eLearning Accessibility: How To Design Virtual Training Programs For Learners With Disabilities

Accessible Virtual Training Design For Learners With Disabilities
Summary: Creating accessibility in eLearning design requires more than compliance with legal requirements. In this article, I outline how accessible virtual training designs make learning content easy to use for learners with disabilities or special needs.

Understanding eLearning Accessibility And Its Role In Creating An Inclusive Workplace

When accessibility in eLearning is discussed, most instructional developers often think of it in terms of compliance standards, such as the U.S. Government’s Section 508 mandates or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.

While the role of accessibility does extend to complying with standards, it also helps in creating inclusive workplaces by ensuring everyone has equal access to eLearning opportunities—especially learners with disabilities or special needs.

Creating opportunities through eLearning accessibility doesn’t just help learners with disabilities or special needs “learn” but it also extends greater employment opportunities to a segment of the economy largely ignored by traditional eLearning. Greater inclusion in the workplace, therefore, opens doors to an additional segment of the organization, and the broader population, to contribute to organizational and national success.

Why Should Organizations Accelerate Designing Accessible Virtual Training Programs In The Hybrid Workplace?

With many employees still working remotely, in today’s hybrid workplace, there’s a greater need now, than ever before, for organizations to redouble their focus on improving accessibility in eLearning.

Not doing so could result in unequal dissemination of vital information and knowledge imparted by eLearning. An inaccessible learning program may:

  • Result (unintentionally) in learners with disabilities or special needs being unable to absorb key elements of learning content.
  • Create unequally trained workforces as learners with disabilities or special needs would be less equipped by way of training and knowledge required to perform the job than their able-bodied peers.
  • Not fully deliver the benefits of eLearning across the hybrid workplace, thereby diminishing the marginal rate of return of training investment for each additional learner with a disability or special need who does not benefit from such training.
  • Unnecessarily demoralize, discourage, and frustrate learning-challenged colleagues, when they observe others attending the same eLearning course able to extract more from an inaccessible course than they did.
  • Leave the organization exposed to eLearning accessibility non-compliance risk, including Section 508, WCAG, and equal opportunity legislation.

In a traditional in-person work environment, learners with disabilities or special needs could potentially have reached out to on-premises help and assistance. However, hybrid workplaces preclude the presence of such support to remote employees, thereby leaving employees with disabilities or special needs in a more disadvantaged position. This is yet another pressing reason for organizations to accelerate accessibility in eLearning for virtual training programs in the hybrid workplace [1].

Not sure where to begin and how to sustain? Take a look at the following 3 aspects!

1. Before You Get Started

What aspects should you consider before getting started with designing virtual training programs for learners with disabilities or special needs? It’s always tempting to view accessibility in terms of statutory checklists after the fact, that is, to validate compliance upon completion of the course design. That’s the wrong way to go about it. Here are some key aspects to consider before you start designing an accessible course:

Training Needs Analysis (TNA)

Conduct a TNA with specific emphasis on learning-challenged employees. This analysis gives you a snapshot of the training gaps within your organization. A more specific focus on eLearning accessibility, as part of your TNA, will highlight what your organization must do to enable equal and fair learning opportunities for learners with disabilities or special needs.

Understand Learner Needs

Each type of disability or special need requires a unique approach to learning. The needs of hearing-impaired learners differ significantly from those with visual disabilities. Doing a Learner Needs Analysis (LNA) helps identify those learner-specific needs, so you might address them as part of your design considerations.

Understand The Various Standards And Guidelines And Which Ones To Adopt

Two of the most common accessibility standards include Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These (WCAG) standards categorize accessibility under three distinct levels, A, AA, and AAA, for each of which the organization publishes measurable criteria.

Another set of guidelines governing accessibility in eLearning is espoused in the four principles of accessibility crafted by the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). These include perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR) guidelines.

So, which of these standards and guidelines should you embrace? Well, that depends on individual eLearning environments. eLearning accessibility depends on more than just the topic delivered. Other factors influencing your decision to adopt a specific standard include content, authoring tools, graphical and voice browsers, plugins, multimedia players, touchscreens, head pointers, magnification software, and your choice of other assistive technologies.

2. Designing Accessibility Enabled Courses

How do you design virtual training programs for learners with disabilities or special needs? As no single standard or guideline fits every need, each situation requires different design elements. Here are some design aspects to consider:

Exploring Different Modalities (Self-Paced Learning/Blended Learning/VILT)

Resist the urge to embrace unimodal courses. Instead, explore mixed-mode courses, including self-paced, blended learning, and Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT), to address the preference of a broader group of learners with disabilities or special needs.

Virtual Training Content Development

Build additional content to support learning-challenged employees. This includes more supporting notes, additional audio tutorials, instructions, extra cues, and help text. Format text-based eLearning slide decks with more white space and line spacing. To inject better accessibility in eLearning, reduce unnecessary, non-value-adding imagery, and add Alt-text to all images used. Don’t use color as the singular factor to highlight or distinguish the content.

Planning For Interactivity And Immersive Learning

Think carefully about how you introduce interactivity. Some disabilities or special needs may preclude learners from interacting with branching, and others may not interact well with 3D simulations. Offer alternatives for each interactive component, including voice, video, or text-based options.

How To Retain Engagement Throughout The Program

Employees with disabilities or special needs may feel compelled to disengage and drop out of the eLearning course if they feel overwhelmed. In your design, include options for learners to control the pace of learning content—bullet points per slide, audio and scrolling speeds, ability to pause/play/replay video. Additionally, in your eLearning accessibility design plan, build “contemplation time” so learners can frequently stop to reflect on the content consumed. Including more frequent check-points and status checks also goes a long way in improving engagement.

3. Tips And Strategies

What tips and strategies can make your virtual training more accessible? Because each type of disability or special need may require unique learning accommodation, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to building accessibility in eLearning in a hybrid work environment. However, here are 6 tips and strategies to consider when designing and developing accessible learning:

  1. Before you commence your design process, initiate a dialogue with learners representing specific disabilities or needs. This conversation will go a long way in providing eLearning developers with insight into specific design features.
  2. Address roadblocks for the visually impaired. For eLearning accessibility, this means using bold fonts, prominent headings and titles, use of Alt-text for graphics and images, and avoiding the use of features, such as drag-and-drops, drop-down lists, and branching that screen readers don’t support.
  3. Cater to features that support dyslexic learners. Using non-italicized text, the use of linear text (as opposed to multi-columned content), and opting for high-contrast colors in your text makes for better accessibility in eLearning for learners with this condition.
  4. Support hearing-impaired learners by including audio captioning in all your video content. Additional support may come in the form of transcripts for video and audio podcasts, so hearing-impaired learners don’t miss out on learning content.
  5. Enhance eLearning accessibility by offering accessible content navigation, including scrolling through content and pausing and playing videos by using mouse controls as well as keyboard shortcuts. Where possible, adding voice activation and navigation also helps make content more accessible.
  6. Stay away from features, such as GIFs or excessive flashing or high-pitched or loud sounds, that can trigger medical reactions in certain learners with disabilities or needs.

Parting Thoughts

Creating accessible learning opportunities for your employees transcends your legal responsibilities to comply with government accessibility mandates. Designing accessible virtual learning is a great way to not only create a fairer and more inclusive workplace but also aids in tapping the hidden potential of a significant number of workforce participants.

I hope the tips, strategies, and techniques shared in this article will get you started with designing virtual training programs for learners with disabilities or special needs [2]. Meanwhile, if you have any specific queries, do contact me or leave a comment below.


[1] 6 Must-Have Workplace Learning Strategies for the Hybrid Workplace

[2] eLearning Accessibility Considerations

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