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The 4-1-1 on Section 508

The most important part of developing an online course is also the part most often overlooked: making the content equally available to all learners, including those who have disabilities that impact the way they use technology.

Section 508 standards, part of the federal government’s Rehabilitation Act, outlines rules to help make online information accessible to people with special needs. It’s a fairly recent amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, added less than two decades ago.

While the regulations are specific and exhaustive, covering everything from software applications to video and multimedia products, there is a basic rule of thumb underlying the framework: you must give people with disabilities access to information that is comparable to access available to others.

In other words, you should strive to create content that offers equivalent access to learners with special needs. If that’s not possible, you must offer alternative access. An example of equivalent access is an activity that users with or without disabilities can use, such as text that can either be read or listened to. An example of alternative access is creating an entirely different learning activity for an audience with disabilities, such as replacing an in-person manual task with a virtual equivalent. Either way, the learner objectives and outcome should remain the same for all audiences.

So check: is your eLearning course equally accessible to learners with visual impairments? How about hearing loss? What about users who can’t use a standard keyboard?

Many authoring tools, such as Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate, have built-in functions to automatically create compliant versions of your courses for users with disabilities. However, there are still many decisions you must make during the course development and building process to ensure that the content is accessible to all learners.

Here are some ways to make your course Section 508-compliant:
  • Offer a text equivalent for every non-text item on screen. For example, photos should all have an “alt” tag that describes the image for screen readers.
  • Avoid video effects or animations that create a flickering effect on the screen.
  • Offer a transcription of videos and audio (including both narration as well as a description of the action on screen) and/or create closed captions to play during videos. (Note: It’s best to create your own transcriptions, rather than relying on free, automatic captioning services like the one YouTube offers—these services are error-prone, making them an unappealing option for your course.)
  • Make sure your authoring software is compliant with major screen readers (such as JAWS).
  • Allow users to complete all interactions without a mouse. For example, drag-and-drop interactions should be executable with keyboard commands.
  • Give the learner controls to pause, play, and rewind audio and video as needed.
  • Create linear versions of animated material—such as a readable text or comic in place of a moving cartoon.
  • Use a simple color palette with sharp contrasts between hues.
  • Offer learners a printable version of the course that includes screenshots of graphics and all text elements.
  • Avoid drop-down menus, which are difficult for screen readers to read.

Creating accessible courses shouldn’t feel like a burden or an impossible task. Rather, think of it as an opportunity to enhance your instructional design skills. Anticipating a learner’s needs and capacities for processing different types of content is one of the key proficiencies that sets the best designers apart from the rest. If creating opportunities for learning and growth is the aim of instruction, making those opportunities available for all audiences is the ultimate goal.

For more on building courses, check out these blog posts:

Designing Culturally Inclusive Learning Environments

Letting Learners Choose Their Own Path

4 Tips for Building Successful Courses with Articulate Storyline