Accessibility through Design

Creating e-learning-based training programs for people with disabilities is not very difficult if you follow basic guidelines.

Providing online training that is accessible to individuals with disabilities is a critical component of any online training program. Fortunately, it's not very difficult to increase the accessibility of online courses for learners whose disabilities may affect their web-based training needs. With nearly 57 percent of people with disabilities employed, organizations should be practicing ADA-compliant design in their e-learning-based training programs.

The American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act
Let's begin by reviewing a few key standards outlined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act:

  • The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the workforce and provides equal employment opportunity to people with disabilities.
  • Section 902 of the ADA defines the term disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such an individual, or having a record of such impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment."
  • Employers are required to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discrimination unless they can demonstrate that doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity being provided.
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies and requires electronic and information technology designed, developed, and delivered to be accessible to persons with disabilities.

ADA-Compliant Design Strategies
When creating an ADA-compliant training program, designers need to create interesting, usable, and engaging content for people both with and without disabilities. The idea behind ADA-compliant design is much like traditional instructional design and web design, with an emphasis on accommodating individuals with disabilities. The key to delivering solid ADA-compliant training is not to over-stimulate the senses. Rather, emphasize key aspects of the training components that will capture specific senses. The principals of universal design can be used to enhance accessibility. (Universal design is the idea that if we design products that can be used by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design, we maximize benefits for all people and abilities. As a training developer, you can integrate universal design into your e-learning-based training program through paying special attention to your visuals, audio, text, links, and color.)

Delivering learning material through a video tutorial is a great way to engage the user in online training. However, persons with disabilities may not have an equal opportunity to learn if the training program isn't up to ADA-compliant standards.

For a person who is visually impaired, videos are a great tool to deliver learning material. To make the video engaging for these learners, you can use multiple narrators and recognizable sounds to stimulate auditory engagement. Using multiple narrators in the video provides an element of suspense and diversity, which will help to capture users' attention. By making the audio interesting, individuals with visual impairments will be able to engage with the e-learning course. A Braille version of the online course also can be a great supplement.

Section 508 requires that all images have text descriptions that describe what the image is. This can be accomplished through the use of the alternative (alt) tag. Having an alt tag attached to an image informs people with visual impairments of what the image is through the interpretation of their screen reader. Simply providing an alt tag to an image provides a descriptive option for learning the information.

Along with keeping alt tags up to date, you also should use attractive and current images. Dated images will confuse the user, which could potentially lose their interest. People who have learning disabilities and difficulty focusing for long periods of time will benefit from having up-to-date images.

You can use several techniques to increase the accessibility of videos used in an e-learning program. To best cater to learners with auditory impairments, always provide close-captioning or a printable version of the video's script. A printable version of the training course is easy to create and can be a great supplement for someone with auditory impairments.

As for the visual content of the video, keep it descriptive and stay away from brightly colored images, such as neon colors. Also, take into account the time of day you are filming. If you're filming outside, consider filming in the morning or at dusk to avoid harsh lighting, which often make the video difficult to see on a computer monitor.

Quality audio is important for all training programs and can help to provide consistent training for all employees. Because audio is a non-visual element, it is important to supplement all audio with text and all text with audio. The reason for this is twofold.

First, if a learner has an auditory impairment, he may rely primarily on the screen's text to receive the information contained in the training, and therefore the screen text must communicate fully the key points shared in the audio. Similarly, learners who are visually impaired need audio that includes all key points that are presented through text in the training.

The second benefit of matching audio to text is that it appeals to two very different learning styles. Auditory learners learn best through listening, while visual learners learn best through reading. By providing audio and text that are consistent, the key messages are accessible to both the visually and the auditory impaired, as well as to both visual and auditory learning styles.

It's important to use an engaging narrator to record your audio. Selecting a narrator with a professional, comfortable, and engaging voice increases the e-learning's appeal to all learners. If the training program consists of several lessons, consider using multiple narrators to add variety and keep learners from becoming bored by hearing the same voice over and over. In addition, the audio in the program should be clear, concise, and not overdone. It's a good rule of thumb to use only one narrator if there's minimal content. If there is a scenario-based video included in a training program, use multiple narrators where you see fit.

There are at least 2.5 million Americans who are blind or have low vision who use computers. Through the use of screen readers and other devices, e-learning is a great tool for delivering training to the visually impaired. However, it is important for designers to have a working knowledge of how to develop screen text that screen readers can read easily.

A screen reader is an application used to interpret and read information on a computer monitor screen. These devices are incredibly beneficial to auditory learners or people with visual impairments. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires an option for users to select if they want to disable the screen reader. While it is an effective application, people should have the option to disable their screen reader. For example, periods should be added after headings, labels, and items in a bulleted format to cue the screen reader to pause. Furthermore, avoiding the use of basic text symbols, such as ampersands and percentage signs, is important.

The size, style, and organization of text are also important. Keeping the text layout uncluttered and consistent from page to page increases accessibility for learners with cognitive or learning disabilities.

When selecting a font type, sans serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica are ideal. New training developers often try to use fonts that are interesting and unique, which can be impractical and difficult to read on a computer monitor. A sans serif font will cause less strain on the eyes, making the content more inviting. This allows learners to focus more on the content than the font while increasing accessibility for visually impaired learners.

Links are an essential part of many online training courses because they provide users with external, dynamic information to supplement the courses' content. However, some learners may be left confused by a link if it is labeled incorrectly. This can be overcome by making links descriptive. Instead of labeling the link as "Click Here," title it with a description of the externally linked information. Users with cognitive disabilities also can benefit from having descriptive links because these allow them to recognize the links as connections between both sets of information.

When used effectively, color can greatly enhance an e-learning program. There are a few strategies you should follow to make sure you are using color to your best advantage.

It's best to use a dark-colored text on a light-colored background. This increases the contrast between the text and the background while providing visually impaired individuals with enhanced accessibility to the information. There are two ways to check to ensure the color used in the training program is viewable to colorblind learners: Print out the training program in black or white or view the training program on a black-and-white monitor. Doing so will give a good indication of whether or not the color is being used effectively.

Interactive elements are important to the success of an e-learning program. They help maintain learners' interest and can be used to check for understanding and reinforce key lesson content throughout the lesson. However, it's important to structure activities so they are accessible to individuals with mobility disabilities. Activities that require learners to click on small buttons may be difficult for learners who lack fine motor control.

Several techniques are available to you to enhance accessibility in this area. First, allow ample time for learners to complete activities and tests. Timed tests may be difficult for some learners. Including larger, clickable icons can enhance ease of use.

Tying It Together
To determine whether your program is accessible to individuals with disabilities, consider working with employees who have identified themselves as disabled and who are willing to be included in a pilot group. Many colleges and universities have centers designed to help increase accessibility of their programs to students of all backgrounds, and they may be able to serve as a valuable resource for you.

When working with your volunteer pilot group, follow up the trial run with disability-specific questions. For example, ask people with visual impairments what they thought of the audio, how well the content was organized, whether they could clearly understand the narrator, and what their overall learning experience was.

Many resources are available online to help you develop training that is accessible to all employees. The strategies we have discussed are only the start of developing comprehensive e-learning programs accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. Through continuous questioning and exploration, training designers and developers can provide training that is informative and engaging to all employees that meets ADA and 508 compliance standards.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Annie Bixler works as a Technical Writing Intern for Vivid Learning Systems, a leading provider of online training solutions. She holds a B.A. in Digital Technology and Culture with a concentration in Multimedia Authoring from Washington State University. In addition, she holds a minor in Disability Studies and in Fine Arts and has a Technical Writing Certificate. She has had the opportunity to learn about disabilities through her education at Washington State University, where she was a Teaching Assistant for a Disability Studies course. She has learned the importance of following ADA-compliant guidelines from assisting her mentors in the development of online training. To contact her, e-mail [email protected].

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