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Accessible eLearning Benefits All Learners

by Pamela Hogle
October 3, 2016

Accessible technology is meaningless without accessible content: ‘Making a person’s computer accessible is one thing, but if the Internet is not accessible to them, it kind of doesn’t matter. They may be able to do word processing, but they’re not going to be able to get the information they need,’ said Dmitri Belser, executive director of Berkeley, California’s Center for Accessible Technology.

Joel, a journalist, struggles to complete required online training. His media organization, which has more than 200 employees, uses an online training program that includes videos and webinars. Joel is hard of hearing; the videos do not offer captioning or even a transcript.

Anya, a university professor, is legally blind. She uses a computer with assistive technologies, including a screen reader. Each year, completing required compliance training is a frustrating experience. The eLearning program does not allow her to control text size, color, or contrast. She simply cannot read the screens. To make matters worse, it is not compatible with any screen reader Anya has tried. “It’s complicated to be disabled,” she says, exasperated.

Jordan is a public policy expert with multiple master’s degrees; she’s a savvy longtime computer user. She also has multiple sclerosis. Sometimes, she says, her brain sends the wrong signals to her hand; her taps, clicks, or keystrokes go awry. Text on her phone disappears, or she can’t get programs to launch on her computer. Why not use voice commands? Her high-pitched voice, altered by a bout with a thyroid tumor, doesn’t always register accurately with voice-recognition software. It misses part or all of what she says. Repeated failed attempts to enter information can cause her to give up in frustration or, at a minimum, sap her limited energy.

Esteban is an aeronautics engineer and a group manager. When he attempts to complete the annual managers’ training at his company, he struggles with the Americanized idioms, jargon, and complex words used in the courses.

These examples offer compelling reasons for web- and mobile-based eLearning content to be accessible to people with different abilities and backgrounds. There’s another powerful reason: Accessible content improves the experience of all learners.

“In a lecture, if someone is writing on a whiteboard or drawing a diagram, it leverages the visual. I need to provide an auditory equivalent through a description. I’m not visually handicapped, but I’ll often listen to lectures from MOOCs [massive open online courses] driving in my car, relying only on the auditory. That’s a form of universal accessibility, available for me in a just-in-time format, so I can learn it in a way that’s convenient for me,” said Jean Marrapodi, the chief learning architect at Applestar Productions and a Guild Master. “We have to be aware of that when we’re designing eLearningthat it’s not necessarily for ADA but it may be for the convenience of learners.”

Helen Walsh, an accessible-media consultant and executive director of Diverse Disability Media, expresses frustration with the lack of accessible content. “Most people are thinking about their design instead of thinking about the target audience,” she said. They argue that no one has requested accessible content, but “there is no audience if the content is not accessible; you develop the audience by providing accessible content.”

Many individuals who need to enlarge type, enhance contrast, or use captioning on videos do not regard themselves as disabled, yet they benefit tremendously from accessible eLearning content. Even if no one in a particular company or university course requests accommodation for a disability, accessible or universal design makes sense.

“Our focus is accessibility for people with disabilities,” said Jared Smith of WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility consulting organization based at Utah State University. “But by implementing that accessibility, there are significant benefits for all users; there are benefits on the development and design side with standardization and by following the guidelines and thinking about good design and usability.”

“Things that may cause minor usability issues for some users may have a more notable impact on users with disabilities,” Smith said. But addressing those issues can make using eLearning easier, more convenient, and less frustrating for everyone. And if eLearning is easier to use, learners are likely to be more engaged and willing to complete the training.

Why make eLearning accessible?

Still not convinced? If offering a better user experience isn’t sufficient motivation to improve the accessibility of eLearning content, avoiding a lawsuit might be.

In the United States, several federal laws address access for people with disabilities. Particularly relevant to eLearning are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act:

  • The ADA requires federal, state, and local “public entities,” which include governments, schools, courts, and more, to provide the public with equal access to services and programs. They must provide “auxiliary aids and services” when needed to ensure effective communication. The ADA also requires businesses and services that are available to the general public to be accessible. In addition, Title I of the ADA requires that employers offer “reasonable accommodation” to employees with disabilities.
  • Section 508 prohibits any federal agency from procuring electronic and information technology, goods, and services that are not fully accessible. This includes software, website design, apps, and educational programs. An update to Section 508 laws on website accessibility, the Section 508 Refresh, passed its final review by the US Access Board on September 14; it will be published in the Federal Register after a final review by the Office of Management and Budget.

Federal agencies are expressly required to comply with Section 508. WebAIM’s website points out several ways that Section 508 also affects public and private institutions. For instance:

  • Businesses that supply information technology goods and services to the federal government must comply with Section 508.
  • State governments that receive funding under the Assistive Technology Act (all states do) must comply with Section 508; to receive this funding, they must implement Section 508 in all state entities, including universities. Some states have incorporated Section 508 into state law.

An initial goal of the ADA was to ensure that physical facilitieshotels, stores, banks, etc.were accessible to people with disabilities. Case law increasingly includes business websites and online-only businesses as “places of public accommodation” under the ADA. The Department of Justice (DoJ), the Department of Education, affected individuals, and advocacy organizations actively pursue compliance. DoJ handles complaints about ADA and Section 508 violations, including a growing number of lawsuits regarding denial of online access. For example, courts found that Target’s websites were covered by the ADA when the National Federation of the Blind sued (Target settled in 2008); when the National Association of the Deaf sued in 2013, Netflix agreed to provide closed captioning on all its video; and users with visual impairments have sued the NBA, Red Roof Inn, and eHarmony over inaccessible websites.

It’s not only corporations: Public and private universities have faced lawsuits over inaccessible eLearning. Florida State University settled a lawsuit with two blind students in 2012 and agreed to “continue” efforts to make courses accessible; Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are both dealing with lawsuits over their failure to provide closed captioning in eLearning. And the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating hundreds of school districts and other educational agencies to determine whether their websites are ADA compliant, according to Andy Jones, writing for Legal NewsLine.

If you think you’re off the hook because your eLearning is for employees, rather than students or members of the public, think again. The ADA requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities. This includes “changing tests, training materials, or policies” to make them usable by employees who have disabilities, according to the Department of LaborOffice of Disability Employment Policy’s JAN (Job Accommodation Network) website,

The requirement holds whether the training is:

In-house or provided by an outside entity
On-site or off-site
Required or optional

If eLearning is offered to employees, it must be accessible to all employees.

In fact, employers are required to provide equal access to any information communicated in the workplace to non-disabled employees, including, for example, a portal where employees view pay stubs and benefits information; an intra-office social network like Yammer; even a poster advertising a company picnic. Anya’s employer, a state university, and Joel’s employer are both breaking the law.

Whether your organization is public or private, corporate or educational, online-only or a physical classroom, access is essentialnot optional. Why wait to be sued?

Global accessibility standards

Decades ago, advocates for accessible technology placed more emphasis on assistive devices, such as trackballs and Braille keyboards, than on content. The Center for Accessible Technology (C for AT) in Berkeley, California, was established in 1983, spurred by a parent who sought an accessible computer for her daughter, who was both legally blind and a wheelchair user. But when the Internet became ubiquitous, the Center “started thinking, ‘Maybe we’re working on the wrong end of the pipe,'” said Dmitri Belser, executive director of the C for AT. “Making a person’s computer accessible is one thing, but if the Internet is not accessible to them, it kind of doesn’t matter. They may be able to do word processing, but they’re not going to be able to get the information they need. So we started doing web accessibility consulting.”

Web accessibility evaluation entails determining whether content complies with Section 508 or the global standard, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. While the United States is a leader in terms of legislating content accessibility, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s WCAG 2.0 is the preeminent standard. WCAG 2.0 is “technology neutral,” which means that it applies to a broad range of content and formats. It is an approved ISO standard (ISO/IEC 40500).

WCAG 2.0’s three conformance levels are more explicit and comprehensive than Section 508, according to the United States Access Board (which developed Section 508!). Thus content might comply with Section 508 but not with WCAG 2.0. Find out more in this table that compares the standards(opens in new tab/window.

Many countries require that government websites comply with WCAG 2.0 AA standards, the middle level; some countries go further: Israel mandates that larger businesses’ websites be compliant, and Norway requires that nearly all websites comply.

Businesses and organizations in the US are not legally required to adopt WCAG 2.0, but they are encouraged to use the AA guidelines to meet ADA and Section 508 obligations. And the proposed 508 Refresh incorporates WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA standards.

The acronym POUR captures the four underlying principles for WCAG 2.0 content:

PerceivableAvailable to the senses. If something is presented in visual media (image or video), you should provide alternative (or alt) text descriptions for blind or low-vision learners. If content is auditory, you should provide a transcript or captioning.
OperableUsers can interact with the content using standard input devices, including a mouse or keyboard, or using adaptive technology. All content should be keyboard accessible; if all controls and interactive elements have keyboard equivalents, the content will work with most adaptive devices.
UnderstandableContent is clear and unambiguous. Wording should be simple and concise; idiomatic or complex language presents a barrier to understanding. Text is supplemented with audio and visual content. For people with some reading or cognitive disabilities, visual content is the only format they can comprehend.
RobustThe content is accessible using a wide range of technologies and abilities so that learners may access it using their preferred technology.ARIA

Most eLearning includes interactive or navigational elements in addition to text and images. Proper use of HTML5, a text markup language, can make text accessible; ARIA (accessible rich Internet applications) is a standard that can make complex elements and functions accessible. These might be based on:

CSS, which works within HTML5 and describes how HTML5 elements are displayed
JavaScript, a programming language used to create interactive or active elements on a web page, such as text that grows larger when the user clicks on it Ajax, a technique that allows quick updating of web pages
DHTML, or dynamic HTML, the combination of HTML5 with CSS and JavaScript or other scripts that allows animation on web pages

For example, many content pages include layered menus. Clicking on a top-level heading opens a drop-down menu; clicking on an element in that menu might open a third level, and so on. These menus are not simple text, and they cannot easily be read by a screen reader or navigated using a keyboard. ARIA “landmarks” allow information about these elements and functions to be communicated to assistive technology, such as a screen reader. ARIA enables developers to map controls so that, for example, a learner can use the tab key to move from element to element in a logical order, or a screen reader will read the text in a way that will make sense to the learner.

Putting it all together

It’s much easier to create accessible eLearning than to go back and “retrofit” inaccessible content; some eLearning content cannot be “fixed” to be accessible. Upcoming spotlight articles will offer guidance on making content accessible for learners from different backgrounds and with various disabilities.

Note: for a list of references and Urls visit the link below.

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