“Is accessibility required?”

eLearning Ought to Be Inclusive

Chuck Lorenz | May 17, 2017

The learning team gathers for project hand-over. The senior designer and project manager are ready to lead the meeting. The art direction is ready. The script is ready. The production team is briefed, and they ask their questions. One inevitable question hangs out there, too often the last question: “Is accessibility required?”

I am a member of a family that is profoundly aware of the impact of inclusive design, assistive technologies, reserved parking spaces, and people with patience. Our vision, mobility, and cognitive abilities span a considerable range. If your definition of family is not too narrow, I bet you’ll recognize someone close to you who functions outside the normal range, who may get categorized as disabled. Perhaps you yourself are such a person. In 2015 as much as 10% of American adults reported some type of vision impairment that could not be corrected or had no vision.* Crunch the numbers with those are affected by reduced mobility and cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD. With so many persons affected by various disabilities, why do we still ask “Is accessibility required?”

It’s really great that the issue is being raised. But I’m no fan of how the question is formulated: “required.” When is accessibility “required”? Really, only two things determine when accessibility features are required: the law and the client.

Laws are enacted for a variety of reasons, but let me state one philosophical reason: a law ensures that an identified good is achieved. But laws are limited to their jurisdictions. In the U.S. section 508 mandates accessibility for federal agencies. Other regions in the world expand this a bit, sometimes including all non-profits and large companies. But inevitably there are clients that are not “forced” to comply.

What goes through the mind of a client when asked “Is accessibility required?” Who and what requires accessibility? The law? Maybe; we just acknowledged that. How about the client company’s mission? Or the company’s constituents? Many companies value diversity and address it in their mission and culture statements. But how many have implemented that value statement in policies governing accessible training and accessible eLearning? How many companies have a workforce with disabilities of such a proportion that requiring accessibility is a no brainer? Is it too far-fetched to imagine many clients doing this mental calculation: “No, no legal requirement. And we don’t have any blind employees, so I guess the answer is no. No, accessibility is not required.”

What if the client were asked instead “Is accessibility desirable?” Would we expect the same response?

What if the client were asked instead “Is accessibility desirable?” Would we expect the same response? I’d expect the most frequent response would be a quick “yes.” I’d also expect that many times it would be followed with a tentative “but…” and with variations of questions indicating the client isn’t sure what this involves. I think this would be tremendous progress. What a difference starting a conversation with “yes” rather than “no.”

What’s wrong with “Is accessibility required?”

  • It assumes there are good reasons for creating digital learning that is not accessible; that you’d implement accessibility only if you had to. “Does accessibility cost more?” “Will extra time be required?” These kinds of questions can go unasked by clients who are not experienced in the area of digital accessibility. It’s a shame. Many times the answer would be no — no extra cost, no extra time.
  • It assumes that addressing accessibility is all or nothing. It does not acknowledge the level of accessibility that may be inherent in the tools you’ll be using. I’m proud to be associated with Adapt. Adapt has a high level of accessibility (WCAG 2.0 AA) built into its core and its bundled components. For most courses, Adapt has already achieved technical accessibility. What’s left to address? Color contrast, content of alt tags, inclusive learning design, and things like that. I’m biased as a developer: Adapt has done the heavy lifting.
  • It can disguise a secret hope of certain team members. Is there an unspoken drive to use techniques that are known to be inaccessible? All design is problem solving: what can be achieved within specified parameters. Is avoiding accessibility a way to eliminate one of these design constraints?
  • It assumes that inclusion is a societal value that is optional. Really. I find educators and learning professionals overwhelmingly support the advancement of humanity. Most people want to do good; educators even more so (my bias is showing, I know). Does anyone on your team support the statement “A disability ought to disqualify a person from learning opportunities”? If we overwhelmingly believe learning benefits us all, then why aren’t we just providing accessibility without asking the client?

Why aren’t we just providing accessibility without asking?

Please ask yourself this question: “Why am I not providing accessibility without asking?” I can’t answer it for you. Perhaps there are legitimate reasons. But I want to challenge some that I anticipate.

Knowledgeable management. Are the decision-makers working from incomplete or out-dated information? Ask the staff what it takes to provide accessibility in every course. Determine what level of accessibility is feasible with various authoring tools and techniques. Calculate costs, not in terms of applying accessibility at the end of a project, but rather as something that is addressed throughout project development. Frame your company’s commitment to accessibility in terms of a level of accessibility rather than of an “all or nothing” binary choice.

Knowledgeable staff. Hire staff who understand and who are committed to accessibility. Use it as a keyword in your job descriptions, and make it a topic for discussion during interviews. Already have good staff, but they’re not proficient in accessibility? There’s no excuse for an educator not to embrace life-long learning. Plenty of on-line materials make it easy for all roles, both design and production, to get up to speed. Make it an expectation that all roles know how to contribute to accessibility. Designers devise learning experiences that are inclusive. Scriptwriters compose content mindful of those who can’t see supporting images and of those with cognitive impairments. Art directors and graphic artists test their palettes to ensure minimum contrast and to prevent traps for those who are color-blind. Developers understand how authoring tools implement accessibility and deploy those features. QA testers find the tools that help you ensure everyone has done their part. Don’t be surprised if a good bit of expertise is already present in your team and is going unused.

Tools. Find, use, and recommend authoring tools (like Adapt!) that are committed to facilitating accessibility. Use apps that assess color contrast and font size, that expose the content of alt tags, that display ARIA labels and tab index. Supplement your expertise with automation.

Ultimately the choice to deliver digital learning that is accessible is a value judgment. We’ve been asking the client to make that judgment. Let’s begin by weighing our commitment. How committed are we to making our workplace accessible? Think about your most valued team member. Think about the expertise she has acquired over the years, the impact she has had in the industry and on individual learners, and then also the impact she has had on your company’s bottom line. Why would you want to lose all that just because “accessibility isn’t required”? Why should she feel that her expertise counts for nothing just because she has lost a portion of her vision? Providing accessibility is not simply about opening doors to new talent, it is also about retaining the talent who are our friends.

* 2015 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) as reported by the American Foundation for the Blind (