Accessibility and inclusivity in instructional design
The English language is a circus where everything is made up and the points don't matter.
Ensuring that learning materials are accessible and inclusive for all learners—regardless of their abilities, backgrounds, or learning preferences—is critical for today’s instructional designers. We may often be faced with questions of how to design for diverse audiences, create content that complies with accessibility standards, or promote equity and inclusion in the learning environment, examples, and imagery.
In this blog post, I’ll provide some guidance and resources for creating accessible and inclusive learning materials. This is just a high-level overview, so rather than thinking of it as the final word on the topic, consider it a jumping-off point.
Let’s dig in.
Understanding Accessibility and Inclusivity
In the context of instructional design (ID), accessibility means ensuring that content is available and usable by everyone, including people with disabilities. Inclusivity, on the other hand, refers to creating learning experiences that respect and accommodate the diverse needs, preferences, and backgrounds of all learners. This might look like providing multiple ways to access content or incorporating diverse perspectives and examples in the learning materials.
There are also legal and ethical implications of creating accessible content. For example, laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act require certain organizations to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.
And I say this a lot when it comes to questions of accessibility or DEI: It’s good for business, of course. Mountains of evidence exist to support the business case for DEI… But it’s also simply the right thing to do, and that should be enough.
DEI is good for business, of course. But it’s also simply the right thing to do, and that should be enough.
Designing for Diverse Audiences
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that emphasizes flexibility and customization to address the diverse needs of learners. For example, UDL encourages providing multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement.
Here are a few tried-and-true strategies for creating content that caters to diverse learning preferences and needs:
Offer text, audio, and visual versions of content
Provide adjustable font sizes and color contrast options
Encourage active learning through interactive elements and activities
And just a quick note from my experience as a web content writer and website designer: Shorter paragraphs are always better. Yes, your paragraphs can be one sentence! The white space makes things so much easier to read.
Creating Accessible Content
There are many common accessibility standards. For example, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure that web content is accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 is a US federal law that requires electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government to be accessible to people with disabilities.
To create accessible content, you might consider the following:
Provide alt text for images, which is a brief description that can be read by screen readers
Offer transcripts or captions for videos, allowing Deaf or hard-of-hearing users to access the information
Use clear headings and a straightforward structure to help users navigate the content more easily
Promoting Equity and Inclusion
Culturally aware teaching and inclusive language is paramount to an inclusive learning experience. There are lots of ways to go about accomplishing this, but rather than trying to get every single one perfectly right in all of your work, I suggest focusing on 2-3 that will make the biggest impact for your specific audience.
For example, using plain language is important. Not only is writing so much easier to understand without all the extra fluff, but it’s also easier to translate into other languages, or for multilingual learners to grasp concepts. That’s why, when creating online learning content, I do my best to avoid idioms and sayings that would be completely nonsensical to a non-native English speaker. (And even some native speakers, let’s be honest. The English language is a circus where everything is made up and the points don't matter.)
Next up for equity and inclusion, consider incorporating diverse perspectives and real-life examples to ensure that all learners feel represented and valued in the learning process. This may involve seeking out and including resources from a variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences.
It’s essential for instructional designers to prioritize accessibility and inclusivity when creating learning materials.
By understanding the differences between accessibility and inclusivity, designing for diverse audiences, creating accessible content, and promoting equity and inclusion, you can create more effective and engaging learning experiences for all learners.
Remember to continually reflect on and improve your practices to better serve the diverse needs and preferences of your audience. When you stay informed about best practices in accessibility and inclusivity, you can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable learning environment for everyone. So, keep learning, experimenting on, and refining your instructional design approach to make a positive impact on the lives of your learners.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Web Accessibility Initiative (2021). Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. Retrieved from https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (n.d.). HHS.gov: Section 508. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/web/section-508/index.html
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. Teachers College Press.
Cooper, M., Colwell, C., & Jelfs, A. (2007). Embedding accessibility and usability: considerations for e-learning research and development projects. ALT-J, 15(3), 231-245. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ815341.pdf