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What is “accessibility” in learning design, and why is it important?

What is "accessibility" in learning design, and why is it important?

David Berman has made a career out of ensuring that learning is accessible for all who want to learn. He is an author, expert speaker, professor, communications strategist and the president of David Berman Communications.

Recently, David and I had a chance to sit down and talk about “accessibility” – what does that term even mean, why is it important, what does it look like in action, and perhaps most importantly, what are some simple steps that anyone listening to this podcast might be able to take – today – in order to make their learning design more accessible.


Brian Washburn: Welcome back to everyone who’s listening to Train Like You Listen, this is our first episode of 2023. Train Like You Listen is a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the co-founder of a little boutique instructional design company called Endurance Learning, and today I am joined by David Berman of David Berman Communications. We’ll get to him in just a second.

But before we get to that, I do want to let you know that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, an online tool that you can use for five or ten minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing a live, instructor-led training. So basically you go into, you tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people will attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are, and then Soapbox will instantly generate a training plan for you with a cluster of training activities that’s designed to help you accomplish your learning outcomes. If you want more information or if you want to try it yourself, you can visit All right.

7-Word Biography

As I mentioned, I’m here with David Berman of David Berman Communications, and today we’re talking about the topic of accessibility in learning, particularly eLearning. And David is an author, a speaker, a professor, a communications strategist, and as I mentioned, he’s the President of David Beman Communications. Before I get any further, I’d like to welcome him and ask him to introduce himself using exactly seven words with a biography.

David Berman: Brian. Hi. Thanks for having me. This is fun.

Brian Washburn: Hello.

David Berman: Seven words. Here I go. “Help people leave no one behind online.”

Brian Washburn: I love that because if I was to introduce myself using seven words, I would say, “I have been slow to emphasize accessibility.” And maybe we can talk a little bit about kind of my perspective and why that has been. Not something I’m proud of, but it’s something that has definitely been part of my learning curve. Before we get too far into a conversation about accessibility, I think that a lot of people who are listening may have heard this word thrown around a lot, and different people may use the term–

David Berman: Sorry, Brian. I got another one. “Make eLearning accessible for people with disabilities.”

Brian Washburn: So, perfect.

David Berman: Mhm.

Brian Washburn: And that goes right into this question here in terms of what is accessibility because lots of people might have heard the term used in different ways. Just for the purposes of our conversation here, how would you actually just define the term accessibility?

What is Accessibility?

David Berman: Brian, that’s a great question because we hear so many different definitions of accessibility, and yet I find, especially when we’re working with instructional designers, that we need definitions which can get us where we want to go. So because of my design background, we simply, in my organization, we think of accessibility as simply a collection of extreme cases of usability.

Brian Washburn: Okay. Can you talk a little bit more about what do you mean by that, and who are we talking about here?

David Berman: Sure. So I’m thinking about my audience. And imagine a diagram with three ovals, one within the other, and this in the middle is an oval that is called labeled accessibility.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

David Berman: And that oval is entirely contained within another oval called usability. And then we all know that usability is contained in the largest oval, which is simply great design.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

David Berman: And the reason I’m insisting that these ovals are completely contained by each other because sometimes people think– and I totally get this because we’ve worked with designers and governments and Fortune 500s on six continents– and it was the same for me as a designer when I was first starting out and I encountered accessibility. I thought, “Oh no. What is this thing? And does this mean I’m going to have to compromise the quality? I’m going to have to lose the nuance. I’m going to have to go lowest common denominator on what I do. The humor will be gone and all this.”

And so I was understandably terrified that making things accessible, making things usable by everyone, was going to compromise my design. But over the years now specializing in this area, we have a philosophy we call no trade-offs accessibility, which means that any change we make to a course, to a document, to a website, we want to make a change that either is invisible to the majority of learners or enhances the quality of the UX for all learners.

We're simply trying to make the learning work for everyone. We want to include everyone.

And so we don’t see a contradiction between making something accessible and making it great for everyone. And that’s why we think of the accessibility as the collection of extreme cases of usability because essentially, Brian, as you know, we’re simply trying to make the learning work for everyone. We want to include everyone.

Brian Washburn: And yeah, this is really interesting. It brings me back. Early in my career, I was studying for a master’s degree in bilingual special education, and one day I was working with this special education teacher in the school I was assigned to. And I started asking her some questions about what we need to do above and beyond extra for some of the students who are in the special ed program, and she looked at me and said,”Honestly, what I do is just good teaching. That’s all it is, right? It’s good design. And that’s what you just mentioned.

And so I want to kind of make sure that people understand the why. Why are we having this conversation? I really– what you said really resonates with me in terms of, “Ugh, if I have to do this, does this mean I have to kind of water down my design? Do I have to be less creative so it’s more universal?” And you just– you kind of answered that a little bit and said, “No, you don’t actually have to do that. In fact, when possible it shouldn’t even be noticeable to most people as they’re going through it.”

And I mentioned that I’ve been slow to emphasize accessibility, you know, through our blog posts, and here in this podcast, we’ve begun to focus a little bit more attention on it. I’d love to hear, in your mind, why is acceptability important? Especially, as you mentioned, it’s really kind of going for those extreme cases. So why should we even be focused on it?

Four Reason Why Accessibility Is Important

David Berman: Well, it certainly– Brian, the answer differs depending on the project, the situation, but essentially it comes down to a few possibilities. Some people are making sure that things are accessible because they’ve been told they must. They’ve said there’s this law, this regulation, this standard, and suddenly we gotta do that. And that’s not a bad reason to light a match under you to get it done.

However, the business benefits really come out when we realize that we simply want to leave no one behind online. We want to make sure every member of our audience gets the learning outcomes they’re seeking. So whether it’s a matter of making sure that everyone can enjoy our messages, whether it’s making sure that everyone can– people of all abilities can learn and retain information, whether it’s making sure that our organization can– or our client’s organization can attract the very best people and can retain the very best people.

Why would you want to leave out 18% of your market? Why would you want to not be able to train 18% of potential hires or retain them? And so it's simply good business.

It’s simply bad business to be cutting yourself out of , you know– the World Health Organization argues that perhaps 18% of the world’s population lives with a substantial disability. Now, why would you want to leave out 18% of your market? Why would you want to not be able to train 18% of potential hires or retain them? And so it’s simply good business.

Now, the third reason would be a social justice argument. You know, we can measure the quality of our civilization by identifying how well we treat people who are disadvantaged, who are not given as much resources as others. So that’s a powerful argument as well.

When we organize our content according to technical standards for accessibility, it's more likely we'll get more search results when people are searching for what we're offering, and the search results will be of a higher quality. Who doesn't want that?

And now, if your product is one that’s public-facing, we can also make arguments that we get better search results with content that’s accessible. You know, imagine– let’s say you’ve got content that’s Google-facing. Well, maybe Google has– the Google search AI has the cognitive ability of perhaps a three- or four-year-old. When we organize our content according to technical standards for accessibility, it’s more likely we’ll get more search results when people are searching for what we’re offering, and the search results will be of a higher quality. Who doesn’t want that?

Brian Washburn: Yeah. I love where you’re going with this because you don’t just offer one reason, right? It’s not just because somebody told you to or because it’s the law. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, even though that should be kind of a big driver. There’s also a business case to be made. And so why wouldn’t you do this? And so there’s lots of different reasons for it that hopefully at least one of those will be a good enough reason for anybody who’s listening here.

Now, when we talk about accessibility, it sounds like a great concept. I would love to hear from you what accessibility actually looks like in practice. Do you have some really good, clear examples that you’ve seen in learning that do a good job of representing accessible design?

Examples of Accessible Design In Learning

The more we can allow a learner to engage with content in the way that works best for them, the more likely we're going to get great learning outcomes.

David Berman: Absolutely. From a framework perspective, I’m sure the majority of our audience is familiar with UDL – Universal Design for Learning, the great invention of CAST. And we get to work with CAST as partners often. And so if you look at the core principles of UDL, accessibility maps onto them perfectly. If we’re trying to provide a means of representation in our audience, if we’re trying to provide multiple means of engagement, if we’re trying to allow people each to have a personalized experience as a learner, this is really all about accessibility. Because we know every mind is different, and the more we can allow a learner to engage with content in the way that works best for them, the more likely we’re going to get great learning outcomes.

Now, specifically, we were involved with a new product called InSpace – it’s a learning platform that was developed in Vermont. And imagine if you were trying to create something like Zoom, but you wanted to make it specifically for higher ed classrooms and make them as inclusive as possible. We got to work with the team at InSpace and we started developing features which were just next level. And, you know, Brian, if I can go kind of fourth wall for a moment with you, this is a podcast.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

David Berman: I can see you, and you can see me.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

David Berman: I’m going to go sideways for a moment because when we tend to think about disability, people tend to think of extreme cases. For example, someone who’s never seen since birth and may never see. We think of someone who may have never– has never heard anything and may never hear. Or someone with an extreme mobility challenge, perhaps someone who’s quadriplegic and has no use of their limbs below their neck, or very minor use of the limbs below their neck. We think of these extreme cases and that’s smart because typically if we can come up with design solutions that take care of those extreme cases and we do them well, then everyone benefits.

But the fact is the vast majority of disability is so much more subtle. The majority of people who are legally blind can see some things. The majority of people with auditory challenges can hear some things. And so the reason I’m dwelling on this is that when we design for the extremes in such a way, we take advantage of all these situations.

So if right now, everyone who’s listening to this podcast has a temporary disability in that they can only hear us, they can’t see us. So for example, as an educator, when I was describing my Venn diagram earlier to you, I audio describe ovals that you or I can see, but they can’t hear right now. This mindset that when you’re creating content, and you think of it as, Hmm, what would a podcast be like of this course? All this visual material I’m providing, it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the human eye because, well, the largest bandwidth pipe for information into the human brain is for most of us, the eye. So why wouldn’t an instructional designer, why wouldn’t an educator take advantage of that? But at the same time, we gotta be thinking, “Hmm, how am I providing this content with multiple modalities? How am I making sure that someone can get my content, whether they’re seeing it, whether they’re hearing it, etc.?

We get more likelihood that the speed of uptake is increased, the likelihood of retention is increased because we're using even more than one human sense to get the stuff.

And if we provide it in more than one channel all the time, then you’re– if I can say “typical” and I’m air quoting- a “typical” learner can then combine the channels and we get more likelihood that the speed of uptake is increased, the likelihood of retention is increased because we’re using even more than one human sense to get the stuff. So all that comes back to UDL. And so back to, I’m sorry, I got distracted, but–

Brian Washburn: Yeah. No, no, no.

David Berman: But InSpace. So imagine this space. What we do in InSpace was– imagine the classroom and Zoom, but instead of just having the Hollywood Squares across the top of the Zoom interface, each person is a circle that can move around the space. So you can drag yourself into different parts of the room, and depending on how close your circle is to someone else, the volume of their voice goes up or down, depending on the proximity. If we’re in breakout rooms, if you move into another breakout room, you can’t be heard at all. So we started thinking about how do we create that virtual space?

And then– but what about the student who’s blind, who’s going around that space? What should they hear as they get close to a wall? How should they know that they’ve reached the edge of the space? A student who is deaf and is brought with them a sign language interpreter, how can we make it so the sign language interpreter accompanies them everywhere they move in the space and can leave them in a space, go, take a break, come back? This was the type of next-level work we’ve been doing in higher ed education to make sure we include everyone. And well, the delightful thing was everyone seems to enjoy this – learners of all ages, genders, cultures, abilities. We want to welcome them all, and that’s part of how we get it done.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And so you offered a few different examples there. Some of the things that we’ve done is, you know, making sure that any of the imagery is tagged so people who are using screen readers can kind of mouse over the images and they get a description of what’s on the screen. And do you have other examples of specific elements in different courses or in a virtual environment that paint a picture of what accessibility looks like? So that when people are thinking of accessibility, they’re not just thinking kind of this broad, “Oh, we should do this, but what will it actually look like?”

Specific Elements That Can Help Make Learning More Accessible

David Berman: Absolutely. You know, it starts with the tools we use. And for example, let’s say an instructional designer is using Storyline 360 from Articulate to create a module. Now– and I gotta say Articulate has upped their game so dramatically in the last five years. You know it used to be we’d run a course on how to make Storyline and Rise accessible. And it used to be we’d have to struggle with workarounds, but they’ve done such a great job of making it possible to create fully accessible modules.

Now here’s an example of where thinking about accessibility, having your head wrapped around it can help. So imagine you’re choosing an activity. Now, a drag-and-drop activity is very difficult to make accessible because if the way to perform the action requires the mobility as well as the vision in two-dimensional space to take an object and move it from one place to another, then we’ve already made it very challenging. And so, in fact, when we’re teaching instructional designers how to get the best, most accessible experience out of Storyline 360 without trade-offs, there are simply certain activities we don’t do that. Let’s use another activity style, which is more likely to work for everyone.

Now, if there was some reason you absolutely had to do a drag-and-drop activity, we could instead provide two activities, one that is more inclusive and one has the specific drama you’re looking for in that type of activity. But in general, we tend to try to stay with one version for everyone.

Brian Washburn: Mhm. And that makes perfect sense. And I know that as we kind of wind down our time here, you actually have a place where people who are listening can go to get more resources done – this idea of accessibility. So I do not want to leave here today without offering you an opportunity to share resources or make any shameless plugs that you might have, for how people can learn a little bit more or maybe even what you might be able to teach people outside of this podcast.

Resources for Accessible Learning Design

If someone's just beginning to get into this, we would want them to think about imagining what it would be like to not think of accessibility as something we add on at the end, but that when we're designing, we're doing things inclusive by default.

David Berman: For sure, Brian. Well, I think if there was one takeaway, if someone’s just beginning to get into this, we would want them to think about imagining what it would be like to not think of accessibility as something we add on at the end, but that when we’re designing, we’re doing things inclusive by default.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

David Berman: And it requires a lot of changes of habits, but in the end, we’ll find it takes no more effort to create a completely accessible product. And so we’ve been collecting resources. We have a website called What the cool kids call named after the International Technical Standard. So gets you into our ever-enlarging curated library of resources on various digital accessibility topics. So whether you’re doing courses, websites, applications, multimedia, we’ve got hundreds of resources to check out and the whole site’s interesting. We’ve got a cookbook in there as well. So I think maybe people could paw around in that if you’d like.

Brian Washburn: Perfect. And, we’ll have a link to that, on the transcript of this. So for those who are listening, if you get this not through Spotify or Apple or wherever you are getting podcasts, if you want to see what that link is, go ahead and head to our website and we’ll have that link along with the transcript of this entire conversation.

David, thank you so much for giving me some time and really sharing this word about accessibility when it comes to learning. And thank you everyone else for listening to this podcast. If you know someone who might find today’s topic about accessibility in learning to be important, go ahead and pass along a link to this podcast. If you want to make sure that you are notified of a new podcast when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Even better is if you can give us a review, give us those five stars. It’ll take you a minute, but it would mean a lot to me.

If you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development strategies, you can pick up a copy of What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training written by yours truly. That’s at And until next time, happy training everyone.

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