3 Ways to Help Online Learners with Disabilities

As course creators, our highest priorities are to help learners master instructional objectives and transfer new knowledge and skills to real-life situations. At the beginning of a project, course development teams typically create a profile of their target learners. This information might include the number of people taking the class, their job roles, locations, and experience with the subject matter.

Throughout this audience analysis, we might discover that certain learners need the content presented in different languages. Armed with this information, we make accommodations for this subset of learners, such as providing transcripts in the learners’ native language or publishing another version of the course in that language. In short, when we identify a need we generally create a solution for it.

What some might fail to remember is that there is another group of learners who could benefit from accommodations, and course development teams are rarely alerted about this group during audience analysis. I’m talking about learners with disabilities. Whether your organization must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act, it is good practice for course creators to provide accommodations for learners with disabilities including – but not limited to – dyslexia, hearing loss, and blindness.

There are many simple things you can do to create inclusive and accessible training for online learners with disabilities. As a starting point, I recommend the three tips outlined below, as well as testing for accessibility throughout the development process to avoid ample amounts of rework.

Tip 1: Become Familiar With The Uses And Limitations Of Screen Readers

Many learners with disabilities, including the blind or visually impaired, use screen readers to help them complete online training. Simply stated, screen readers convert digital text to speech or braille; however, they have limitations that impact how eLearning operates. For instance, screen readers:

  • Do not recognize elements that do not appear immediately when a page loads.
  • Recognize interpret drop-down menus as one object, making drop-down menus inaccessible.
  • Operate best when courses are structured with headers. (Think of the heading styles used in Microsoft® Word®.)

Tip 2: Assess Whether Your Instructional Methods And Writing Styles Are Best For Learners With Disabilities

Take a quick review of the last three courses you built, but this time reflect on them from a different perspective. For instance, if your learners used a screen reader, would they be able to access all the content and complete each activity? Is your writing descriptive enough without images, or would they be lost without the graphics you put together?

The next time you develop a course, consider selecting more inclusive methods and writing styles. For instance, you could:

  • Become familiar with differentiated instruction and present the learning content in different ways (e.g. video, podcast).
  • Spell out acronyms and define key terms within the content.
  • Provide clear instructions and descriptions that do not require images to clarify the meaning.
  • Use descriptive words that can be easily interpreted without images. (For example, instead of “Click here” use “Click the Submit button at the bottom of the page.”)

Tip 3: Create A Checklist Of Accommodations For Your Production Team

You might choose to build accommodations right into your eLearning template, and then you don’t have to think much about it again. If this is not an option, keep a list of accommodations and apply them to the courseware for each project. Whatever you do, use the following as a starting point for ensuring your courseware better meets the needs of learners with disabilities:

  • Provide video captions and audio transcripts.
  • Use larger sans serif fonts.
  • Summarize graphics (particularly charts and graphs).
  • Use high-contrasting colors, which are easier for those with color blindness to discern.
  • Use alternative text to describe each element, including links.
  • Design courses where learners can operate with the keyboard (without use of the mouse).
  • Structure the content with headings.
  • Use consistent formatting from one learning asset or module to the next.

The ideas in this article are simply suggestions to get started. As you continue to keep learners with disabilities in mind and learn more about their struggles and the tools available to them, you will be better prepared to help them master instructional objectives and transfer new knowledge and skills to their jobs. So, the next time you kick off a project and are discussing the needs of your learning audience, don’t forget about the needs of learners with disabilities. Keep their needs in your conversations, start with the suggestions outlined here, and continue working towards building more inclusive and accessible courseware for your learners.

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