even more complicated. Adding captions is not sufficient to make content accessible to a deaf person who, essentially, uses English as a second language. “Even for deaf children who are raised in an English-speaking environment, their English levels off at about a Grade 4 level,” Blackett said. After that, education shifts from concrete to more abstract concepts, and language becomes much harder for a non-native speaker, she explained. Anyone who has mastered the basics of a foreign language, then tried to watch a movie or participate in a normal conversation in that language quickly realizes that the idioms and nuances of the language and its associated culture are beyond comprehension. That is how many deaf learners feel when thrown into an English-language eLearning course; the captioning might consist of a large volume of complex text, adding up to an overwhelming experience. This is also true for adults with low literacy skills or who learned English as a second language.

There is a solution: universal design. When creating eLearning, following principles of universal design will ensure that text is usable to deaf learners and others who struggle with complex English. Universal design also addresses other barriers to access or understanding, which will be described in the remaining spotlights in this series.

Web accessibility resources

Americans with Disabilities Act website

Dos and don’ts on designing for accessibility—Posted by Gov.UK, with links to infographics showing tips for designing for learners with a variety of accessibility needs

Section 508 Standards

WCAG 2.0 Standards

WebAIM—web accessibility consultants with a fabulous website and tons of helpful tools: