Paul Jagger FBCS, Business Area Manager for IBM Learning Development (Europe), makes the argument that accessibility in learning shouldn’t be viewed as a compliance activity, rather it should be embraced as a means of ensuring good design.

The subject of accessibility in learning is often overlooked by organisations engaged in the design, development or delivery of technology-enabled workplace learning. All too often the subject of accessibility is seen as if it were viewed through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars - as a remote and rather inconsequential matter that has little impact on the learning landscape because it is deemed to apply to a minority that are not part of the learner population around here.

This narrow view of accessibility in technology-enabled learning is reinforced by the Code of Practice (2002) of the Disability Discrimination Act (1999) Section III, which labels accessibility as something for people with registered disabilities, who may be perceived to be a tiny and distant audience - not one close to the everyday needs of the business.

Accessibility in learning

Where accessibility in learning is adopted it is often approached as something of a compliance exercise, one that exists only to serve the special needs of the disabled. The public sector, in particular, tends take a stringent view of its obligations to accessibility, yet the legislation applies to all providers of web-services including those in private and not-for-profit sectors. Service providers and employers can be sued for failure to make their web services accessible.

However, let’s not reinforce the view of accessibility being a compliance requirement any more than it already appears. Accessibility should not be embraced as an exercise in litigation mitigation.

The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines do little to dispel this view by describing the guidelines as ‘documents (that) explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities’.

This language all serves to reinforce the perception that accessibility only exists to meet the needs of a disabled audience, and, unless you are unfortunate enough to have a registered disability then accessibility is not for you and therefore has no wider relevance; the truth is very different from perception.

Accessibility isn’t distant, neither does it occupy a tiny part of the digital landscape - rather it is an integral aspect of the learner’s experience that spans the entire horizon, it affects everything we can see, hear, touch, and speak to in a learning environment. When accessibility is embraced as good design for all it ensures the widest possible audience can engage with the learning. How can that be?

Good by design

We all appreciate good design that takes account of the human condition. In other walks of life it’s called ergonomics, in IT the subject is often called human-computer interaction (HCI), but whatever we call it, we all know good design when we experience it (the bottle is an example of good design that hasn’t been bettered) and bad design tends to cause frustration and accelerates obsolesce; any left-handed person who has tried to master a fountain pen will attest to that!

Fortunately, there’s no such thing as a left or right-handed computer, so we start with a platform that isn’t inherently limited by design to exclude a section of the human race.

Good design enhances our experience and results in a positive emotional reaction when we interact with it; this is particularly important for learning as good learning design significantly impacts the acquisition of knowledge, skills and adoption of desirable behaviour.

Positive and enjoyable

Bob Pike’s laws of adult learning tell us that, among other laws: learning is proportional to the amount of fun being experienced and that learners don’t argue with their own data (i.e., learning is reinforced by what we discover and how we experience it), so while accessibility can’t make learning fun it should enhance the learning by removing barriers to a positive, even enjoyable learning experience. Pike’s laws of adult learning are based upon earlier work by Malcolm Knowles on the four principles of adult learning.

Pike’s laws were put to the test in Seymour Papert’s constructivist learning lab (1999) during which he documented Eight Big Ideas, the third of which is ‘Hard Fun’ that posits that we learn best if what we are doing is enjoyable even if it’s challenging. The point here is that the learning should be challenging, rather than the experience of participating in the learning. If a learner is inhibited in their participation then learning will be less effective.

Wide range effectiveness

Accessibility takes specific account of the needs of those with audio, visual, oral, cognitive or mobility impairment. It is easy to think of these in extreme terms of deafness, blindness, serious learning disabilities and other limitations that constitute a registered disability.

However, accessible design (when done properly) addresses the needs of a much wider range of human conditions that may be transitory or permanent in nature.

An example that illustrates the point is colour blindness, a permanent condition which affects an estimated 2.7 million people in the UK of which most are men (about 1:12 men and 1:200 women). In the UK colour blindness is not recognised as a disability so it doesn’t figure among the statistics that show around 1 in 5 people of working age are registered disabled.

Contrary to common misconception colour blindness can develop over time from disease and ageing, or even as a side effect of medication. Furthermore there are several types of colour blindness that affect colour perception in different ways, so there is no ‘one colour palette fits all’ solution. To counter these limitations learning should be designed so that the learner can apply various colour palettes.

Other factors that are likely to affect us all at some stage are those of deterioration in hearing, eyesight and the shrinking of the fat pad tissue on fingertips, an important consideration for touch sensitive devices, all of which are natural consequences of the ageing process.

As more of our devices become capable of natural language processing the incidence of stuttering in the population becomes another important design consideration for learning. Studies show that around five per cent of the population will have suffered from varying degrees of stuttering at some stage during their life, that’s about 3.2 million people in the UK.

Action on hearing loss (the new name for RNID) represents some 11 million people in the UK who have some degree of hearing impairment. Most of those people will have previously experienced no issues with hearing. In much the same way as the need for reading glasses catches up with even those of us who have experienced perfect eyesight in our earlier years, these things tend to develop during our working lives rather than start the day we retire.

In conclusion

So, we can dispel the myth that accessibility is only for the seriously disabled, or that it addresses a tiny minority of the working learner population. Indeed, many people with conditions such as colour blindness, mild hearing loss or stammering don’t self-identify as disabled.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide a progress framework for designing websites that exhibit accessibility. The principles covered in the guidelines can also be applied to other aspects of HCI such as app design, voice recognition and touch interfaces. Technology-enabled learning can be designed and developed to take account of these and other conditions, thereby lowering barriers to learning.

The application of accessible design to the widest possible audience is the approach that I advocate. It isn’t design for just those with disabilities, it is design for the human condition - and that’s something we all suffer from.

Note: A noted authority and source of much advice, guidance and expertise in the field of accessibility is the charity AbilityNet.