Designing and Delivering Accessible Learning Programs

January 10, 2019 BY JACLYN LEDUC

Accessibility in learning environments is more important now than ever before. Roughly 19 percent of the U.S. population has a disability, and some people have more than one. Learning professionals must be able to design and deliver courses that work for people who are blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard-of-hearing, or have a cognitive processing or motor disorder.

In the webinar No Learner Left Behind: Designing and Delivering Accessible Learning Programs, Dr. Maureen Orey, President of Workplace Learning and Performance (WLP) Group, poses the question, “How do we design and deliver learning programs that are accessible to all learning needs?”

To help answer this question, she explains how to create accessible learning programs that are Section 508 compliant according to the Learning Environment and Access to Learning matrix. This matrix, developed by Dr. Orey herself, addresses learning programs in different environments and discusses how to engage learners with and without disabilities.

Inclusion and Synergy

When creating an accessible and Section 508 compliant learning program, there are three main things to consider when designing course content:

  • Design for a variety of learning environments
  • Plan to accommodate the full range of accessible needs
  • Acknowledge both visible and invisible disabilities

This is where the Learning Environment and Access to Learning matrix comes in handy, since it helps to address specific access needs for certain learning environments.

There are three main categories of learning environments laid out by Dr. Orey in the matrix: face-to-face, online-instructor-led, online-asynchronous. For example, a face-to-face environment could be a traditional classroom, an online-instructor-led environment could be a live online course, and an online-asynchronous environment could be a pre-recorded online lecture.

On the other hand, there are four central access needs: auditory, visual, physical, and cognitive access. Each access need requires different learning elements depending on the learning environment. For example, to provide auditory access in a face-to-face setting, a sign language interpreter may need to be present. However, in an online-instructor-led environment, live closed-captioning will need to be provided.

Below are just some of the ways that learning environments and access needs can work together.

Auditory Access

  • Face-to-face: Provide closed captioning for video
  • Online-instructor-led: Offer a transcript of the live presentation
  • Online-asynchronous: Arrange verbal instructions into a visual format

Visual Access

  • Face-to-face: Verbally describe visuals and give context
  • Online-instructor-led: Ensure screen reader’s can access “live chat”
  • Online-asynchronous: All content must be keyboard accessible

Physical Access

  • Face-to-face: There must be physical access to the learning location
  • Online-instructor-led: Allow extra time for individual activities
  • Online-asynchronous: provide both audio and visual directions

Cognitive Access

  • Face-to-face: Be flexible to requests for variations in learning needs
  • Online-instructor-led: Communicate directions and expectations clearly
  • Online-asynchronous: Remove time-based restrictions

This matrix places emphasis on the learning environment and varying access needs working together to create an effective, accessible learning program.

For more information, view the entire Learning Environments and Access to Learning matrix.


Learning environment and access to learning matrix


Testing and Auditing Your Program

After designing content, make sure it’s accessible for your specific learning environment and access needs and works as you intended it. For example, if you provide a link to a video that prepares students for an exam, ensure that accurate closed captions and audio descriptions are provided to make that video accessible.

There are evaluation tools and testing methods available on Section508.gov. There you can learn how to conduct both automated and manual testing and how to test websites, software, and electronic documents. As its name suggests, this website offers tactics for Section 508 compliant and serves as a valuable and trustworthy resource.

Though automated testing tools are helpful, you shouldn’t assume that the result is always accurate or that it will capture every access error. “At the end of the day,” says Dr. Orey, “real people have to involve themselves with this content — real people with real access needs.”


Watch the full webinar!

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