Making digital learning accessible for all
As companies become more mature about the use of digital learning for engaging employees, their priorities are shifting from visuals and animation to more fundamental features, such as personalisation, adaptive content, and accessibility – in terms of catering for both devices/form factors and people of varying levels of disability. It’s this latter aspect of accessibility that we will explore in this article.
Making your service accessible is a requirement in the UK under the Equality Act 2010, and yet until recently, this has not been a high priority for corporate training buyers. For years, the solution has been to provide a word or PDF version of the content as the ‘accessible’ alternative.
Although this may provide the bare minimum of compliance with the law, it results in an extremely poor learning experience for those who need to use it. It also exposes a common misconception about accessibility.
Disabilities are diverse! It sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten. Accessibility is commonly stereotyped and oversimplified. In relation to online content, it evokes an image of a user requiring a screen reader.
This is wholly incorrect. As the World Health Organisation says, “Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
It is also important to understand that a disability can be temporary, as in the case of someone who has fallen off their bike and broken their dominant hand. As a quick check, we ask our learning developers to try navigating the digital courses that they make without using their dominant hand!
Catering for differing abilities
Understanding that there are many diverse disabilities leads us to consider how we can cater for all these learners. A good approach is to create personas and design to those. For example:
- Harry has cerebral palsy and navigates via voice-recognition software
- Seema is completely blind and relies on screen-reading software
- Jo is dyslexic and struggles with blocks of text and certain colour combinations
- David is partially sighted
- Shafiq has broken his fingers and cannot use his mouse.
By focusing on the persona or person, we can ensure that we design a learning experience that works. But, this doesn’t mean that we want to develop a different version for Harry, Seema, Jo, David, and Shafiq. That would be impractical and detrimental for users, who’d have to wade through a complicated selection.
The solution lies in creating content that works for all learners. It’s 2019, and we’ve moved on from providing separate accessible versions to creating content that’s still rich with interactivity, but is also fully accessible and enjoyable for all learners, regardless of their abilities or reliance on assistive software.
Getting this right is not easy. It requires learning developers and SMEs to think outside of the box, and there are many challenges to overcome. Just with the screen reading software, there are many different apps, which all work in slightly different ways. The content must be designed and tested to meet the behaviours of those tools. To cater for those with some difficulties, it’s necessary to consider what browsers are being used and how they render content. All of this requires a great deal of research, testing, and cooperation.
However, ultimately, the end result is incredibly rewarding. In our experience, courses that are designed for all are hugely appreciated for their intuitiveness and engagement by learners who have no disability.
Keeping it interactive
A common risk with the universal design approach is that developers give up on interactivity in a bid to cater for all personas. There is a tendency to go for the lowest common denominator and remove all the ‘bells and whistles’ that engage the learner. That’s wrong and unnecessary.
If you prioritise accessibility as well as interactivity from the outset, it is possible to write storyboards and design exercises and scenarios relevant to your audience that provide great learning engagement while being fully accessible.
Many learning developers struggle with accessibility because the commercially available applications are still deficient in catering for it. This leads to a poor learner experience, imperfect accessibility, browser incompatibility, and huge cost overruns.
To build amazing content that’s accessible while keeping the costs down, we have taken the approach of building interactive templates that conform to accessibility standards. The templates are flexible and constantly developing as new ideas come up with each project. Reviewers – especially those with some disability – have a key role to play in this process. Feedback from learners on what works well is invaluable, as are any thoughts and ideas of ways in which they would like to present the learning.
Getting senior management buy-in
Building digital content that’s universally accessible requires an investment in building templates as well as upskilling the development team. Although, over time, accessible content should be no more expensive to build. It also requires resetting expectations and raising awareness in your organisation. For this, you need buy-in from your senior management from the outset.
At Skillcast, we’ve been fortunate to work with clients, such as Barclays, who have a publicly stated ambition of becoming the most accessible and inclusive UK bank and FTSE company. Such companies have a passion for accessibility and a commitment to testing, refining, and advancing the case for accessibility.
However, we see signs that universal design is becoming the new standard for accessibility in all digital learning. Many corporate clients say that this is not just the right thing to do under the law, but also important for the success of their training and compliance initiatives.
There are an estimated 3.8 million people with some disability in the UK workforce today. Many with disabilities such as colour blindness or dyslexia do not declare their disability out of fear of discrimination, so that number is probably higher.
Companies that demonstrate inclusivity in their learning are likely to outperform in every aspect of their business - from their reputation and employee well-being to their sales and bottom line.