Conversations around accessibility in eLearning are shifting from a focus on accommodating specific disabilities to a broader discussion of universal design: minimizing barriers for all learners.

It has always nagged me that so many in my line of work talk about workplace learning as if it is the provenance of knowledge workers. While there’s some attention aimed at technical staff—assembly line technicians, retail or warehouse workers—I don’t hear much about janitorial staff, food service workers, or groundskeepers.

Apart from not sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day, or having discretion in scheduling things like taking this year’s online unlawful harassment update, staff at this level may face additional challenges due to low literacy or with working in a language not their own. In other words, a reading challenge. And this is not an occasional worker here and there: Some 30 million people in the United States—14 percent of the employed population—have limited literacy skills.

Our March eLearning Guild research report (see the link at the end of this article) includes perspectives from several practitioners with special interests in making material accessible. Jean Marrapodi’s particular focus is on those with low literacy and those working in a language not their own. She’s worked for some years with particular students, and tells the story of one, an adult who especially wanted to get his drivers’ license. He was a capable driver and had learned to navigate around town using landmarks rather than street signs. But state law requires passing a written test in order to get a license. Jean called the local Department of Motor Vehicles and discovered there was an option to take an audio version of the test. Her student scored a 100 and, leaving the testing room, informed staff that an answer choice had items out of order.

It’s an important lesson for L&D: We’re supposed to be enabling performance. Is the point to pass a written test, or to demonstrate knowledge of traffic laws? If it’s the latter, is there another way for the worker to demonstrate that? Is there some reason the test must be taken in written format?

Advice for working with low-literacy workers

  • Offer audio options for written text.
  • Pay attention to voice command and speech-to-text tools. These are game changers for those with literacy challenges. One memorable remark from a coworker at my previous job: “I can use my voice to send texts to my kids. They don’t know I can’t write.”
  • Having low literacy doesn’t mean a person can’t read anything at all. Keep words short, text simple and concise, and use relevant images as much as possible.
  • Workers with low literacy may prefer to watch and learn rather than read about performing a task. Provide illustrations or a video when possible.
  • Think about their reality: If they are struggling to read what’s on the screen they are likely then going to have challenges with tasks like answering written quiz questions, or evaluating ideas offered. They may be repeating ideas aloud rather than making any kind of written notes.
  • Use a readability checker. There are many tools for this online, and Word’s “proofing” options offer it, as well. This article reads at about the 9th grade level, although phrases like “perspectives of practitioners” can push it up to 12th.

Want more?

Check out the eLearning Guild’s March report on accessibility, now available as a free download. And check out Jean Marripodi’s presentation at the 2017 eLearning Guild Summit on accessibility. Her slides, as well as the full recording, are available here.

That’s not all…

This column mostly discussed workers who have difficulty reading in their own first language. Those coming from another country with another language and perhaps another alphabet encounter difficulties of another magnitude—particularly if they have low literacy skills in that first language. The resource cited above from Jean Marrapodi is a good place to start learning more about working with that audience, too.