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Accessibility is a word that crops up constantly within the digital space, particularly when referring to online learning. Many believe accessibility is a modern concept, something which came about as a result of the digital era, but is that true?

Accessibility actually has roots dating back more than 200 years, and can be attributed to a person by the name of Louis Braille.

As a pupil at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris during the 1820s, Louis Braille developed a tactile representation of alphabetic and numerical symbols using six dots to represent each letter and number. This is what is commonly known as Braille.

Weird fact about Louis Braille – his body is buried in Paris where he studied, but his hands are buried in his hometown of Coupvray as a symbol of Louis’ system of touch reading.

Today (4 January) marks World Braille Day, remarkably only being celebrated for the fourth time in history. Unfortunately, 200 years on since its inception, braille is not widely used, with estimates from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) indicating there are as few as 20,000 braille users in the UK.

Within this blog, we will explore modern-day accessibility, specifically for the purposes of online learning. We will look at a variety of technologies and techniques that you can implement within your own learning programmes/systems, to ensure your learning offering is inclusive of those with visual and auditory impairments.

The Standards

One of the key standards to look out for is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This standard applies to all online content, of which eLearning is a category.

The guidelines are currently in a state of limbo. The latest “published” is WCAG 2.1 but we already have a “working draft” for WCAG 2.2, which is scheduled to be officially published by June 2022.

WCAG 2.2 includes all previous guidance from WCAG 2.0 and 2.1, as well as new guidelines to cover modern technology and how people are consuming content today.

Within the latest “working draft” there are a multitude of standards which, unfortunately, we can’t go through in this blog. But you can check them out by visiting https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG22/. With that being said, we will bring your attention to a few fairly easy ones to keep an eye out for when reviewing content from new suppliers, or creating your own content in-house:

Audio Controls

If any audio on a webpage plays automatically for more than 3 seconds, either a mechanism is available to pause or stop the audio, or a mechanism is available to control audio volume independently from the overall system volume level.

This supports those who use screen readers, as any audio that automatically plays can affect the user’s ability to actually hear the screen reader.

Use of Colour

Colour should not be used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response or distinguishing a visual element, e.g., “Please complete the sections marked in red”.

This supports those that struggle to differentiate colours.

Non-text Content

All non-text content such as images and video should provide the user with a text alternative that serves the equivalent purpose.

This ensures images can be conveyed to a screen reader.

Screen Readers

We’ve referenced screen readers throughout this blog, so it’s probably a good idea to explain what they are, and recommend some that we use within our own eLearning content.

A screen reader is a piece of software which allows visually impaired visitors to online content to access all or most of the displayed content. They also support visitors who find reading text challenging.

Not all content necessarily needs to be accessible; but what is important is that all significant learning content is accessible. This will include things like:

  • Body text and instruction
  • Images which relate directly to learning content
  • Titles, headings, button labels and navigable contents
  • Other significant media, such as audio and video

When a screen reader is active and focus is given to an element on the page, each preceding and subsequent element can be reached by using the Up and Down arrow keys on your keyboard. As the screen reader reaches each element, it will attempt to read out the content it finds there.

So what about images? A screen reader will have nothing to read out if it comes across an image which has been given no alternative text. Instead, the screen reader will skip right past the image, which could, from the perspective of a visually impaired learner, negatively alter the course flow or pace, create gaps in the learning, and generally ruin the learning experience.

This is why your content must adhere to the WCAG 2.2 guidelines!

Recommended Screen Readers

Accessibility is an increasingly crucial aspect of high-quality and inclusive design, so it’s unsurprising that there are many screen readers available to download. While some screen reader software comes with a price tag, we have suggested some popular options you can use for free in order to test your own course’s accessibility. These are Narrator, NVDA, Orca and VoiceOver:

Narrator

If you’re using Windows, you’ll already have instant access to screen reader software. Start and exit Narrator with Windows logo key + Ctrl + Enter. You can then make your way through your course’s page with the Up and Down arrow keys and the Tab key.

You’ll need to ensure that Narrator’s Scan mode is enabled in order to hear sentences and paragraphs read out. Scan mode can be toggled on and off with Caps Lock + Spacebar.

Learn more about Narrator by going to https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/22798/windows-10-complete-guide-to-narrator

NVDA

NVDA is one of the most well-known pieces of screen reader software, and is open source and free to download for Windows. Once you’ve launched NVDA, you can access preferences, help and other tools with Insert + N. This is also where you’ll need to go in order to exit the screen reader.

Similar to Narrator, make your way through the page by using the Up and Down arrow keys and the Tab key.

Learn more about NVDA by going to https://www.nvaccess.org/about-nvda

Orca

For users of the GNU/Linux operating system, Orca is a popular option. It is free open source software and can be installed for most GNU/Linux distributions.

Learn more about Orca by going to https://help.gnome.org/users/orca/stable

Voiceover

For Mac users, VoiceOver comes built-in with many features and a lot of potential for customisation.

Learn more about VoiceOver by going to https://www.apple.com/accessibility/mac/vision

Top Tips for Screen Readers

Screen readers can be tricky; what works within the eLearning course itself may not transfer very well to a screen reader. We have therefore provided 3 top tips for screen readers:

Use the word “to” instead of a dash

Screen readers are unable to establish meaning or context. When providing a date range such as 1997-2014, the screen reader would read this as “1997 2014”. Instead you can use the phrase “1997 to 2014” to provide full context.

Use Popular Names

Screen readers aren’t the best at staying up to date with society. If you are providing a case-study example within your content, ensure you use fairly basic or popular names to help with the pronunciation of the name.

Use Simple Words

Screen readers focus on basic English. Do your best to use the simplest language possible so that it transfers to the screen reader correctly.

Ultimately, our top tip is to TEST TEST TEST!

Content from Learning Nexus

When building eLearning content for our clients, off-the-shelf or bespoke, we focus heavily on accessibility. We believe that our content follows the appropriate WCAG 2.1 standard and compliments the more widely used screen readers.

We offer more than 200 off-the-shelf eLearning titles, so if you don’t believe our content is accessible, or you want to see what accessible eLearning content looks like, email us at hello@learningnexus.co.uk and we’ll give you free reign to review any content that you are interested in.