“But It’s to Code”: Thoughts on Accessibility in E-Learning
I had a coworker once, a woman with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair. She was tiny and the chair was not motorized. When she was hired, our maintenance guys came to install a ramp at the door closest to her office. She stopped them as they were working on it to tell them it was too steep. “But it’s to code” was the answer. She showed them what a struggle it was for her to move the chair up such an incline by herself. “But … it’s to code!” They finally relented and adjusted the ramp, but I’m reminded of this story every time I hear “it’s to code,” which is a lot when it comes to accessibility in e-learning. 

When you’re striving for universal design (you are, aren’t you?), try to think less about compliance for some and more about usability for all. I find that many who talk about making products “accessible to those who have visual impairments” tend to conjure up visions of people with white canes or guide dogs. But lots of us wear glasses, some for very specific uses, like close reading. Many others have invisible accommodations like contacts or surgical corrections. My husband, who is post-surgery for removal of a brain tumor, prefers to enlarge the font and invert the colors on his phone and iPad.

Design for Visual Accessibility

For the record, few staff at our North Carolina School for the Blind and Division of Vocational Rehabilitation even use screenreading software like JAWS that Section 508 standards are designed to accommodate. Most  of them deal with low vision rather than total blindness and prefer to use a screen magnifier tool like ZoomText or pinch gestures on a tablet. Both of these approaches can, for instance, push things like Next and Submit buttons out of view. The biggest complaint I hear from our staff with vision issues, by the way? Problems with contrast.

So rather than making products accessible just to meet regulations, consider: What all might interfere with someone’s ability to read material? Why might someone prefer not to read? Think about learners who have dyslexia or other conditions. Or about learners for whom courses are not in their first language. I find in much writing about e-learning that workers with literacy issues are overlooked. Not everyone is a strong reader, and some people may actually prefer to listen to an audio-only version of material.

Accommodating Different Types of Hearing Challenges

Much like folks with vision challenges, people who have hearing loss have a wide range of needs that might not be covered by Section 508 regulations. Rather than making products “compliant” just for those who have hearing loss, consider who else might have trouble hearing, like workers in a loud factory, carpentry shop, warehouse, or even in a retail setting. One of our divisions has an entire job class—more than 10,000 people—who must complete their e-learning assignments at kiosks that have no sound. And how many of us now routinely turn closed captioning on for TV programs at home?

Usability for Mobility Challenges

Usability over “compliance” goes for mobility issues as well. Think about your grandma, who struggles with arthritis. How does she do with the keyboard on her Kindle Fire? Would she prefer a Bluetooth old-school keyboard? How about a special “big keys” keyboard, or one with white keys and black letters?  Or would she prefer to use tab keys and the spacebar? Does she do better with a mouse or a trackpad? Depending on how she navigates, she might have trouble with, say, a drag-and-drop or slider interaction. Can you replace that altogether, or offer her an alternative?

Experimenting with Mobile Accessibility

Here’s a practical tip to help you get familiar with some of the tools your learners might be using to help cope with disabilities. Find the accessibility features on your phone or other device and play around with them a bit. Here are some available on my iPhone:


Note: The iOS VoiceOver tool is a full-on screen reader much like JAWS, and turning it on will affect the gestures you use to control the phone. Read up on it before trying that particular feature.

Try enlarging text and seeing how that affects what you see at one time. Turn the sound off and try reading your own captions—which, if they are “to code,” are only in 9-point font, so good luck with long courses. Check out some new technologies like this wonderful eye gaze communication software. How might this evolve in the next few years, and how might we all be using it?

Designing for Usability, Not for Compliance 

Thinking about the broad range of challenges that your learners might face will help you create e-learning that’s more than just regulations-compliant. The big question: Can everyone who wants to take your courses see, hear, and navigate them? Start with universal design in mind and you’ll find that an easier question to answer.

More Resources

There are many great resources out there on creating accessible e-learning that’s more than just compliant. Here are a few to get you started:

Jane Bozarth is the e-learning coordinator for North Carolina state government. She is the author of many books, most recently Social Media for Trainers, Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-Tos of Working Out Loud, and the updated edition of Better Than Bullet Points. Before moving to North Carolina’s Office of Human Resources, Dr. Bozarth spent a decade working with clients at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources; among the takeaways from her time there are a passion for universal design and an interest in assistive technologies. Follow her on Twitter at @JaneBozarth and find more details about her work here.

29 Comments
Steve Flowers
Nadine Monn
Brian Dusablon
Kevin Thorn
Scott Conrad
Melanie Sobie

Thanks Jane! I love your focus on "what works" vs "to code". I have a background in Human Resources and have worked to provide effective accommodations for employees. The best solution is normally found when looking for simple solutions that make sense. I also like your recommendation about experimenting with the settings on your phone. I’m the youngest of 6 children and I’ve been teaching my senior citizen siblings about these options on their phones. Lots of non-seniors also find some of these settings very helpful! Recently a co-worker attended a seminar about providing online training for college students and came back with the recommendation that we provide audio narration with every course and no longer build no-audio courses so that we serve the needs of employees who are... Expand

Viv Browne
Sundae Delgado

Thank you so much Jane for your passion for creating a new world view about inclusive design that goes beyond compliance and hits at the heart of why it is important. So much respect! We have recently had some projects that brought this to light in a real way. The Washington State Department of Licensing recently strived for accessibility for those who are blind and landed at something much greater. My friend Marge explained to me that they were hesitant to put their drivers guide in a format that was accessible because "everyone who can drive can see". Marge pushed back, and the result? The passing rate of teens across the state sky rocketed. Why? Some teens learn better when they can hear as well as read the text. Also, our blind friends who can't drive still want to read it. A win f... Expand

Ande Kenney

Thank you for this article! You hit many important points. One area you ALMOST touched on, I would like to bring to your attention is that of Deaf learners. You did mention captions, BUT... To those who are culturally Deaf (using ASL as main mode of communication) captioning falls far short. For these individuals, English is a second language, and you would be surprised at how few are bilinguals. Captions as written text is merely a visual code for how spoken English SOUNDS. Useless to those a who have never heard. Accessible language, the plainest of plain language, goes much farther in making eLearning usable to the Deaf. Visuals of the CONCEPTS, not the words also go a long way to bridge the communication gap. Idiomatic usage, plays in words, flowery language and metaphors,... Expand

Jane Bozarth
Bob O'Donnell

Interesting read. Since we mostly design courses for the Federal Government, all of our materials need to meet the Section 508 rules. Its a continuing learning cycle figuring out how to make a course interesting to all while still meeting the guidelines. Sundae brought up a good point when she mentioned why make the driving guide compliant. In our case, there are document and course reviewers in the government that use assistive technology and run our material though a 508 checklist. Using Sundae's example... while they may not actually drive, a blind reviewer can still check the document/course content for accuracy and consistency. One thing not mentioned - developers do have the option to design for both worlds. We've had a few instances where we delivered an alternate format of traini... Expand

Nikki Harris