In light of this week’s 10-year anniversary of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we’re back with another conversation with Learning & Development Consultant, Michelle Arentz.

Firstly, what is Global Accessibility Awareness Day about?

This, in their own words, is about getting “everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion, and the more than one billion people with disabilities/impairments.”  Held every third Thursday in May, it’s a day to bring attention to a fairly overlooked yet very important aspect of daily life that many of us take for granted.

What kinds of things does digital access or inclusion include?

This can run the gamut from text that’s hard to read on screens, missing text, interactive buttons with nothing in them, empty links, lack of text to explain images, or even missing language options on documents.  Think of all the times you see things on your smartphone, tablet or other devices that may irritate you because they’re not quite right, but then compound that frustration by having additional impairments that mean missing pieces make your understanding or experience that much harder.

Man and woman collaborating in a board room

When one considers that over 1 billion people across the globe have some form of disability.  With a current estimate of 7.9 billion people on Earth, we’re talking about almost 13% of us needing some form of assistance or accommodation.  Building awareness is a good place to start (hence the GAAD celebrations) and then look at where we can make small yet significant changes and improvements to how we create, share and use digital spaces.

What kinds of measures can be taken to be more accessible and inclusive in digital spaces?

For a little more context, let’s look at a few common situations that require a different approach to handling.  As the GAAD website points out, there are four key areas that require an understanding of how digital devices and spaces are used:

  • Visual impairment – this may require alternative text to explain images that cannot be seen, and keyboard usage instead of a mouse: Braille can be used on the keyboard, but how can you know where the mouse is when you cannot see it?  Consider how heavily we rely on mousing when using computer stations, kiosks or laptops and what that could mean to employees or customers.
  • Hearing impairment– for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, consider how captioning can be incorporated, or using visual cues instead along with verbal ones.  If you’ve ever tried watching a movie or show with the sound off, it will help give a better idea of what this can be like.  You only get the broad brushstrokes of the story, and miss important details or elements that create an enriched experience.  
  • Motor control impairment – alternative keyboards or other devices may be used for those who cannot work with conventional keyboards, mice or touch screens.  How can we get clever about adaptive technologies to help users navigate online experiences? Consider how challenging it could be for someone to interact with your digital display or kiosk if they can’t reach or move in ways that allow them to touch buttons or screens. How could these be adapted to fit the needs of those with limited physical abilities, which could also include height and viewing angles? I know as someone who is “able bodied” but short how frustrating it can be at times to have things placed higher than is useful or comfortable for me to reach, so I can imagine what it must be like when just about everything is built with the assumption that we’re all able to walk, sit in chairs etc.  
  • Cognitive impairment – some screens have so much going on, it’s hard to focus or tell what’s what. Users who have cognitive challenges need digital spaces that are uncluttered, consistently designed and/or laid out, and have straightforward and simple language. When I was a high school teacher, I’m sure there were some students who found my classroom overwhelming because I would display a lot of materials on the walls. I like a lot of visual elements myself, but need to be aware that for others, this is the last thing that will help them enjoy their work environment or interactions.
Laptop open on a desk

That’s a lot of ground to cover. 

For sure. Ideally, we’d have a lot more of what’s called “Design for All”, which simply says that anything we build or design – including in digital experiences – incorporates a wide range of needs and capabilities. It’s like saying we always have ramps and grab bars installed, not as an afterthought or legal requirement, but because the right thing to do is make things that work for everyone right from the get-go.

That’s a great point, but given many companies may not be able to do that, what would be a few simple steps to start with to improve on digital accessibility?

First, talk about it.  Make it a topic of discussion the next time a team is innovating or getting creative about a product or service. Put it on the radar in your organization that this is something you need to incorporate more, and make it a building block moving ahead.  

Secondly, get informed. Ask around and find out what are the common challenges out there – for your employees, your customers, your business partners.  What are they experiencing that could be improved or enhanced, and what would they want or need to make that happen? Partner up with groups associated with GAAD and become more educated on the topic and what best practices for accessibility and digital inclusion are out there.

Thirdly, try something – anything – to get moving on the path to more corporate inclusion and accessibility. You may not be able to rewrite the software on your digital display (though it would be helpful to put the bug in the ear of your content provider), but you could likely adjust the height of it. You can provide equipment to help staff enjoy a better experience with their digital devices. 

Businessman commuting with a smartphone and headphones.

Those are some good ideas. What else can be done?

Well, though I just mentioned that one may not be able to rewrite the content, it is possible to augment it in ways that reach more people.  The kinds of capabilities that ReadSpeaker has, for example, means that the text-to-voice solutions for education “interpret” existing materials, making it a cost-effective way to bring greater inclusivity to the workplace. As we’ve discussed before, not all employees are great readers, or proficient in a given language, so the ability to make material more accessible by meeting them where they are goes a long way to bridging some gaps. 

Consider the level of diversity that touches your organization; internally and externally. How can you better reach and connect with existing and potential customers by making them feel more welcome, included and cared for? As we’ve discussed in previous conversations, diversity, equity and inclusion are vital to business success these days. Smart organizations will prioritize measures that push for changes benefiting everyone, regardless of ability.

Need more information on how to make your digital content more accessible and inclusive?

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About Michelle Arentz

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With degrees in Communication Studies and Education, learning has been an integral part of Michelle’s life. Having woven a career tapestry over the past 20+ years that has moved between corporate learning and development and public education, for her, it’s a calling, not just a career. With many years’ experience in content, course, and program design and delivery, making learning engaging and meaningful is her mission. Sharing her love of facilitating and teaching, she has reached a wide range of audiences, from high school students to manufacturing plant workers to corporate leaders, both domestically and abroad. Now operating as an independent consultant and instructional designer in her business, Michelle blends her skills and passion for skill and knowledge advancement in the service of clients who wish to improve the life-long learning journey of themselves and their employees.

About Lazarus Learning

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Lazarus Learning LLC was inspired by Michelle’s desire to ‘breathe new life’ into learning content, resurrecting existing materials clients may have, or creating it from scratch. Years of experience in learning and development proved that while many have great knowledge and abilities, it’s not always evident in the materials they have. Everyone benefits when given access to enriched and engaging learning materials and experiences, and Michelle is determined to help rid the world of “death by PowerPoint” as she applies her talents to learning and development projects.