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Coaching SMEs, Instructors, and Presenters on Accessibility


Mon May 01 2023

Coaching SMEs, Instructors, and Presenters on Accessibility

Often, instructional designers have an ambivalent working relationship with instructors, presenters, and subject matter experts (SMEs). There’s a reason why a quick search reveals articles, books, and blog posts starting with How to Convince Your Subject Matter Expert, How to Win Over Tough SMEs, or even Taming Your SMEs.

Sometimes, working with a SME can be simple—they provide the content, you design the course. But, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Working with SMEs, particularly in the realm of accessibility where learning is designed and delivered for an inclusive audience, may require some coaching. That’s not to say that all SMEs aren’t receptive or that they’re not conscientious. After all, they are experts. It’s just that accessibility is an aspect of learning design and delivery that may need some clarification and a little boost as it continues to gain ground in the push for compliance and inclusivity. So, what strategies can we use when coaching our SMEs, instructors, and the presenters of our content that digital learning should be designed and delivered accessibly for people with varying abilities?


Set expectations early

Waiting until the day of a live webinar to tell a presenter that they must narrate the contents of their pie chart slides instead of simply saying, “As you can see on the screen …” isn’t your best strategy. Setting expectations early means clearly communicating the importance and need for accessible learning starting at a project’s kickoff meeting or the first introduction email. Explain that as part of the design process, you will evaluate how content is designed and delivered so as not to leave out any learners with disabilities. That includes learners who may be blind, colorblind, or have low vision or are photosensitive; those who may be deaf or hard of hearing; people with limited dexterity, learners who may be unable to speak or have speech disorders, and neurodiverse learners as well (just a few populations that may benefit from learning that is designed accessibly). People with temporary conditions—a broken hand or eye injury or those in temporary situational contexts like caring for a child or sitting in a loud room—can also benefit. Setting the expectation of incorporating accessibility throughout the design process mitigates the surprise of a last-minute change or request.

Use guidelines, policy, or standards to support accessible decisions

If your employer has an accessibility policy or you must follow Section 508 accessibility requirements by adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), fall back on those sources to strengthen a mutual understanding of the need for accessibility. If there are any questions over who wins in the discussion for an inaccessible color combination or learner activity, the rulebook wins—not opinion. Nonetheless, where WCAG and Section 508 or other governmental or company accessibility policy doesn’t reign, you may need to lean on accessibility as a best or proven practice with some data points for support.

It is valid for a SME to claim to know the learner population participating in the learning and make the case that accessibility isn’t needed in this instance. However, such a case may call for referencing colorblindness, learning disabilities, or situational conditions like a sprained wrist or distracting work-from-home conditions to convince your SME to take an accessible approach to learning. And the SME may not know their learner population as well as they think they do, as some statistics claim 96 percent of Americans with disabilities have unseen disabilities.

Acknowledge inaccessible ideas, but be ready with viable alternatives

In a situation where a SME expresses their desire for a not-so-accessible text graphic, a scripted font, or an activity where learners with disabilities or situational limitations would be left out, it is important to acknowledge the idea before suggesting a more accessible option. For example, a SME may be pushing to include a slide with an image of a table full of complex data. You might acknowledge their passion with a quick paraphrase: “It seems like this content is really important to you.”

Then follow up with a suggestion to summarize it into just a few points with perhaps the table image in a resource document or rebuilt into a simplified text version. You can explain that the data complexity may be overwhelming for neurodiverse learners or would communicate better through assistive technologies like screen readers as a simplified table instead of an image of a complex one. Conversations like these are all part of the give and take of working with a SME. Redirecting conversations of inaccessibility to more accessible approaches may help train your SMEs to think more accessibly in the future.


Bringing instructors, presenters, and SMEs on board in a move toward designing and delivering more accessible digital learning can shift mindsets organizationally toward accessibility. At the same time, you’re contributing to fostering an inclusive mindset toward all learners, not just those for whom accessibility is necessary. Everybody wins.

For more insights, join me at the ATD International Conference & EXPO for the session: Incorporating Accessibility Into the Beginning Stages of Learning Design.

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