Accessibility is an issue all course content designers encounter.
When you’re making content that’s going to reach hundreds (or even thousands) of learners in educational and workplace settings, you’re bound to encounter individuals who need your content to be accessible in ways you may not have considered before.
You don’t want to be caught off guard and rushing to retrofit your content to a more accessible design, so your goal should be making the content accessible from the jump.
But that sounds so hard. You’d need a special design package and software and so much time. Right?
Not exactly. What if accessibility weren’t a problem in the first place? What if your content, your learning management system (LMS), and lesson plans were all accessible and easy-to-use from launch, while still being aesthetic and usable for other learners?
Fundamentally, though, accessibility means that your content needs to be designed in such a way that anyone can use it.
Let’s take a look at why accessibility matters, before going over some tips on how to approach your course design so every user gets the most from your content.
Why eLearning needs to be accessible
There are more disabled and impaired people out there than you might expect. According to 2015 U.S. Census data, about 12% of the population is disabled. Other studies, however, suggest that the percentage may be much higher than that.
Ten percent of the population is considered to be on the dyslexic spectrum alone. That’s tens of millions of people.
Statistically, this means that someone in your eLearning pool is disabled, whether you realize it or not. And if they’re in your program, they need to be trained just as much as everyone else.
It’s your job as a responsible eLearning leader and course designer to provide a positive, intentional, and welcoming experience so everyone can learn in a seamless and safe environment.
Since there are multiple ways that various disabilities can impair learner interaction with eLearning material, there are several approaches you can take to accessibility design.
I’ve separated them out under general headings below, and each section is full of unique tips. Remember, though, that they are not mutually exclusive, and you’ll want to include as many tips as possible to truly improve eLearning accessibility.
eLearning accessibility for mobility and photosensitivity issues
Some folks have a hard time using a mouse or a keyboard. And for people with light or motion-triggered seizures, using a computer can be a risky proposition. A little extra thought in the design process can make your content safer and easier to use for everyone.
Here are four tips focused on this area:
- When using video, make sure that your media player can be played and paused with both the keyboard and the mouse. For people using a mouthstick, it’s much easier to hit the spacebar for a quick pause than to manipulate a mouse.
- Avoid flashing videos or .gifs. Images that flash quickly or have a strobe light effect can trigger photosensitive epilepsy.
- If you must use a flashing video or .gif, consider putting it behind or under a warning, separating the content with a “read more” tag, or making it opt-in so that learners must click to view it. This helps anyone trying to avoid such images altogether or who needs to prepare before they encounter them.
- Make your links longer. They don’t need to take up a whole page, but making clickable link text at least one or two full words long helps people with fine motor skills issues select links with greater success.
As you can see, these changes don’t impact the content of the lesson or the overall LMS experience. They’re small adjustments that make a huge difference for people who need them and that go virtually unnoticed by people who aren’t looking for them.
eLearning accessibility for visual impairment
Most design tips for people with visual impairments have to do with crafting content that a screen reader can easily understand. Keeping screen readers in mind when designing your content will make a world of difference to those who use them.
Here are six screen reader design tips:
- Consider your font choice and size. Isn’t it annoying when websites use an unreadable, chaotic font, or present their text and background in nearly identical colors? Now, imagine having that feeling on most websites and you’ll be in the headspace of visually impaired learners. Check out this primer on selecting visual-impairment-friendly typefaces to get started.
- Use headings properly. The H1, H2, and H3 settings are all recognized by most screen readers, and headings are helpful for anyone navigating a page. (If you’re creating content on an open website and need to worry about search engines, headings are also great for SEO.)
- If you have images, include alt text for each of them. Screen readers can’t describe an image, but they can read alt text that explains what the image is. Consult this handy page for more info on writing effective alt text.
- Eliminate drop-down lists wherever possible, since screen readers usually can’t catch them.
- Make your links as descriptive as possible. Rather than saying “click here,” explain what the link leads to. For those of you posting learning content on open websites, being descriptive is great for SEO.
- If you need to include a chart or a table, try to embed the chart itself, rather than using an image, since a screen reader will have an easier time explaining/reading the chart than an image of it.
eLearning accessibility for deafness and hearing impairments
When considering audio files, videos, and games that use sound as a key component (all elements that tend to be viewed as a good use of multimedia), the importance of sound to many eLearning courses compounds.
Putting thought into your courses can make them far more accessible for people who might not have been able to engage with your audio materials before.
Start with these tips:
- Subtitle or caption all videos. Try to caption your custom content yourself rather than rely on a media player’s auto-captioning, which may make confusing mistakes.
- Offer transcriptions of audio content. This can also be helpful for students who are accessing your content in a public space without headphones or who need to quickly reference your material in the future.
- Provide multiple methods of contact. If you want your students to reach out to you or a help desk when they have problems, offer them multiple ways to do so. If you can be reached only by phone, you’re inadvertently cutting out people who cannot hear over the phone. Make email and instant messaging (aka live chat) routine options, and consider adding a self-service option.
eLearning accessibility for dyslexia and dyscalculia
eLearning can be a struggle for people who frequently see letters and numbers move or shift. Whereas a book can be rotated or physically manipulated, the screen of a computer often can’t be. In such cases, design is the only thing that can make the content readable and understandable.
Here are four tips to facilitate accessibility in this area:
- Font choice matters a great deal to dyslexic students. Using an easily read font such as Comic Sans is helpful for users with dyslexia, but if you can’t bring yourself to use this specific font, there are a lot of other great font options out there. Sans-serif fonts, ample space between characters, and thicker lines at the bottom of letters (to give them a visual “weight”) makes things easier to read.
- When emphasizing text, try to avoid using italics. This distorts the letter and throws off patterns, making things harder to read. When you need to add emphasis to a section, try using a bold font instead.
- Use more white space in your design. Adding extra lines between paragraphs prevents each section from running into the next. That said, keep the white space consistent. If you decided to separate paragraphs with two extra lines, keep that pattern throughout your content.
- Avoid using ultra-high-contrast colors. They can be tiring to anyone’s eyes, but they impact dyslexic users even more and can make it difficult to concentrate. Using an off-white background or dark gray text can make the page easier on the eyes, while still providing enough contrast to be clear.
eLearning accessibility design is helpful for everyone
If you’re reading this and thinking that you should create one set of simplified content for users with disabilities and one set of “normal” content, pump those brakes.
Nobody wants to feel singled out, and creating a separate version of your content for people who need a little extra help or a different approach does just that.
The most important thing to remember about accessible design is that good accessible design can be used by everyone.
Accessible design also helps learners struggling in other ways, such as dealing with the effects of aging or suffering from temporary injuries.
By making your content disability-friendly, you take nothing away from learners without disabilities while making a world of difference for people who would have struggled or who would have been unable to use it otherwise.