Five Steps to Making Learning Accessible
Creating accessible learning can seem daunting. It doesn’t have to be according to learning architect Shawn Wunder. It’s as easy as taking five steps to make your websites and eLearning accessible for all.
Accessibility expert Shawn Wunder discussed the importance of accessibility and shared advice on how to make your online learning content more accessible today.
- The time to think about accessibility is before you start your project.
- If you can’t take every accessibility step, make the effort to take as many as you can.
- Creating accessible learning is not a project - it is a process. If you build a framework for how you approach accessibility once, it gets easier with future applications.
Accessibility: Making It a Priority, Not an Afterthought
by d'Vinci Lead eLearning Specialist Jenica Jones
Color Tools for Accessbility:
Automated Accessibility Testing Tool (PayPal)
Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.
Susan Cort: There is a legal need to make your training accessible but there is also a human side.
Shawn Wonder: When we talk about whether or not we want to tackle accessibility projects, what you're really asking is - are you comfortable denying someone their basic human rights? In that context, the answer is pretty clear. You don't.
Susan: Our guest, Sean Wonder, is a learning architect with a passion for accessibility. Accessible learning may sound challenging, but it's a lot easier to get started than you may think. Listen to Sean to hear five steps you can take to make learning accessible. I'm Susan Cort. Powered by Learning is next.
Speaker 1: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. d'Vinci's approach to learning is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise. We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance. [01:00] Learn more at d'Vinci.com.
Susan: Well, today I am joined by Angeline Evans, our Client Solutions Consultant at d'Vinci. Hi, Angeline.
Angeline Evans: Hi, Susan.
Susan: I'm so excited to talk with Sean Wonder today.
Angeline: Me too. I cannot wait to hear his tips about accessibility.
Susan: Well, Sean, we're going to get right into it. Welcome, and thank you for joining us.
Shawn: Thanks for having me here on the podcast.
Susan: Sean, start out by telling us about your background and your expertise in accessibility.
Shawn: Sure. I'm a learning and development architect. About 20 years ago, I was in a small town bored, started learning web design on my own, really interested in the accessibility part of it. That came not from the disability piece, but just from the idea of how do I make this one thing look the same on all these different devices and with all these different connection types and how do I maximize them?
That just became an entry point that as I learned more, as I picked up a couple of degrees and worked into learning and development, I kept [02:00] carrying on with that and learning more and more and more until I cracked into the success accessibility idea and what that means and all of the different things that go into that including the need for accessibility from a disability standpoint. It just all naturally evolved. I think most learning and development people fall into it, I fell into accessibility the same way. Just crashed into learning and development, crashed into accessibility and here I am.
Susan: We're thankful for that. You've got some great advice. I'm really excited to hear everything with people today.
Angeline: Like you mentioned, you got into accessibility organically, let's say but just to go back to basics for our listeners, why should we all be considering accessibility in our online learning solutions?
Shawn: There's two sides to it, there's the human side, and one in eight people in the United States are diagnosed with a disability. It's a very human need but then there's also the law. [03:00] The law gets complicated. I'll try to break it down a little bit. There's section 508. Section 508, you hear that term, it doesn't necessarily get put into context a lot. Section 508 refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That entire law just says if you take any federal funding, you have to have accessible technology. It just has to be that way.
That's often where this conversation ends but that's not where the law ends. We have the American Disabilities Act, we have Title III of that. That says that state, local government organizations, and any business open to the public has to provide accessible technology. Those laws are great, and they work from that legal perspective but again, there's that human piece, which is also the United Nations has said, accessibility is a defined basic human right.
It's kind of a bit of a hammer but [04:00] when we talk about whether or not we want to tackle accessibility projects, what you're really asking is, are you comfortable denying someone their basic human rights? In that context, the answer is pretty clear. You don't. I would assume you don't anyway, but we want to provide these things. All of those frameworks and all of those laws, they're all based on these set of guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. That document is very complicated.
There are five requirements to that document. First, is just conforming to all of the guidelines in that document. The second one is that the whole page of whatever this technology pieces, that whole page has you also conform to all of these guidelines. Then you get further where the entire series of pages have to conform and all of that technology has to be [05:00] accessible with assistive technology.
If, for example, you have a shopping cart, that entire page from, I want to buy the thing, to, I'm now going to check my shopping cart and make sure I actually want to buy this thing, to I'm paying for the thing. All of that has to fit those guidelines, or the entire thing fails accessibility. Then beyond that, if you have a piece of technology on the page, the final requirement is that that technology, if it doesn't meet the accessibility requirements outlined in the guidelines, it doesn't block or restrict access to the whole rest of that page or set. It's all very complicated. I've made it sound easy but there's a lot in those requirements.
Susan: I don't think you made that sound easy at all. It sounds a little scary. How do organizations tackle that when it sounds challenging?
Shawn: The first thing is awareness. When I say [06:00] this is geared towards a webpage, organizations tend to hear, well, that doesn't apply to and then there's a list. That's not really accurate. One of the things I heard in a project was, "Well, that doesn't apply to our learning content." Well, it does, because where does your LMS live? On the web, it loads on a web browser, so that makes it a web page. That makes every piece of content in your LMS part of a website.
Now it falls under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Then also all these other laws that are codified with that Web Content Accessibility Guidelines just like that. I have a video, it doesn't need closed captioning. Well, your video lives on YouTube, and YouTube is a website. I know it's an app, but apps are websites, it's just a website, that means your video does need closed captioning. You can say the same thing for Vimeo or any of the other service providers, they're all websites. These are all web-based content and they all fall under this Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. We do need to apply this to everything. [07:00]
We have to be honest about where we apply it. If you have an internal document storage solution, you may not think that's a website, but it's a website only accessible inside your organization. This still applies. These rules they apply everywhere. Getting buy-in, that's sometimes a little bit more difficult because when you talk about learning departments, one of the issues that sometimes you run into is if you say, "Well, this is going to cost X amount of dollars. We can't really justify that because as a learning department, we don't really bring in money."
The view there is that it's not that you're bringing in money, it's that you're saving money. I'll give you an example. A very large retail chain had an ADA Title III lawsuit for their website not being accessible. Their settlement was $6 million. I as a learning and development architect maybe didn't get you $6 million in revenue, but I saved you $6 [08:00] million in fines.
There's a national pharmaceutical that during the pandemic launched a portal for COVID testing and vaccinations. That portal wasn't accessible and that was a $250,000 settlement. That's significant money. These fines aren't like, "Oh, a couple of bucks and we'll forget about it." These are significant fines that have massive impact. You can alleviate those things by taking this seriously from the start. That's where all of these processes that we'll probably talk about in a few minutes come in, where how do we make sure we're not having these fines, how do we make sure we're not in breach of these things?
You have to be aware of them because in 2021, there were 2,500 ADA Title III lawsuits. That's a 40% increase over the year prior. This isn't something we can afford, as businesses, as service providers, as agencies to ignore. That time is gone. [09:00] We have to deal with these things now and we have to deal with them practically and efficiently. We're at a place where we have to address all of these needs.
Angeline: Absolutely. Of course, it's so important to be inclusive, and especially, as learning and development professionals, every single learner matters. We're always trying to reach our audience specifically. What would you say to organizations who might have physical requirements of their employees that may say, "Well, my employees wouldn't need accessible learning?" Why would that matter to me for my internal audience because based on the needs of the job, they have to meet X, Y, and Z, because I think they still do need accessible content. What would you say to them?
Shawn: There's two sides to this. The first is that replace, I don't have and then a person who is blind, a person who is deaf, replace it with an ethnicity, replace that with a gender and tell me how that sentence sounds. [10:00] Does it sound good? Probably not. Talking about the human need, you still have that human need. From a legal standpoint, it doesn't matter if the job says, this doesn't mean anything.
There are other people in your organization who might need that training. Whether or not a person can meet a physical requirement, the law still applies. Someone could still try to enter your organization. Your onboarding or your pre-boarding may not be accessible, and you still might get an ADA Title III lawsuit whether or not someone could physically do the job. Now, that's a worst-case scenario but the law still applies to you there.
Beyond that, we talked about diversity being a good thing, there's a positive to that. Increasing your training to meet these requirements also just increases the type of workforce that you can bring in, and that diversity is a good thing. Think about someone who has had to use a screen reader for their entire life; [11:00] that's all they know. Their view of content is very different and their view of efficiency is very different than what ours might be.
Because our experiences are different, the way we handle technology maybe doesn't fit the same but that perspective is wildly important to an organization to say, "Well, maybe there's a gap here that we're not seeing, or maybe there's something we're taking for granted that someone with this other experience could come in and discover all these other things that could be, again, save us money, make us more money, make the team better, increase productivity, whatever that is."
There are all these benefits that, yes, maybe you do have a physical requirement that says this one specific group can't do this thing but that doesn't mean other groups can't and so you still need those accessibility pieces and you still need to create that culture in your organization that says, "Anyone can work here because one, that's just correct, as humans and two is still the law."
Susan: [12:00] Sean, you mentioned something a couple of minutes ago that is so important, and that is to think about accessibility from the start. I know Angeline will agree in talking to our clients at d'Vinci, we want people to understand the importance of not making accessibility an afterthought. Talk a little bit about why it's important to consider accessibility before you embark on any learning project, any website.
Shawn: Yes. When you think about accessibility, it's not a project. Accessibility is a process and your organization should be engaged in that process and so it's a long slow process. We tease about this idea of there are these steps that you can start to take and we'll get to that in a few minutes, obviously. When you talk about those steps, that's the tip of a very large iceberg that would destroy multiple Titanics. There's so much to it, but you have to start somewhere and so these processes, if you take them on now [13:00] and you're developing new content, let's assume that your organization, as you create learning uses the ADDIE model.
The E in ADDIE is evaluation and that tends to say, at some point, you should go back and evaluate whether this content worked. Did the learning work? Did the learner get what they want to? Did we as an organization get what we wanted to out of this learning in terms of reshaping our staff? Is it meeting even the requirements that we now have a year later, two years later, whatever that is. When we do that evaluation period, one of the things we can do is just reshape all of that content. The work is already done, let's assume that the content hasn't changed.
If we just have an accessible framework that we can essentially copy-paste that content into and build accessibly from the start, you can get that content with low effort, low lift, meeting accessibility requirements. Then when you start new projects, if you're building from there, [14:00] you're not wasting resources going back because you've gotten sued or you've had some other issue. You're not wasting those resources saying, "Well, now we have a crunch and we have to get this done in 30 days, 60 days, whatever it is." You're doing it right from the start, you're saving money, it's efficient.
You also lengthen the time that you have to keep that content in deployment out in whatever your staff is doing with it. You don't have to come back and deal with it later. If I was a store, this large retail chain and I had an ADA Title III lawsuit, I'm saying, "Well, how quickly can we turn this around?" We're scrambling and it's panic there. You're like, "Oh, man, how do we do all these things?" If you start from the beginning, you don't have that problem. If you launch with a site that's accessible from the start, you never have that panic. You never have that negative headline.
Just from a business case, [15:00] a bad headline to have, from a human case, bad place to put your workers. When you talk about how do we start, and we're talking about universal design. There's really multiple approaches to how you handle the need for accessibility. One is accommodation and that tends to be where most people go. That's what we talked about before. "Well, I don't have a person that does this but if someone comes in and needs it, then maybe we'll adjust, maybe we'll create something for them." Accommodation just says a person needs something and they have to ask for it.
Now, I said earlier, one in eight adults are diagnosed with a disability. There might be another one in eight that don't even know they have a disability and don't even know they need to ask for an accommodation and can't complete training or can't complete a task because they don't know they need to ask. One of the common things is dyslexia actually. Most people that have dyslexia or dyscalculia, which dyslexia is for letters and dyscalculia is for numbers. [16:00] Most people with those disabilities don't tend to know or don't ask for help with accommodations.
In those cases, you're leaving out a large number of staff who now cannot complete their tasks or struggle to complete their task. If you build content that assumes someone with dyslexia, which is the most common type of learning disability. If you assume someone with dyslexia is taking this content, let's prepare it in such a way that that person doesn't have to struggle through or ask for help to complete it, they can just get it done and move on. They don't feel stigmatized and they don't feel segregated by having to ask, and that process is called universal design.
That says you know you need it, do it from the start. Don't waste any resources, don't waste any time, just do the thing from the start the way that you should. That process relies heavily on that web content accessibility guideline [17:00] that we talked about and you put all of that into practice as either frameworks, templates, processes, whatever that is, as you're building. You create content with closed captions, with alt text, appropriate colors, fonts, all those things. You bake that in right from the start, and you don't wait. You don't wait for someone to ask.
A big thing right now is bilingual content. Maybe we need an option for Spanish, you do by the way. Maybe we need an option to change from day mode to night mode in our content, you probably do because someone with low vision might see better using a dark background with light text on it. You have to think about all those things, and they have to be built into your processes. The nice thing about these is that they don't really change so you can build a template and then you can just use that template over and over and [18:00] over again in all of your projects. That's universal design. Don't recreate the wheel every time, make it right once and keep doing it.
Angeline: I love that. Baking it into those design standards upfront and having that standardized across your organization is a really helpful way to streamline that and be more efficient. What tips then would you offer organizations who already have a robust online catalog of courses and curriculum that is not accessible yet, but they want to start being more accessible? What's the best place to start because that can be pretty daunting?
Shawn: Several organizations that have been including where I am currently we have thousands and thousands of courses. We're looking at how do you get all this done? It's a very common problem, it's a very common question. There are really five places to start. You're not going to get the entire Web Content Accessibility Guidelines done in one go. You need to convince your organization [19:00] it's important to do and you need to then also get the buy-in to do all of that work.
You can start with five things, you can make sure that your fonts are accessible. That gets tricky and a little complicated, but basically, a Sans Serif font is better with the exception of dyslexia. Then you want a Serif Font because the extra complexity makes it harder to transpose the characters. Also, if you have someone who's from background that doesn't use the Romanized alphabet, it's easier to use Comic Sans. The bane of all designers, Comic Sans actually has a use.
Susan: Poor Comic Sans.
Shawn: Poor Comic Sans, but it's good here. It's good because it mirrors what it's like to handwrite the letters and so it makes it easier for someone from a background that doesn't come from a westernized alphabet to understand the connection between those characters that they're seeing on the screen and what they're learning to write. [20:00] Those font choices, there's not a hardened and fast rule for those.
You just have to be aware of where the audience is and customize that, or build in something where the audience can choose their own font. That makes it easy. Slightly more complicated, but again, build it once build it right, and don't build it again. You have to be sure about your color contrast. There's a measurement from the background to the font color. If you have white on top of black and you measure that, it's a certain metric, and then every shade of various colors in between. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines say that you want 4.5 to one as your bare minimum.
You can measure those tools, like webaim.org has a color contrast tool. Color down, adobe.com has a color contrast tool. You can go find those things and you can use them to check your colors. You just want to make sure that your colors are within that threshold of at least 4.5 to one for that ratio of color contrast. [21:00] The other thing that you want to do is make sure you have colorblind safe palettes. This one gets tricky because we all know everyone has their branding colors and they love their branding colors, but their branding colors may not be colorblind safe.
If you find that to be true in those same places that I talked about earlier, the WebAIM and color down, adobe.com those free tools also do colorblind safe pellet checking. Again, you add your colors and check if they meet the requirements. If not, it gives you some suggestions, like using this color instead. If you had a very specific blue that's part of your branding, and then there was other colors involved, I was thinking about blue and purple do not go well together from a colorblind safe perspective. If your colors are blue and purple, you may want to use the blue exclusively or the purple exclusively.
Then just use another color in there, maybe it's white, or if your blue's really light, maybe use a darker color with that blue, something like that. You want [22:00] to make sure that you have closed captions on every video everywhere. All audio should have transcripts or closed captions or something like that. Then you also just want to make sure you have alt texts on every image. The reason for that is if you have a screen reader, alt text is what tells you what the pictures is doing on the page. I say "pictures", but it might be a button and that button's treated as an image.
We have to provide alt text to say there's a button that does this thing. It might be just a decorative image of a pretty sunset. We have to provide that context. Now, I will note that when it comes to writing alt text, a lot of people, for whatever reason have liked to use PowerPoints alt text generator, I think because it does it for you. The problem is it's really bad at doing it. If you have a picture of a flat tire, [23:00] PowerPoint will see it's a car, they'll be like, it's a car. Well, the problem is that it lost the context of the flat tire, and that's what you're, that's what you're talking about. When you write alt text, it has to focus on the context of whatever that image is.
You might use a generator to get you close, but you still have to write it yourself. If you do those things, at the end, you'll have a project that starts to address all of the accessibility needs. Now, again, it's a long process. There's a lot more that goes into this than those five things, but you'll at least be down the road on this accessibility thing and that much closer. If you do those five things and then you grab five more things after that, now you've doubled what you've done in a pretty short amount of time, and you just keep working in that way.
Every time if you're following the ADDIE model or if even if you're doing software development, life cycle modeling, when [24:00] you come back to that point where you reassess that content, if you just add all the stuff that you've started to do since the last time you touched that content, you'll eventually start to build catalogs of content instead of taking giant leaps over where they were before. But you have to start that process and you have to eventually put those things into the place you can make those giant leaps.
It's a couple of small steps, but in a couple of years, if you do five things a year in a couple of years, you'll have these giant leaps over where you were before. Hopefully, you don't lose the perspective over that time that you can look back and say, "Wow, we made these huge steps in accessibility. This is awesome. Unfortunately, right now so many people are so--
Shawn: Yes, afraid. Yes, that's exactly it. So many people are so afraid of tackling accessibility that the bar is so low. All you have to do are the five things I've mentioned and people are going to go, [25:00] "Wow, you're awesome at accessibility." It's very easy to be impressive and to champion accessibility in these ways because it is very difficult to start. To your point when you take these things on, the reason I say those five things is because the keyboard shortcuts are massively important to accessibility, but they're really complicated to implement and you need an expert to do it.
The reason I never suggest you start there is that if you start there, that becomes a barrier to you entering. We talked about accessibility into content. I'm talking about accessibility into accessibility. It's … and sort of silly. If you start with something very technical and you can't get it done, you're never going to launch the project, it'll just never go anywhere. You're just going to spin your wheels and be stuck. While keyboard shortcuts are massively important, they're not an easy win. You want these easy wins early. That's why I start with these five.
Keyboard shortcuts can be in your next group, but [26:00] when you make these changes, they have to be small enough that you don't scare everyone off. Because if you scare everyone and you're talking about breaking things. When you change something for one person, you don't necessarily know what's going to break for them and what that means for their job, for their bonuses, all the things they care about, whether or not they can spend time with their kids later. Because now they have way more work.
You don't know what that does for them. You can't take these massive sweeping changes and say, "By July 1 we're all going to follow this entire web content accessibility guideline document. We're going to do it the whole way through." It won't work and it'll fall flat. You have to take these small steps and you have to alleviate the fear of accessibility being this big scary monster that is really weird and frightens everyone. It's not that bad. You can start slow and walk into it. It's okay.
Susan: No, this is great. You're really, you're really breaking down the barriers and I think you know better for our listeners to start small than not start at all.
Shawn: Yes. That's the key. Just start somewhere. Even those five things, if you only think you can do two at your organization, just do two, just get started. If all you can do is fonts and colors, do fonts and colors, just get started. It's okay. Starting is way better than not.
Angeline: Sean, I'm curious, you had mentioned some tools to measure your ratio for color contrast. Are there any other tools that you would recommend to our listeners for them to use for testing or anything like that as they walk through these five steps that you've outlined?
Shawn: Human testing is always your best bet. There are automated tools, and I'll talk about them in a minute, but human tools are always way better in terms of testing. Especially if you can get people who use those accessibility tools on a regular basis. There are [28:00] workflows and usability paths that you probably won't even think of when you're testing that someone who uses the tool day in, day out, that they would understand and they would know and they would be able to provide that feedback for you.
I know that's a resource that not everyone has. There are automated tools. One is called a Wave. Wave has a cost associated with it, but it is pretty good. Paypal has a tool called the Automated Accessibility Testing Tool that lives in a Git Repository. You have to have some programming knowledge to run and install that tool. There's also Sort site, which a lot of federal agencies use for their testing, like NASA uses it and that also has a cost associated with it.
They're really awesome tools, but they cost money. Again, that's where the conversation can die depending on how much your organization's plugged into it, [29:00] but they're all worth the cost. Even if you have to learn a Git Repository to get the tool, it's still worth the cost and worth doing. Those are some tools, there are other tools that you may be able to find. Those are the more reputable of the group and are more fully featured.
Angeline: Thank you. That's really helpful. It's nice to know some resources you can leverage when you dive in.
Susan: We'll put those in the show notes of this podcast too so that people can find them very easily. Sean, thank you so much. I think this was just a great conversation about shifting people's perceptions about accessibility. I think once people start doing it, it will become habit-forming and it will become easy and just part and parcel of everything they do.
Shawn: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for having me and on that last note, absolutely once you get started, it becomes very easy to make it part of your workflow and it's not scary at all. It's just part of the day and fun.
Angeline: We can attest to that at d'Vinci. So we've worked on a lot of universal design [30:00] templates with our clients, and it really does get easier. Don't be scared to get started, everybody.
Susan: Good advice, Angeline and Sean, thank you both. Angeline, it was great to hear Sean break down some of the misconceptions about accessibility. I'm sure our listeners are glad to know it's not an all-or-nothing proposition.
Angeline: It's not, and I'm so glad he broke everything down so easily, too. It's important to remember making your online curriculum accessible doesn't happen overnight. It's a journey. Just taking that first step and tackling one element like Sean mentioned or creating that universal design template, means your content's going to be more inclusive and available to all your learners, at least more than it was yesterday, even if it's not perfect yet. I know at d'Vinci, it took us some time and a lot of research from our designers and developers to get to a point that meeting those Web Content Accessibility Guidelines wasn't just an extra component [31:00] to a project, it was part of the foundation and how it's a standard across the board.
Susan: I think that's so important, and both of you said that, that it's something to think about at the beginning of the project, not at the end of the project. When you bake it in from the get-go, it's just part and parcel of how we do what we do.
Susan: Thanks, Angeline, and special thanks to our guest, Sean Wonder for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about or have an idea for a topic or a guest, please drop us a note at email@example.com.
By Angeline Evans, Client Solutions Consultant
d'Vinci Interactive is an award-winning comprehensive learning solutions provider for corporate, government, medical, non-profit, and K-12 target markets.
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