Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners” explores the reasons for creating accessible eLearning content. This Spotlight continues a four-part series on how to remove different types of barriers that learners might face:

Here, we move to the “O” of POUR, creating content that is operable using standard input devices. This is not a simple goal!  

Ensuring that all eLearning is operable is of utmost importance to learners with motor disabilities. Learners with some motor disabilities, as well as blind learners, cannot use a mouse or touch screen. Thus a basic tenet of operable content is ensuring that content is keyboard accessible; if all controls and interactive elements have keyboard equivalents, the content will work with most adaptive devices, including screen readers, mouth sticks, and head wands, which use or replicate keyboard functionality.

Motor disabilities range from mild shaking of the hands to quadriplegia. No two individuals have identical disabilities, and no single accessibility feature can address all mobility issues. However, as with visual disabilities, learners with mobility impairments benefit greatly from screen reading technology, use of voice commands, and support for adaptive technologies, particularly input devices. The growing sophistication and ubiquity of voice recognition software is a tremendous boon to people with limited mobility or vision.

With Apple’s “Hey Siri” feature, for example, “It’s completely hands-free. For someone who’s a quad, that is an amazing thing, being able to have the phone go from being ‘asleep’ to working. And you can use Siri to make calls, so you can say, ‘Hey Siri, call 911’ and Siri will call. That’s really life-changing for a lot of people,” said Dmitri Belser, executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology (C for AT) in Berkeley, California.

Not everyone can use voice controls, though, just as not everyone can manipulate a mouse.

Jordan, whom we met in “Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners,” has trouble getting voice recognition software to understand her. She’s not alone; many disabilities affect a learner’s voice, making their speech very soft or hard to understand. This challenge, combined with hand tremors that make using a mouse or even hitting the correct keys difficult, means that learners like Jordan find it exhausting to access complicated pages that require lots of scrolling or have closely spaced form fields.

The average web page is an obstacle course

Common design elements can create a navigational nightmare for learners. Design strategies and WCAG 2.0 guidelines that improve access for people with motor disabilities or who lack computer savvy include:

  • Remove timed elements or allow users to control or reset them.
  • Provide alternatives, such as keyboard equivalents, for exercises that require learners to drag and drop content or select precise areas of the screen.
  • When learners have difficulty using a mouse or keyboard or use alternative control devices, they might become fatigued easily; allow users to skip over lengthy lists or text blocks or repetitive content. (See “Ten Ways to Create Useful Hyperlinks” for information on “skip” links.)
  • Build in navigation aids like site maps, search features, and indexes so that learners can find needed content easily and skip irrelevant content.
  • Allow learners to limit the amount of content or number of options that appear on a screen.
  • Avoid automatic moving, blinking, or scrolling content, or provide learners a way to pause or stop the movement. Do not use any elements that flash more than three times per second; this can trigger seizures in some people.
  • Ask for confirmation before executing serious steps. For example, if someone has difficulty controlling a mouse or keyboard and they click on a delete or reset button by mistake, the eLearning module should make recovery from that error very easy.
  • If adjacent keys on a small screen, such as a mobile device, have very different functions, allow users to shift some functions to different keys or do those tasks another way. When sending email from some phones, it’s far too easy to erase or delete a message with no idea of how to get it back.
  • Design eLearning to be forgiving of errors so that learners do not become frustrated or fail simply because a hand tremor caused them to click on an incorrect response.
  • All eLearning content should include clear, easy-to-find instructions, including where learners can turn for problem-solving help.
  • Don’t assume any technical knowledge, particularly with eLearning webinars and other modules that require learners to get to a website and ensure that speakers or microphones are working; provide clear instructions.

“I think that the biggest thing you can do to make eLearning accessible to the broadest number of people possible would be to have the most detailed set of instructions possible,” Belser said. “The assumptions about technology are one of the biggest barriers.”

Locked out

Ease of use and access affects all learners. Even when the eLearning itself works well with voice commands and screen readers, learners might be locked out by a “captcha”—the increasingly ubiquitous boxes on websites where learners are asked to verify that they are not robots. Ostensibly there for security, they are often unnecessary for eLearning and simply add barriers. 

“Are a lot of people signing in to your eLearning site by mistake?” Belser muses. “With eLearning, you’ll get one person who has a subscription and 40 people will use it,” but captcha tests don’t solve that problem. “I don’t think that stuff gets thought about enough. What is really the risk? In eLearning, yes, if you are doing a test, you want to verify that the person taking the test is really the person who should be taking the test. But if you are doing an online webinar, do you really care who’s there? If people are interested in being there, you kind of want them there,” Belser said.

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: