Designing for Accessibility: An Expectation, Not an Afterthought

by Swati Carr, Ph.D. | April 26, 2021

Estimated time to read: minutes

Like many avid exercisers, when it became clear in May 2020 that COVID-19 would keep me out of the gym for months to come, I explored getting a Peloton bike. Well, my excitement was short-lived: At 411, I simply could not comfortably reach the handlebars. If they had been adjustable, if I could have pulled them closer by one inch just one inch the bike would have worked perfectly for me. 

I’ve never considered myself someone who needed accessibility features until I encountered a product for which I did. The design of the Peloton bike excluded me. It would have been a very simple (and not even remotely innovative) feature to include, but the company chose not to. I returned it and bought a competitor bike with adjustable handlebars, and it’s been my dream [exercise] machine ever since.

This got me thinking about accessibility in online learning content and programs. Sometimes, the accessibility needs of learners are obvious (e.g., vision or hearing impairment), but often people have more nuanced needs. As designers and thought leaders in digital learning design, what can we do to ensure the needs of all learners are addressed?

I interviewed Senior Learning Experience (LX) Designer Lexie Bryan, LX Designer Marc Campasano, and User Experience (UX) Designer Justice, all passionate advocates for accessibility in their work with Extension Engine’s clients.

Why is accessibility so important when designing learning experiences?

Lexie: I consider accessibility, and designing accessible learning experiences, to be a social and ethical obligation. People may or may not know this, but disability of one type or another affects up to a quarter of our population. And as we get older, every one of us will start to experience things that today we may think of as “someone else’s problem.” So in fact, designing for the needs of our most vulnerable populations will turn out to benefit all of us.

Why is designing for the majority or the “typical” learner the wrong approach when designing learning programs and products?  

Lexie: I want to start by saying that education is a human right, and that designing learning experiences that exclude individuals with disabilities denies them access to that right. Beyond that, there are a couple perspectives we can take to understand why it’s critical to ensure that your learning program is accessible. From a social perspective, disability is a huge factor in populations being marginalized. Therefore, if your organization champions any diversity and inclusion initiatives, accessibility needs to be part of the conversation. From the business angle, consider again that 25% of the population is affected by some form of disability. If revenue is a driving factor for your organization, I’m sure you’ll want to be able to reach this customer base. 

Finally, it’s a legal matter. In the United States, there are regulations from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 mandating that public websites be accessible. Higher education institutions in particular have been subject to significant litigation around digital accessibility in the last decade. 

Compared to retrofitting an existing system to make it compliant with accessibility regulations, building accessibility in from the start will save you time and money, and will make your educational offerings easier to use across the board.

How can we make digital learning programs and products more accessible?

Marc: Digital accessibility means implementing features, structuring software, and designing interactions and experiences to accommodate users with a range of capabilities and contexts. It covers various aspects, from design-specific programming and HTML practices to visual design choices to writing style to course design, and everything in between. The goal is to minimize the obstacles anyone might face when trying to engage with a learning experience. 

Technical features include marking up digital content using proper HTML tags, making sure tables on websites are created using HTML (rather than posted as images or screenshots), or adding alt-text to read image-based content that screen readers cannot otherwise access. Many vision-impaired people use screen reader software that reads on-screen text aloud. From a technical implementation standpoint, one of the biggest tasks in designing for accessibility is using proper headers and labels on HTML web pages. The header and label structure in HTML gives screen readers a guide for navigating the content in the correct sequence, which helps vision-impaired learners make sense of the content structure  something most people do visually. 

But there are also nontechnical ways to make learning content accessible. Closed-captioning and transcripts of videos and audio files are accessibility aids originally designed for use by hearing-impaired learners, but they are popular with all types of learners. The closed-captioning added to a video for hard-of-hearing users may be just as important for a hearing learner who needs to keep their activity quiet so as not to wake the baby in the next room, or if they have trouble understanding the speaker’s accent. 

Good copy editing also helps accessibility: Clear, succinct writing isn’t just good form, it’s also more accessible to readers with cognitive disabilities. If you are designing content that you expect or hope nonU.S.-based learners will use, it is important to write simply and clearly, and not include sports-based idioms or references learners might not understand or numbers formatted in a way that means different things in other parts of the world. 

Even course design can have accessibility issues. In the COVID-lockdown, Zoom-based learning context, you might teach a course to learners around the world, with unreliable internet connections, attending to different devices, in all sorts of different spaces. Building a learning experience so that learners can access it at different times, in different ways, and in different environments is critical.

What advantages do digital technologies bring to learning? What are the limitations and pitfalls to watch for when designing digital learning?

Lexie: Digital technology enables large portions of the world to access information and experiences that otherwise might not have been available to them. With a web-enabled device and an internet connection, you can learn from anywhere in the world. And with assistive technologies like closed captioning, screen readers, Braille keyboards and computer screens, adaptive video game controllers and voice-controlled interfaces, more doors are being opened every day.But for all the wonderful doors that digital technology opens for us, it also introduces limitations. For example, the devices that enable us to read, write, and communicate at great distances are designed largely for sighted users. They are designed for hands to operate a mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen. Millions of people either rely on assistive technology to overcome these barriers in our digital environment, or simply go without access.

So in aiming to provide learning experiences for all of our users, it’s important we understand their needs as well as the tools they use every day. Building with accessibility and flexibility in mind means that more learners can engage with these experiences in the ways that work for them, without introducing yet more barriers.

Why are you passionate about accessibility and designing inclusive digital learning experiences?

Marc: First, I believe that designing inclusively, for all learners, is the right thing to do, ethically. Extension Engine empowers us to advocate for making accessibility a core element of the design process from the very beginning because it aligns with our values and because it will save our clients time and money in the long run. 

More personally, as a Learning Experience Designer, I find it interesting that a small design choice can have a massive impact on how a user engages with content I design, and I want to make that impact a positive one. I enjoy finding elegant solutions to meet those niche needs without being obvious or distracting to other users who don’t need that particular solution. This can be as simple as creating alternative activities for students who can’t attend a course’s in-person meeting or offering transcripts for online video lectures. My job is to build these accommodations into the system seamlessly, so students are set up to succeed.

Can you share examples from your work at Extension Engine where making a learning experience accessible resulted in a better product?

Justice: While designing an online master’s program for a higher education client, Lexie and I (we were both working on this project) discovered a major accessibility issue on the platform the client had selected. This was a very popular off-the-shelf platform. It prompted us to dive deeper into the platform’s accessibility features and functionality. We essentially did an audit of the platform. And we found a bunch of places where, although a specific accessibility feature existed in theory, it didn’t work because other features were missing from the platform. 

We contacted the tech team and the accessibility team that designed the platform, which led to some great conversations. We worked together to create an accessibility road map for the platform. They didn’t have one at the time. As a result, several accessibility features were fast-tracked, which was amazing. And even the ones that weren’t fast-tracked were clearly on the radar. So, that was a big win for us, and it only happened because we took the initiative to do an accessibility audit. Our client benefited, and so did millions of other users who use that platform for their courses. 

Marc: During the summer of 2020, I helped a professor redesign his large, lecture-format class for remote learning. Students were spread over several time zones, some were experiencing sudden and unexpected changes in their home situations, and their technological resources and available internet connectivity often varied. I helped the professor develop an alternative to the live discussion sections. The course team would prepare a short summary video of what they’d discussed each session, and students who couldn’t attend the live session could watch it and respond later in a forum where all enrolled students participated.

How can education providers and designers create accessible learning experiences if they are locked into a specific platform or learning management system (LMS)?

Justice: Your approach will differ depending on whether you are working with content that is already built out or creating it from scratch. 

If you already have content on a platform or LMS, and you know you will be using it for a while, I recommend doing a content audit. An audit will let you see whether your content is accessible, and if it is partially accessible, where there are gaps. There are a lot of tech tools to help you do an audit. I also recommend that someone in your organization learn to use a screen reader. They are my number one tool for doing audits. There’s a screen reader built into everyone’s computer, which means you can do your own audit on most sites. There are also sites to help you evaluate technical things like color contrast and alt tags on images. 

Most platforms have some kind of accessibility statement. If there isn’t one available, ask for one. Chances are they have it already, and if they don’t, you are probably not the only one asking for it. A lot of public websites have started doing accessibility audits for platforms, so the information is out there searching online for them is a good first step. 

Some platforms also have an accessibility road map. You might save some time on the audit by looking at the road map: You can see which accessibility features are on deck but haven't been implemented quite yet, and which ones on their to-do list won't be added anytime soon. This will give you a good idea of the type of content you might need to prioritize changing or providing alternatives for. 

If you’re designing a new course or program or product, try to start with accessibility front-of-mind in the design process. Then you won’t find yourself having to retrofit [accessibility features] down the road, which is the hardest thing about working on accessibility challenges. Before you begin designing specific course elements, read the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) checklist and get a sense of the types of activities that become barriers to learners with disabilities. 

Reading that before you even start designing means you will be thinking about accessible solutions throughout the process, and it will change the way you approach your design: Instead of thinking in terms of “Oh, we should do a video here. We should do an interactive graphic here. We should paste a picture here…” you will find yourself asking a much better question: “How can we get this information across in the most readable way for everyone?” 

Having an accessibility-first mindset during the design process will save you tons of time and money in the future and create a better, more usable product overall.

What advice would you give to a program manager who wants to design an accessible and inclusive digital learning experience?

Lexie: To design accessible digital learning experiences, always begin by talking to your learners. Don’t assume you know what your learners need and then create that. Ask them what they need and what has worked for them in the past. Learners must be involved in the design process, because ultimately, they’re the ones who will use your product. Build learner research in at the beginning, and come back to it throughout your design process.

Marc: When talking to a third party about accessibility compliance, there are a few simple ways to ensure they know what they’re talking about, beyond lip service. As you get to know them, ask yourself: “Can someone at the company speak fluently about accessibility? Are they familiar with WCAG? Can they provide concrete examples?” Accessibility is so much more than nice ideas and well-wishes. It’s a set of concrete actions and regulations and standards that you can learn at an expert level and practice expertise in. 

Justice: Accessible designs are extremely usable. Learners stay longer on sites with good UX, so if you design for accessibility and quality UX, you will build a better product overall and attract more learners. Accessible websites and digital media have robust information architecture that translates to better search engine optimization, which helps more prospective learners find them through search engines. To get to good site architecture and UX, begin your design process with an audit of your platform or LMS and your content, figure out the gaps, and make a plan to build accessibility into your plan going forward. 

Swati Carr, Ph.D.

Swati Carr is a former Research Fellow at Extension Engine. She took an unusual route into education design coming from a 10+ year stint doing bioengineering research through her M.S. and then Ph.D. While at Extension Engine, she designed and created effective educational experiences on digital platforms, and evaluated existing educational content against defined learning outcomes to find ways to improve them, bringing the scientific method and evidence-based decision making to all her work. Prior to Extension Engine, Swati designed authentic assessments for blended and digital learning in biosciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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