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Don't Overlook Accessibility in E-Learning

Thursday, October 15, 2020

As online learning expands, organizations need to adapt courses for all learners.

In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying social distancing guidelines, many organizations have had to bring more learning online, converting traditional classroom training into self-paced e-learning and live virtual classroom formats. And while those efforts have enabled many employees to continue learning amid extraordinary circumstances, companies may be leaving out some learners.


According to the Association for Talent Development’s E-Learning: The Evolving Landscape  report, 26 percent of organizations do not make accessibility considerations in their e-learning programs for individuals with disabilities.

The consequences should worry talent development leaders. As accessibility expert Maureen Orey, president and founder of Workplace Learning and Performing Group, commented in an interview for the report, failing to make sufficient accessibility accommodations—which she defines as those that account for auditory, visual, physical, and cognitive access needs—can lead to “unintentional discrimination” against certain groups of employees. Further, talent development professionals who fail to emphasize accessibility are missing an important opportunity to make their e-learning—and therefore their entire functions—more effective.

According to the report, when companies make at least one accessibility design consideration in e-learning programs, they increase their likelihood of being a high-performing organization or an organization that is doing well across several key business areas and has a talent development function that makes a strong contribution to business performance.

The effect was statistically significant at a level of p < 0.01, which implies that there was a less than a 1 percent probability that it appeared in the research because of chance. What’s more, the connection became stronger as organizations further committed to providing accessible e-learning.

Companies that participated in the report and made all or nearly all the accessibility considerations identified for the research (see figure for some features) were more likely to be high performers than those that only made a few of the considerations. That was also statistically significant at level of p < 0.01.

source: E-Learning: The Evolving Landscape, Association for Talent Development, 2020


For Orey, accessibility’s capacity to provide value beyond its primary audience explains the relationship between incorporating it into e-learning and being a high-performing organization. To illustrate her point, Orey compared the decision to provide accessible e-learning to the 1990s when the Americans with Disabilities Act started requiring all sidewalks in the US to have curb cuts (concrete ramps from the sidewalk to the streets).

“That was designed for people in wheelchairs, but it really gave any pedestrian who had to deal with wheels—such as mothers with strollers and beer delivery guys—better access to the sidewalk,” she said.

Similarly, closed captioning in e-learning may be targeted to employees who are hearing impaired, but other learners will take advantage of and benefit from being able to read spoken dialogue in a video. As Orey noted, “Tools designed to benefit one audience will benefit everyone.”

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Alex Moore is a research analyst for the Association for Talent Development. Alex returned to ATD in 2019 after spending a year living and working in Chile. Prior to moving abroad, Alex was a writer/editor for ATD working on TD magazine, a research coordinator at ATD, and a customer care advocate at ATD. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 2015 with a B.A. in English.

1 Comment
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This article got my creative juices flowing thinking of business reasons in addition to accessibility for any e-learning project.
I liked the 'curb cut' analogy. That is a great way to help explain the knock-on effects of an accessibility enhancement.
For example: if you added alt text for images/videos/diagrams and screen reader support, you are also helping to make your e-learning accessible to your field sales or operations teams.
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