Providing online training that is accessible to individuals with disabilities is a critical component of any online training program. Fortunately, it’s not very difficult to increase the accessibility of online courses for workers whose disability may affect their capacity to train online. With nearly 57% of people with disabilities employed, organizations should be striving for ADA-friendly design in online training programs.
Let’s begin by reviewing a few key standards from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act:
- The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the workforce and provides equal employment opportunity to people with disabilities.
- Section 902 of the ADA defines the term disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such an individual, or having a record of such impairment or being regarded as having such an impairment.”
- Employers are required to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discrimination unless they can demonstrate that doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity being provided.
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies and requires electronic and information technology designed, developed, and delivered to be accessible to persons with disabilities.
ADA-friendly Design Strategies
When creating an ADA-friendly training program, designers need to create interesting, usable, and engaging content for people both with and without disabilities. The idea behind ADA-friendly design isn’t that different from traditional instructional design or even web design, only with an emphasis on accommodating individuals with disabilities. The key to delivering solid ADA-friendly training is not to overstimulate the senses, but to emphasize fundamental aspects of the training experience that will capture specific senses. The principals of universal design can be used to enhance accessibility. Universal design is the idea that if we design products that can be used by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design, we maximize benefits for all people and abilities. As a training developer, you can integrate universal design into your online training program by paying special attention to visuals, audio, text, links, and color.
Delivering training content through a film tutorial is a great way to engage the user in online training. However, persons with disabilities may not have an equal opportunity to learn if the training program isn’t ADA-friendly in design—not every employee can watch a film, but workers can listen to it in most cases.
For a person who is visually impaired, films are a great tool to deliver learning material. To make the film engaging for these learners, a good strategy is to use multiple narrators and recognizable sounds to stimulate auditory engagement. Using multiple narrators in the film provides an element of suspense and diversity, which will help to capture audience attention. By making the audio interesting, individuals with visual impairments will be able to engage with the online training course. A Braille version of the online course also can be a great supplement.
Section 508 of the ADA requires that all images have text descriptions that describe what the image is. This can be accomplished through the use of the alternative (alt) tag. Having an alt tag attached to an image informs people with visual impairments of what the image is through the interpretation of their screen reader. Simply providing an alt tag to an image provides a descriptive option for learning the information.
Along with keeping alt tags up to date, you also should use attractive and current images. Dated images may confuse the employee and lower relevance of the training, resulting in a loss of interest and effectiveness. People who have learning disabilities and difficulty focusing for long periods of time will benefit from realistic, current imagery.
You can use several techniques to increase the accessibility of films used in an online training program. To connect with employees with auditory impairments, always provide closed-captioning or a printable version of the film’s script. A printable version of the training course is easy to create and can be a great supplement for someone with auditory impairments, for an engaging read-along experience that also improves knowledge retention.
As for the visual content of the film, keep it descriptive and stay away from brightly colored images, such as neon colors. In training production, take into account the time of day you are filming. If you’re filming outside, consider filming in the morning or at dusk to avoid harsh lighting, which often make films difficult to see on a desktop screen.
Quality audio is important for all training programs and can help to provide consistent training for all employees. Because audio is a non-visual element, it is important to supplement all audio with text and all text with audio. The reason for this is twofold.
First, if a worker has an auditory impairment, he or she may rely primarily on the screen’s text to receive the information contained in the training, and therefore the screen text must communicate fully the key points shared in the audio—text and audio have to match. Employees who are visually impaired need audio that includes all of the key points that are presented through text in the training. It wouldn’t be fair to test them on the content otherwise, as the design of the training would put them at a disadvantage, with barriers to access other employees would not experience.
The second benefit of matching audio to text is that it appeals to two very different learning styles. Auditory learners learn best through listening, while visual learners learn best through reading. By providing audio and text that are consistent, the key messages are accessible to both the visually and the auditory impaired, as well as to both visual and auditory learning styles.
It’s important to use an engaging narrator to record your audio. Selecting a narrator with a professional, comfortable, and engaging voice increases the online training course appeal for all employees. If the training program consists of several courses, consider using multiple narrators to add variety and keep employees from becoming bored by hearing the same voice over and over. In addition, the audio in the program should be clear, concise, and not overdone. It’s a good rule of thumb to use only one narrator if there’s minimal content. If there is a film with different scenarios included in a training program, use multiple narrators where you see fit.
There are at least 2.5 million Americans who are blind or have low vision who use computers. With the use of screen readers and other devices, online courses are a great tool for delivering training to the visually impaired. However, it is important for designers to have a working knowledge of how to develop screen text that screen readers can decipher easily.
A screen reader is an application used to interpret and read information on a desktop screen. These devices are incredibly beneficial to auditory learners or people with visual impairments. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires an option for users to select if they want to disable the screen reader. While it is an effective application, people should have the option to disable their screen reader. For example, periods should be added after headings, labels, and items in a bulleted format to cue the screen reader to pause. Furthermore, avoiding the use of basic text symbols, such as ampersands and percentage signs, is important.
The size, style, and organization of text are also important. Keeping the text layout uncluttered and consistent from page to page increases accessibility for employees with cognitive or learning disabilities.
When selecting a font type, sans serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica are ideal. New training developers often try to use fonts that are interesting and unique, which can be impractical and difficult to read on a computer monitor. A sans serif font will cause less strain on the eyes, making the content more inviting. This allows learners to focus more on the content than the font while increasing accessibility for visually impaired employees.
Links are an essential part of many online training courses because they provide users with external, dynamic information to supplement course content. However, some employees may be left confused by a link if it is labeled incorrectly. This can be overcome by making links descriptive. Instead of labeling the link as “Click Here,” title it with a description of the externally linked information. Users with cognitive disabilities also can benefit from having descriptive links because they allow them to recognize links as connections between both sets of information.
When used effectively, color can greatly enhance an online training program. There are a few strategies you should follow to make sure you are using color in the most impactful way possible.
It’s best to use dark-colored text on a light-colored background. This increases the contrast between the text and the background while providing visually impaired individuals with enhanced accessibility to the information. There are two ways to check to ensure the color used in the training is viewable to colorblind learners: (1) print out the training program in black or white or (2) view the training program on a black/white screen. Doing so will give a good indication of whether or not the color is being used effectively.
Interactive elements are important to the success of online training courses. They help maintain employee interest and can be used to check for understanding and reinforce critical concepts throughout the course. However, it’s important to structure activities so they are accessible to individuals with mobility disabilities. Activities that require employees to click on small buttons may be difficult for workers who lack fine motor control.
Several techniques are available to you to enhance accessibility in this area. First, allow ample time for employees to complete activities and tests. Timed tests may be difficult for some workers with disabilities. Including larger, clickable icons can enhance ease of use.
Tying It Together
To determine whether your training program is accessible to individuals with disabilities, consider working with employees who have identified themselves as disabled and who are willing to be included in a pilot group. Many colleges and universities have centers designed to help increase accessibility of their programs to students of all backgrounds, and they may be able to serve as a valuable resource for you.
When working with your volunteer pilot group, follow up the trial run with disability-specific questions. For example, ask people with visual impairments what they thought of the audio, how well the content was organized, whether they could clearly understand the narrator, and what their overall learning experience was.
Many resources are available online to help you develop training that is accessible to all employees. The strategies we have discussed are only the start of developing comprehensive online training programs accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. Through continuous questioning and exploration, instructional designers and developers can provide training that is informative and engaging to all employees, and that meets ADA and 508 standards.