Why is accessibility in learning still an afterthought – and how can HR change that?

It appears to sit in the ‘too difficult’ bucket, but it should be the norm to consider all learners’ needs, argues Michelle Parry-Slater

Recently, I was asked to keynote at The Learning Network’s annual conference. Sadly, on event day, following speaking at several events that same week, I lost my voice. I could barely squeak a whisper.

I had a choice when I awoke that morning: let down the community of learning volunteers who had pulled #LNConnect23 together or find a solution. Inspired by mute comedian Ahren Belisle, I turned up with Siri and held the mic to my phone as Apple’s AI assistant read aloud the introduction to my presentation. I then moved on to share much more wordy slides than I ever thought I would. All a bit cringe, but effective. Being flexible, not determined, was the first thing I learnt as a trainer way back in the day.

Until that event, I never thought about how I would give voice to the voiceless, both in work and in learning. Since that day I’ve thought of nothing else. How can we be truly inclusive in our learning and development if we don’t consider access for all?

Consciously, or otherwise, we exclude people every day in learning. We design learning content that looks good but with the wrong colour contrasts. We create hybrid events without designing for those online to feel truly included, or those in the physical space feeling it too. We create in-person experiences without consideration of the effort expended for someone with any physical disability to attend.

Last year I had a small operation and was housebound for eight weeks. During that time there was an unmissable book launch that I was involved in. To attend it I took a cab from my door for the 35 miles to central London as that was the only way to be part of that learning experience.

It was expensive and exhausting and put my recovery back a few days. For some people that is their everyday reality when we only offer a face-to-face learning experience. How could that event have truly included me from my home? Surely that’s not too hard? The technology is available. Or perhaps we are simply too used to not advocating for those who need us to?

My two stories could happen to anyone facilitating or attending learning. Access to my learning experiences was hindered only temporarily. Susi Miller, author of Designing Accessible Learning Content, reminds us of two important accessibility factors here. First, temporary accessibility needs can happen to anyone at any time. We should not assume our learners have no accessibility needs. Second, when we design learning to be accessible for all from the outset, we all win. 

I entirely agree. Consider responsive web design. It is seamless to move from laptop to mobile or tablet. It is easy, smooth, enjoyable and accessible no matter how you choose to join in. Shopping at John Lewis, for example, seamlessly synchronises across multiple devices and can even blend with an in-store shopping experience. Imagine if your learning experience was that easy and seamless for everyone. How engaging.

Yet accessibility in learning seems to still be an afterthought. It appears to sit in the ‘too difficult’ bucket. We might think about adding subtitles to a video if the AI tech offers them to us, or if a person with a hearing loss asks for them. But those words do cut across our beautiful cinematography, so we would rather they were not there, wouldn’t we?

Accessibility as a feature can get lost in the graphic design looking good, lost in form over function. A better option is to create films with the bottom 20 per cent of space left empty for subtitles to appear. Then nobody loses out.

I was sent a summary document recently for an organisation design project. Glancing through the document it looked beautiful, with colourful graphics and explainer slides. When I dived into the detail, the text was in block capitals and quite impossible to read easily and quickly. The graphics were so highly detailed but when I zoomed in to see the details, the image became fuzzy. The document was highly inaccessible as a result. Imagine someone with dyslexia trying to access those words in all capitals – why should they have to put their hand up to ask for additional resources? Why not always design for functional use in the first place?

There is simply no need for poor accessibility in learning content. There are freely available tools and guidance for all learning designers, L&D professionals and anyone for that matter to enable everyone with permanent or temporary accessibility challenges to feel part of a learning experience. The standard is the WCAG guidelines. Admittedly the standards set by WCAG are written in a language even an English scholar may raise an eyebrow to. However, there is a lot of help available to further understanding. And further it we must, to ensure all people are welcome to learn.

I think it is lazy of learning content designers and creators to ignore the guidance just because it may seem difficult. I had to use a wheelchair when pregnant and that was difficult too, but I had no choice. I wish those responsible for learning had no choice but to make learning accessible because those that need accessible learning have no choice.

Access needs vary immensely. Have you ever asked what your people need? That’s the only way to be truly inclusive. I can assure you that you do have learners with access needs, from neurodivergence or colour blindness to English as a foreign language or a physical disability. 

Let me end with some easy examples of shift in practice that can benefit all:

  • Neurodivergence covers a wide range of people's needs. For people with ADHD, a clear agenda to learning events is a must to enable them to plan their energy. Another example is putting small group work in the mix, not just larger group work, to support shy, underconfident and neurodivergent colleagues.

  • Colour blindness affects one in 12 men and one in 200 women in the UK. Support your colleagues by putting your content or web design through a colour contrast tool.

  • Many people you work with will have English as a foreign language. This is a good reminder to always use plain English in your learning.

  • Physical disability takes many forms, but a commonality is the exhaustion from doing everyday things. A default design setting of hybrid for learning events invites your colleagues who need to have access to learning without tiredness, which is not a productive state for learning.

Reframe accessibility from another thing on your to-do list to being at the heart of your learning offer because it is the right thing to do by everyone. And if you don’t know where to start, may I suggest Susi Miller’s book?

Michelle Parry-Slater is the author of The Learning and Development Handbook