Inclusion and diversity are imperatives in today’s workplace. For those who create training or administer training programs, that means considering and meeting the needs of learners with disabilities. This “Training Manager’s Guide to Accessible Elearning” provides practical steps for ensuring your online training fosters a welcoming experience for all of your learners, whether they are team members, clients, or the public.
A Guide for Creating and Buying Accessible Online Training within Your Organization’s Training Program
Training managers have a lot to do.
And here I want to add to your list.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but you need to ensure that the elearning (or online training, or web-based training) that your organization creates is accessible—that is, usable by people who have disabilities.
Wait—what? Why do I need to do that? Why enable people who have disabilities relating to hearing, vision, mobility, or cognition to access the training that your organization provides?
Well, there is the law. Private and public organizations, educational and corporate institutions, are all being closely examined to see if they follow the various mandates that require that digital materials be accessible. (For more on the legal aspects of accessibility, see our “Accessibility in the News, Legal Edition” page.)
But more importantly, our organizations need to reach our learners, whether they are employees, clients, students, or the general public.
We already ensure that elearning is available on multiple platforms, including learning management systems and mobile; we focus on learning and performance (not just learning and development); we align training outcomes with business goals.
Yet there are times when we don’t ensure that training can reach the diverse learners that make up our audiences for online training. Some learners can’t hear course narration. Some can’t see videos. Some can’t use a mouse. Some have difficulty following complex concepts.
When we don’t ensure that all learners can access all of the training we provide, we don’t put them in a position to succeed; we don’t put the organization in the best place to be successful.
What can we do? We can ensure that all training, and especially elearning, is designed so that it’s accessible—built so that all people, including learners with differing abilities, can access the content.
This guide will provide business reasons and practical approaches for building accessibility within your online training program.
What Are We Going to Talk About?
Oh, so many good things. Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide to accessible elearning:
- What Is Accessible Elearning, Anyway?
- Why Do Training Programs Need Accessible Elearning?
- But How Do I Know My Elearning Is Accessible?
- What to Do with the Elearning You Haven’t Yet Created
- What About Purchasing (Instead of Creating) Training?
- Training Managers Have a Lot to Do
What Is Accessible Elearning, Anyway?
Let’s start by setting some boundaries. What do we mean by “elearning”? What do we mean by “accessibility”?
Sure, you know what you mean, and your organization may have its own definitions. Still, a bit of time spent on terms can help make sure that we’re all talking about the same thing.
What Is Elearning?
It’s often easy to recognize elearning when you see it; however, different organizations have different takes. Elearning can include:
- PDF files that are available to be downloaded and read on a device such as a tablet or computer
- Webpages designed to train
- Videos designed to train
- Training content developed using rapid authoring tools, such as Articulate Storyline, Trivantis Lectora, and Adobe Captivate, and (often) provided as a click-through, packaged course
- Learning management systems that deliver content and administer quizzes
- Electronic textbooks
Elearning can also include any combination of the above (for example, a course might have a series of PDF files to download and read; then a click-through, packaged course to take; followed by an automatically graded quiz).
In a higher education context, elearning is often hosted in a learning management system (LMS) and tied to a specific professor-led, semester-long course. In a corporate or business environment, elearning is often self-directed (with learners setting their own pace) and shorter (hours instead of weeks).
In this guide, I’ll talk about elearning in general, with more of a focus on a self-directed approach.
A key point is that, for elearning to be considered accessible, all content (including PDF files, webpages, videos, and the rest) needs to be accessible.
What Is Accessibility?
In this context, accessibility means making digital content available to and usable by those with disabilities, most often disabilities relating to vision, hearing, mobility, or cognition.
How do you do this? Different disabilities require different methods.
In some cases, there are technical requirements. Many who are blind use a screen reader, which is software that reads the screen out loud. Those with hearing disabilities often use captions to access content related to sound (such as podcasts or video). Those with mobility impairments might use a keyboard to navigate onscreen content, instead of using a mouse. Those who have a hard time seeing (but are not blind, often termed low-vision) might use software that enlarges text and images. Digital content needs to be created in such a way that accommodates these assistive technologies.
In other cases, accessibility requires attention to design. Colors need sufficient contrast so that users who have deficient vision can distinguish the content from the background. Those with cognitive challenges might need a simplified version of the text, support within the text (such as definitions of unusual words), or highly structured text (using headings and sections), to make the points covered in the text clearly comprehensible.
(For a general overview of accessibility, it’s hard to go wrong with Laura Kalbag’s Accessibility for Everyone.)
Why Do Training Programs Need Accessible Elearning?
All of this is well and good, but why do you need to bother?
It Is the Law
As was mentioned earlier, ensuring that elearning is accessible is required, in some situations, by law. If training is either made by or delivered to a federal agency, it’s covered by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires information and communication technology (including elearning) to be accessible (See Maureen Orey’s TD at Work publication “Designing Section 508 Compliant Learning” for more detail (purchase required)).
Higher educational institutions (and K-12) are often required to comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or both; these require that individuals cannot be discriminated against because they possess a disability.
And there are ongoing discussions about whether ADA applies to the internet presence of commercial businesses. For example, a store with a website might be required to ensure that the website can be navigated by those using a screen reader. Videos available online might need to be captioned. (See Vivian Cullipher’s “What Lawyers Need to Know: A Primer on Digital Accessibility Terms and Today’s Legal Landscape.”)
In short, several regulations, federal laws, and court rulings have established that if digital content is provided to people without disabilities in federal, educational, or commercial contexts, that same information must be available to people with disabilities.
Really? The Law’s the Reason?
That reason might warm the hearts of lawyers and human resources personnel, but, you may be thinking, it hardly persuades elearning designers and developers.
That’s likely to be true. Programmers are (often, not always) a libertarian bunch, who push ahead with the latest and greatest programming techniques and who look to laws and regulations as obstacles to be circumvented (Heather Burns eloquently highlights this attitude as it relates to accessibility, as well as the challenges it brings). Accessibility, in this reading, is holding back innovation.
How About: Accessible Elearning Is Effective Elearning
Elearning designers and developers (not to mention other stakeholders) are focused on making sure that training is available for every user on nearly every device, including phones and tablets. They aim to incorporate the latest trends, such as augmented and virtual reality. They engage the audience through pleasing visual design and interactive events. Designers and developers are focused, in other words, on making sure that they create effective digital content.
And, really, creating effective digital content is what digital accessibility is all about.
Accessibility advocate Karl Groves makes the argument that what website accessibility really boils down to is “quality of work.” An accessible website means a high-quality website. It’s a website that makes it as easy to use as possible for the greatest number of people. In other words, it’s about creating an effective website. (For more on this topic, see Grove’s blog posts on accessibility business case arguments).
What does this mean for elearning? Essentially, elearning that is designed for accessibility (like websites designed for accessibility) is elearning that is effective.
When creating online training, training development teams should design training that fits how people learn; that is visually well designed; that optimizes the transfer of knowledge to improve performance; that creates behavior change that sticks and is supported throughout the organization.
And to make sure that training is as well-designed as possible, online training needs to be accessible.
Accessible Elearning Means that Elearning Is Available to Everyone
Those with disabilities are not a small audience. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2010 about 56.7 million people reported having a disability, which equates to about 19% of the population. The percentage of disabled people according to the CDC is even higher—CDC estimates that roughly 25% of the US population have disabilities. Recent studies estimate this segment of the population control over $500 billion dollars in discretionary spending. That makes up a significant segment of customers and potential employees that organizations need to ensure they are not creating barriers for. The number of people with disabilities is likely underreported because many people do not choose to report that they have a disability.
But, you may think, the employees at my organization aren’t disabled. We don’t have anyone who is blind or hard-of-hearing or who has cognitive impairments.
People are not required to disclose that they have a disability, and not all disabilities are obvious. For instance, it’s difficult to tell, by looking at them, whether someone has dyslexia or is hard of hearing.
And not all disabilities are permanent. A broken arm is a mobility impairment. A detached retina is a visual impairment.
And not all disabilities are thought of as such. Do employees wear reading glasses? Or enlarge the default font on their screen in order to see it better?
When training is not accessible, not all employees have access to the training they need to enable the organization to function better and at a higher level. Accessible training makes it possible for all employees, to contribute to your organization and reach their full potential.
But How Do I Know My Elearning Is Accessible?
First, great question! Too often people, whether managers, leaders, developers, designers, or stakeholders in general commit to creating “accessible elearning” without considering how to determine when an organization’s elearning is, in fact, accessible.
Accessibility Guidelines for Elearning
Determining whether online training is accessible can be an insanely complicated topic. It’s difficult to know, on a technical level, what you need to do.
Fortunately, the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative has developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Following these guidelines helps ensure that elearning is available to those with visual, hearing, mobility, and cognitive disabilities.
According to WCAG, web-based content, including online training, needs to be:
- perceivable (presented to users in ways that they can perceive)
- operable (users must be able to operate interface components and navigation)
- understandable (content has to be designed so that users can comprehend it)
- robust (content has to be able to be interpreted by assistive technologies such as screen readers)
How do you know whether online training meets the guidelines? WCAG provides testable success criteria against which to judge the digital content. The criteria are assigned to one of three conformance levels. If online training meets the success criteria for level A, it has met the most basic level of accessibility. If it meets the success criteria for level A and AA, it is more accessible to a wider audience. If it meets all the success criteria, level A, AA, and AAA, the content is highly accessible.
Most organizations aim for levels A and AA. Indeed, Section 508 now directly incorporates WCAG 2.0 Level AA. While some individual level AAA criteria can be met (such as using section headings and spelling out abbreviations), asking every elearning screen to meet every level AAA criteria would require technology that’s just not available yet (for more on the differences between the conformance levels, see “How Accessible Should My Digital Content Be?”).
The Challenges of Using WCAG
Unfortunately, however, three things get in the way of WCAG being a simple solution.
- WCAG was written for website content. It’s not always directly applicable to elearning, especially elearning that’s developed in a rapid authoring tool or delivered through PDFs.
- Whether the success criteria have been met can be open to interpretation. For example, WCAG requires that non-text content (such as images) have a text alternative (often referred to as “alt text.”). How does a designer or developer know that an instance of alt text is adequate?
- There are sixty-two total criteria in WCAG version 2.0 (the version 2.1 update adds seventeen additional criteria). That’s a lot of criteria. If resources and time require you to prioritize, which are the most important?
Each of these challenges can be overcome.
- Guides exist that show how to apply WCAG to elearning, and to PDFs, and other aspects of online training like video, audio, and social media.
- People have discussed and come up with best practices for success criteria that are open to interpretation. For example, there are presentations on how to write great alt text. And each WCAG criterion possesses a section that documents techniques that are considered sufficient to meet it. Organizations can always look there for inspiration, even if the specific technique described doesn’t directly apply to elearning.
- There are several compilations that point to how to prioritize success criteria for the greatest impact. Some list simple tips that can be easily applied. Others focus on a particular element, like video. And still others allow organizations to prioritize criteria themselves.
True, there are challenges with using WCAG, especially when applied to elearning. Still, even partial solutions allow web-based training to be more accessible than not. And some accessibility is always better than no accessibility.
WCAG 2.0 or 2.1?
I’ve mentioned both WCAG version 2.0 and version 2.1. You might be wondering which your organization needs to follow.
It’s a decision your organization will have to make. WCAG 2.1 was implemented in 2018, and updates WCAG 2.0 to work with the way that people use devices today (for example, mobile wasn’t a significant technology in 2008, when WCAG 2.0 was published). And it addresses a few ambiguities, such as color contrast with non-text elements, that have been bugging people (okay, me) for a while. (On the differences, see Hiram Kuykendall’s “The WCAG 2.1 Update: A Brief Look at What’s Changed” on Lexis Legal News (subscription required, trial available).)
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that using WCAG 2.1 goes beyond what is required for compliance with some standards, such as Section 508. So if your stakeholders ask whether elements required by WCAG 2.1 are necessary to comply with Section 508, the appropriate answer is likely to be “no.”
That’s not to say that your organization shouldn’t embrace the additional WCAG criteria added in version 2.1. It makes for a better course, especially if that course needs to be delivered on a mobile platform. And it will future-proof your course, so that when WCAG 2.1 is required, you’ll already be there.
So go with WCAG 2.1—and recognize that meeting the additional success criteria fall under the “quality of work” argument, rather than “required by law.”
The Difference between Accessibility and Usability
You may note that we spend a lot of time talking about meeting standards for accessibility. Meeting standards is important, both from a legal perspective and from a functional perspective—they give you a way to determine when a course can be considered accessible.
At the same time, meeting standards doesn’t guarantee that a course will be usable by someone with disabilities. A course may have all of the structure properly set, meet all WCAG 2.1 Level AA success criteria, and still not be practically usable by someone who has a disability.
The goal of accessible elearning is to reduce the friction encountered by people with disabilities when taking a course. Elearning is not going to be effective if a person is so frustrated by the need to figure out course navigation that they can’t focus on course content. That’s true even if the course navigation technically complies with WCAG 2.1.
So how does an organization negotiate between meeting WCAG 2.1 and ensuring that people with disabilities can learn from the course?
Meet the standard—it’s a good way to ensure that courses follow established conventions regarding accessibility. And while you’re meeting the standard, make sure that people who have disabilities can use your course effectively (we talk a little bit about one way to do this, user testing, below).
Creating Accessible Learning with Rapid E-Learning Authoring Tools?
Your organization may use rapid authoring tools for developing elearning—specifically, to develop click-next, pre-packaged elearning. To what extent are those tools able to create online training that’s accessible?
It’s important to acknowledge the power of the tools. They do a great job when creating interactive learning. Their interfaces allow developers to build activities like hotspots, click-and-reveals, and branching scenarios without needing to know any code, only how to use the tool’s graphical interface.
The downside of this approach is that the coding used to bring these interactions to life is created behind the scenes and often can’t be directly manipulated by developers. And tool providers have, in the past, had a tendency to focus their efforts on creating newer, slicker, and more interactive elements rather than ensuring that those activities are available to those using assistive technology.
This is changing—tools like Articulate Storyline, Lectora and Softchalk are doing a better job of allowing developers to address accessibility issues (developers can now adjust the order in which on-screen elements are read by a screen reader, for example). And for some tools, there are documents that offer suggestions how to use existing features to create accessible elearning (like Jillian McCarthy’s guide to accessible Lectora and Gina Cruz’s and Luke Stolling’s guide to accessible SoftChalk (PDF, 2.7 MB)).
If you’re dealing with legacy elearning created with older versions of tools, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to make the learning fully accessible (even if you have access to the source file).
What to do?
One method is to accept the limitations of the tool, develop courses that are as accessible as they can be, and create an alternative version of the course that is accessible (an approach that WCAG finds acceptable, if less than optimal). The downside is that you’ll have to maintain both the original and the accessible version when changes are required.
The other option is to rebuild the course in such a way that it becomes fully accessible. You might, for example, take a Captivate course and rebuild it directly in HTML5. Though this approach is more resource-intensive and time-consuming, the approach creates a single course that can be fully compliant with WCAG success criteria; there would be no need to maintain two separate versions.
What to Do with the Elearning You Already Have
You might currently use rapid authoring tools, or you may build elearning from scratch.
In either case, your organization likely possesses a catalog of existing elearning that is not yet accessible. What can you do?
(Well, the first thing to do is to develop an organization-wide accessibility policy. Accessibility policies have many components. For one approach, see “Enabling ADA Compliance at Institutions of Higher Education”—the principles can also be applied to business or corporate contexts.)
There are three possible actions to take when bringing existing elearning into compliance:
- audit (reviewing courses to determine how well they meet accessibility standards)
- remediate (improving the accessibility of courses that can’t or shouldn’t be rebuilt)
- rebuild (recreating courses so that they fully meet accessibility requirements)
Consider an Accessibility Consultant
Seriously. Accessibility is a topic you can handle—after all, your organization already builds online training, which requires the mastery of several skills. You can just add accessibility to that list.
At the same time, training departments are strapped for resources and time. Accessibility can be thought of as an outside expertise. Do you outsource recording narration to voice-over talent? Are your images created by contract graphic designers? Do you send videos out to be made by multimedia professionals?
Consider whether accessibility should be outsourced, for the same reason.
There is an important caveat. Accessibility works best when it’s incorporated into the right role at the right point in a course development process (we’ll talk about this in more detail). That can be difficult to do if an outside consultant is not tightly integrated into the standard course development process. For this reason, consultants are often most effective when assessing existing elearning, while new development is either developed internally or individual courses are outsourced completely (in which case an accessibility consultant with proficiency in creating online training might be able to help).
Where to Start?
An audit is always the first step. You need to know the extent to which the training program is accessible. An audit will illustrate those areas that need attention.
The first step is to audit existing elearning, determining the extent to which online training already complies with the standard that you choose and where the training needs to be improved.
An accessibility audit can be intense, whether it’s done on a website or on training content. If the organization is considering doing an audit itself, Greg Gay’s freely available book, Professional Web Accessibility Auditing Made Easy is a good place to get a grounding in goals and techniques.
An audit will consist of several reports, and these various reports can take different forms (Microassist accessibility audits use a Navigation Plan, which audits the navigation process; a Complex Interaction and Best Practices plan, which looks at tricky elements, like carousels and interactions; and a WCAG report, which documents problems and suggested solutions against the WCAG success criteria.)
Audits usually check existing elearning using industry-standard testing strategies and testing tools.
- For HTML courses, an audit may use web page analyzers and color contrast checkers.
- PDF documents can be checked using tools such as PAC3.
- Word documents and PowerPoint presentations can be analyzed using Microsoft Office’s internal accessibility checker.
- Some learning management systems have internal tools. For example, Canvas’s Rich Content Editor has an accessibility checker built in; Blackboard has Ally, which gauges the accessibility of content; Moodle’s text editor has a built-in accessibility checker.
Note that an audit doesn’t fix accessibility issues. It documents them so that they can be addressed.
Audits also require a sophisticated understanding of the criteria against which the courses in the training program are judged. You need to determine which criteria applies, how a given interaction should act if it were accessible, and the types of techniques that are necessary to ensure that the course behaves in an accessible manner.
Of the areas discussed here, the audit might be the best place to leverage course development funds you may have. An audit done by accessibility professionals may highlight gaps that you didn’t even know were gaps.
Once the problems have been identified in an audit, remediation might an effective choice. But only if certain criteria are met.
Specifically, remediation is the best strategy only under circumstances such as:
- An existing elearning course fails significant accessibility metrics
- Rebuilding the elearning course from scratch can’t be done
Why is the effectiveness of remediation limited? Primarily because fixing problems in existing training is almost always going to be more time consuming and intense than building the course anew.
Structure has been set; elements such as headings, fonts, and layout have been vetted and approved; and learning activities have been created. Often, the training is already available to be taken.
Yet the course development team may need to redo fundamental elements in order to the address issues raised in an accessibility audit. The team may need to:
- Increase the contrast of colors used in text, graphs, and images
- Redesign navigation so that users can access the course using a keyboard
- Set heading using styles (as opposed to just using visual indicators like typeface, color, and size)
- Rebuild quizzes and activities so that they are available to people using a screen reader
- Add captioning to narrated screens—including finding (or making) a location for captions to be displayed
Note that, with remediation, an organization needs to work within the constraints of the original authoring tool. And that authoring tool may have a limited ability to create accessible training.
Yet, if rebuilding is not a possibility, remediation might be the only way that a course can become more accessible. And recall that more accessible is better than less accessible any day.
Remediation might also be a good place to leverage internal resources. A complete audit will provide guidance for solutions. Elearning developers can apply those solutions to existing courses, learning more about accessibility along the way, so that when they are done developers will be able to implement their new knowledge in the next new course they work on.
And, finally, remediation might be a good place for training. Many accessibility solution providers will offer training as part of their audit efforts. Taking training will reduce the time needed for developers to master the skills on their own.
As noted above, if an audit reveals issues, and it’s possible to do so, rebuilding courses is often the most effective option.
The advantage of rebuilding existing, inaccessible elearning into a new version that is accessible is that your organization can ensure that the courses are—from color contrast, to keyboard navigability, to screen-reader compliance, to heading structure—accessible and usable from the ground up.
When rebuilding, it may be possible to revisit the decision on which tool should be used to create online training, changing the approach to use an authoring solution (such as HTML5) that can natively create fully accessible courses.
Thinking about Consultants, Again
If you don’t possess the expertise to audit your own training, using a consultant with accessibility experience to do the initial audit can put their knowledge to use for you. The results of the audit can then be fed back into your training team so that they can remediate existing courses to bring the courses into compliance.
Some consultants not only conduct audits, but also possess the expertise to perform the technical tasks required by remediation. The downside of using consultants for remediation is that it may mean the course development team misses an opportunity to fully integrate accessibility into their process. Still, such an option might be attractive if, for example, your training department is entirely focused on developing new materials and has a reduced capacity for revisiting old, already deployed courses.
Finally, a consultant may be an appropriate choice for rebuilding elearning. This approach may entail the entire course design process—analysis, design, development, testing, and evaluation. It should only be done by someone possessing expertise in both building online training and accessibility compliance.
What to Do with the Elearning You Haven’t Yet Created
How does an organization ensure that it fully incorporates accessibility into all the courses that it designs and builds?
It’s all about the process.
It’s All about the Process
All too often, accessibility, when addressed, is done at the testing stage. That is, accessibility is checked to ensure that requirements are met after the training is designed.
When a problem is discovered at this stage, it’s much more time-consuming to fix than if it’s discovered earlier in the process (it would be comparable, for example, to discovering that an outdated color scheme was used throughout a course—imagine the work necessary to fix the template and every other element (such as highlights, buttons, and links) that were based on the outdated color specs).
As accessibility consultant Ryan Strunk and product designer Joe Lonsky noted at the 2017 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, the cost of fixing a bug increases from 1x in design, to 6.5x in development, to 15x in testing (and to 100x in the wild). Much, much better to catch it earlier.
How might accessibility be incorporated into the training development process?
Bill Tyler, digital accessibility engineer at Optum Technology, in a presentation at the same conference, shared a role-based approach, where testing rests with the appropriate decision-making role instead of the testing team.
Tyler argued that the primary owner of color contrast, for example, is the visual designer (although the business owner may have input through a marketing style guide). If the visual designer checks for color contrast issues, errors will be caught and fixes will be implemented much earlier.
Accessibility shouldn’t be tacked to the end of a course development process. Like other decisions made regarding a course during development, decisions about accessibility should be made at the appropriate points, by the appropriate people.
What kind of questions should be asked (and decisions made) during analysis?
Consider the following questions (acknowledging that some organizations may place these questions in the design phase):
- Which accessibility requirements will the course need to incorporate?
- Do accessibility requirements need to be prioritized? If so, what is the priority?
- Does the authoring tool enable the developers to create elearning that meets accessibility success criteria (set headings, adjust the tab order, hide elements from accessibility tools, add video captions, add audio description)?
- If course handouts are necessary—or the course is being delivered as an electronic document such as a Word document or PDF file—do the course documents meet accessibility criteria?
- Is the deployment mechanism (such as an LMS) accessible? After all, even if the course itself is fully accessible, if the employee can’t get to it, the course’s accessibility isn’t entirely relevant.
- Is the evaluation plan accessible? If the learning objectives require a test item that would not be accessible (a drag-and-drop activity, for example), is there a plan to provide an accessible alternative?
- Is there a need for (and if there is, a plan for) an accessible alternative version of the course?
Ensuring that elearning designers consider and address these (and similar accessibility-related questions) at the analysis stage can help ensure that accessibility remains top-of-mind as designers, developers, subject matter experts, and other stakeholders proceed through the course development process.
During the design stage, elearning creators can ensure that the function and format of a course is accessible.
When there’s an option to address an objective with an accessible interaction, use the accessible interaction. Can a mouse-only slider be replaced with a tab interaction? Can captions be added to audio-only content? Can audio be added to read text-only elements of videos?
Other functions that might fall within this stage include:
- Ensuring alt text is provided for images and conveys the right information
- Properly identifying links so that the learner will know what the link does
- Determining a unique title for each page
While ensuring that activities work the way they are supposed to properly falls into development, design often creates the instructional content; decisions made here can make programming the course to be accessible substantially easier.
Development links instructional content and learner access. Is the underlying architecture of the course structured to enable those using assistive technologies to operate the course?
- Are titles and headings set using markup or styles (as opposed to being set manually)?
- Can the video player be controlled by the keyboard?
- Are captions (open or closed) available?
- Can the learner use the keyboard to proceed through the course in a logical order?
- Can a screen reader perceive all the course content?
With each page, the course needs to be programmed so that all activities and content can be manipulated by learners with varying levels of ability.
Testing is complex. On one hand, testing is essential after development and before deployment. On the other, previewing pages, screens, or sections of training content as they are being developed can identify issues to be fixed while development is ongoing. (On the importance of testing, see “But What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Testing Your Online Course”)
Testing for accessibility in online training can be divided into technical and user testing.
How to test? In a presentation at CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in 2018, Sean Kelly and Thomas Dinkel identified three key behaviors developers can adopt to ensure accessibility:
- First, validate the code. This can be most appropriate if the course is built natively in HTML.
- Second, run automated checkers, if they are available for the output method. If the course is being developed in HTML, a tool like WAVE or CodeSniffer might be used. Some elearning authoring software (like Trivantis Lectora) has a built-in accessibility checker.
- Third, go through content without a mouse, using only the keyboard. If issues prevent the completion of the course, then someone who doesn’t use a mouse won’t be able to make it through, either.
The first two tests are automated, and won’t catch everything. An automated test, for example, can tell a tester whether the headings are properly identified and in the right order (that the top-level heading is identified as a “heading level 1,” that the next level down is identified as a “heading level 2”). However, automated checkers can’t tell the tester whether the correct content is identified as the right heading level.
Even with their limitations, automated web accessibility checkers offer help in ensuring that basic standards are met.
A manual keyboard test will help you catch many accessibility problems that automated tests won’t, especially navigation issues.
To go one step further, Kelly and Dinkel recommend testing with a screen reader. Run through your course with one. This can be complicated—different screen readers interact with screen content in different ways (running NVDA on Firefox, for example, will be different than running JAWS on Internet Explorer, which will be different than running VoiceOver on iOS.). Even a quick run-through can illustrate problems that screen reader users might encounter.
For an in-depth discussion on mobile accessibility testing, see our two-part article, Mobile Applications and Litigation: Why Accessibility is Important and What to Consider before Launching. Note: Part 2 includes a simple mobile QA test process that may be helpful when testing a course on a mobile platform.
Don’t neglect user experience testing for accessibility. The goal of initial testing is often to isolate and fix content and technical issues. User experience testing ensures that the course is not only technically accessible but practically usable.
It’s essential that you include people with disabilities. People who use screen readers every day, for example, use them differently than those who dust them off once in a while to run through a course. (For more information on how to actually conduct usability testing with participants with disabilities, see Peter McNally’s article in Smashing Magazine.)
When you evaluate the courses in your training program, include accessibility in those criteria.
Whenever post-course evaluations are performed, there are judgment calls to be made. A minor complaint made by a majority of the target audience may get addressed, while a major issue that’s only identified by two users may be placed on the back burner.
You may find accessibility-related concerns are only registered by a minority of the target audience. However, don’t dismiss the concerns out-of-hand. Consider the impact of the issue in terms of how it affects the usability of the course.
For example, text alternatives that don’t accurately describe the meaning of an image (such as when the image filename is used in the alt text field) may not be a complaint that is shared by a majority of users. However, it has an outsized impact on those users who are accessing the course with a screen reader.
If you have complaints—or suggestions—from users with disabilities, treat them seriously and not as minor inconveniences.
Consider Formal Training in Accessibility
How do you create accessible elearning? This is a lot—analysis, design, development, testing, evaluation. So much to do, so many things to master. Not only rules and regulations, but how to implement those rules and regulations to make courses accessible and usable.
Some organizations train elearning developers in rapid authoring tools or other software systems. Consider adding formal training in accessibility to the organization’s training program. Sure, developers can search every problem and slowly educate themselves with advice articles, forum discussions and (ahem) long-form blog posts on the subject.
But individual education efforts can take time, and are, fundamentally, limited by what people think of to look for. If a person doesn’t know to ask the question, they won’t find an answer. Formal accessibility training presents a complete picture.
In addition, if the organization has multiple developers, half a dozen people looking up questions themselves can create a dozen possible answers. Formal training can provide an elearning team with a coherent, comprehensive approach that can be fully and consistently integrated into the development process.
What about Purchasing (Instead of Creating) Training?
The final area to explore is ensuring that training provided by external vendors meets the accessibility standards required by your organization.
Not all organizations have internal training divisions. And even those that do often need to bring in web-based training from other sources (for example, soft skills training, like communication and time management might be from a vendor, while organization-specific training such as sexual harassment and time-keeping processes might be developed internally).
Ensure Vendors Provide Accessible Training
How do you ensure that training courses brought in from external vendors are accessible?
Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions.
General Questions to Answer
In many ways, ensuring that a provider of online training delivers accessible training is the same as ensuring that any provider of information and communication technologies delivers accessible technology in general. (The following suggestions are drawn from the Chang School’s Digital Accessibility as a Business Practice. See the book for more detail.)
General tips include:
- Include accessibility language in your request for proposals.
- Sample a few pages of the vendor’s website with automated accessibility checkers and HTML validators.
- Note if accessibility features are listed on their site.
- If sample courses are available, run the courses through a quick accessibility check.
Questions to ask providers of web-based training include:
- Which accessibility standard does the training comply with? At what level?
- Are your courses navigable without a mouse?
- Have your courses been tested with assistive technologies? If so, which ones?
- How is accessibility built into your company’s quality assurance process?
Make sure to check for specifics in the answers to any questions you choose to ask. If they discuss accessibility, they should reference applicable regulations like Section 508 or standards like WCAG. If they discuss assistive technologies, they should identify specific technologies, such as VoiceOver, JAWS, NVDA, ZoomText, or PAC3.
Is There a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template?
Another (or additional) option is to ask whether the course provider has a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template®, or VPAT®, for their courses.
A VPAT states the level to which a company believes their product is accessible. The idea behind the concept is that a vendor will fill out the form, which can then be used by potential customers to determine whether the vendor’s product will meet accessibility needs. Read our VPAT Primer: What is a VPAT? to learn more about VPAT’s and Accessibility Compliance Reports.
Two cautions are in order:
- A VPAT is filled out by the vendor of the product. It may be more or less accurate. Keep an eye out for ambiguous language or other indicators that the vendor may be dancing around the extent to which their product is compliant. In general, VPATs should always be reviewed by someone knowledgeable in web or online training accessibility.
- It’s rare to find VPATs for training courses. They are mostly used for products and software programs (including programs used to create elearning). Still, if a VPAT is available, that’s a good indicator that a training provider has at least considered accessibility.
Ensure Vendors Create Accessible Training
What if you’re asking an external vendor to create training for you?
You should get answers to the same general questions.
Not only should vendors of online course custom development be able to discuss accessibility regulations and requirements intelligently and with a level of competence, they should be able to explicitly tell you how they incorporate accessibility into their development process.
(And as a not-so-minor side note, it can be helpful to confirm that the vendor has a robust elearning development process outside of accessibility. Elearning and accessibility are related fields in many ways, but expertise in one doesn’t guarantee expertise in both.)
Training Managers Have a Lot to Do
Is accessibility easy to incorporate into an organization’s training program?
There are things that you’ll be able to do that are not difficult. Ensuring that designers check for adequate color contrast, that acronyms are defined, that images have alt text are things that are relatively easy to do.
Some goals are more difficult to achieve, such as making sure that the proper structure is in place for those who use screen readers, incorporating accessibility into development processes, and testing with audiences that include users with disabilities.
Ensuring that training is accessible—just like ensuring that it’s available in a learning management system, or designed to change behavior, or created to engage the target audience—is part of the training development process.
Yes, the laws and regulations are important. Just as essential is the need to reach all of your learners, to make training available to diverse audiences, to enable everyone to be able to benefit from the training that your organization has dedicated the time and resources to create.
And there are support structures available. Documents, articles, books, and training that are designed to enable web accessibility (many of which are referenced throughout this guide) can be repurposed to benefit online training. Consultant services are available to help you make the transition. Frameworks exist to enable you to judge whether external sources of training—either pre-packaged training or custom development—meet accessibility requirements.
Training programs are designed to change behavior, to use instructional techniques to make training as effective as possible, to move your organization toward its business goals. Building accessibility into online training means that you’ll be able to achieve those goals throughout your organization and with all of your learners.
Have Questions about How to Create or Buy Accessible Online Training?
We hope you’ve found this “Training Manager’s Guide to Accessible Elearning” informative as you explore inclusive and accessible online training for your employees and other stakeholders. We’d love to help. We stand ready to support your online training through custom development, elearning audits, or guidance in your elearning procurements. Government organizations may want to consider whether or not they’re eligible to use one of our Government Solutions for their online training projects.
Read more about our accessible online training development processes and experience or simply contact us. We’d be glad to see how we can partner with you to create WCAG- and Section 508-compliant elearning.
- The Training Manager’s Introduction to Accessible Elearning [Infographic]
- Project Spotlight: Verbal De-escalation Training
- Project Spotlight: Elearning for Public Health
- Creativity within Constraints: When Cost, Resource Scarcity, or Deadlines Make Effective Elearning Seem Out of Reach
- Creating Accessible Elearning with Lectora
The Training Manager’s Guide to Accessible Elearning was originally written by Kevin Gumienny. Sanjay Nasta and the Microassist Learning Development Team are responsible for updates.
Banner Photo by rawpixel Unsplash
*“Voluntary Product Accessibility Template” and “VPAT” are Federally Registered Service Marks of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI).
Last updated June 2021. Originally published 11/28/2018. Revisions include content, link, and image updates.
Contact our Learning Developers
Need to discuss developing e-learning? Creating curriculum for classroom training? Auditing and remediating e-learning for accessibility? Our learning developers would be glad to help.