How to embrace and prioritize accessibility in L&D
Offering employees the same courses doesn’t guarantee the same learning experience.
According to recent research from Boston Consulting Group, most organizations report that their workforce includes relatively few employees with disabilities, representing only 4-7% on average. But when BCG surveyed employees directly, the numbers were closer to 25%.
This disparity confirms that because not all disabilities are visible, many more employees are potentially impacted by learning strategies geared towards a singular understanding of ability, limiting the opportunity for everyone to learn, grow and thrive in their roles.
Put another way: investing in accessibility is no longer a nice-to-have. If a quarter of your workforce has a disability or health condition that limits a major life activity, including navigating learning content that’s role-critical, it’s time to ensure your organization is taking active steps to allow every employee to learn without limits.
Diane Elkins, co-founder of Artisan e-Learning and founding member of Inspire Accessibility, recently appeared on an episode of ITK with host JD Dillon to discuss how organizations in any industry can prioritize accessibility in L&D.
The state of accessibility in the workplace
Conversations about accessibility in the workplace often lean on the regulatory and standards side, but making your organization accessible for all shouldn’t just be about legal requirements or checking boxes.
“The law is the absolute minimum requirement. We cannot expect the law to dictate how we can be kind and fair to each other,” says Elkins. “And the laws have not kept up. Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act is the only law in the U.S. that’s very explicit about digital accessibility. The ADA says, ‘Don’t discriminate against people with a disability.’ But if you can’t take training, if you don’t have the chance to get better at your job, is that not discrimination?”
Leaders should center accessibility in the workplace around the people they’re trying to help to ensure they’re primed to do great work. Elkins knows this is often easier said than done. But with only 36% of companies making a top-down commitment to creating accessible digital experiences, there’s lots of opportunity to do better.
“Help them be equally successful. Give them as much of a chance at success as possible,” she says. “I don’t see how you can do that without making sure your training content is accessible as well. The law, that’s the floor—the minimum—not the goal.”
The good news? Thanks to the slow but steady rise of meaningful DEI initiatives, attitudes about accessibility are changing.
“Three years ago, the world got the wake-up call it desperately needed. And while many DEI efforts focus primarily on race, gender identity and age—all very important identifiers—ability is also starting to become part of that conversation. Some people even say DEIA: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility. But it’s not necessary because you can’t have diversity if you don’t include ability. You don’t have equity if you don’t include ability. You don’t have inclusion if you don’t include ability.”
While there’s still much to be done, Elkins says she’s witnessed first-hand the growing positive sentiment being echoed at L&D conferences.
“Speaking on accessibility several years ago, I’d maybe get 10 people in the audience. But the room was packed this year at ATD’s Core4 conference. I thought, ‘People are starting to care.’ And it’s awesome because, for so many years, this topic was whispered about in the hallways, not talked about on the main stage. So we’re making strides and there’s more buzz, excitement and interest around it than I’ve ever seen, but there’s a long way to go.”
‘Make the job available to everybody—and everybody means everybody’
Instead of making assumptions about what employees with disabilities can and can’t accomplish at work, have regular conversations with all employees about what barriers, systems and processes prevent them from doing their best work and aim to provide resolutions.
Elkins suggests starting with some critical questions: “Are your job postings and application systems accessible? How about your onboarding strategy? Or performance management and requesting time off? There’s an entire ecosystem where people can do the work but can’t do the job because of the barriers we’ve put into place. Let’s make the job available to everybody—and everybody means everybody.”
For an organization starting to develop accessibility strategies within the employee experience, Elkins offers ways to make these initiatives feel more achievable, especially in the short term, but admits it’s not a quick fix.
“I’m not going to pretend that it should be a quick, easy or cheap process. But as one of my fellow speaker friends, Sarah Mercier, says, ‘If it’s not accessible, it’s not done.’ I’d recommend if you want to get organized to keep moving forward. The backlog can keep you stagnant because it can start to feel like if you don’t deal with everything, you can’t deal with the next thing. Just draw a line and stay committed to making accessible decisions.”
Choose progress over perfection to get buy-in
Elkins shares another great quote to keep in your back pocket, this time from Meryl Evans, an advocate for people who are deaf and hard of hearing: “Progress over perfection.”
Taking small strides towards inclusivity in your workplace every day makes an impact. One act of compassion today can leave your workforce in a better place than yesterday, so it should all be considered progress.
“Closed captioning is an easy, low-hanging fruit. Make your buttons a little bigger. Upsize your text a bit,” offers Elkins. “These things don’t typically require much money but will be more than worth the effort for the impact you’ll get. There might be a lot to do, but do anything to move you forward.”
Dedicating time, money and resources to build accessible experiences is a big decision, but it’s the right one. Tech tools can also help bridge gaps and measure the success of accessible resources for employees, like automatic color contrast checkers or offering training with captions in various languages.
If there’s concern about pushback from senior management or a chance that the investment may be turned down, Elkins says it’s vital to paint a picture of accessibility that makes it hard to say no.
“If I say, ‘Hey, we’re embarking on this new project and I’m operating under the assumption that we’ll want to make sure that everybody, regardless of ability, can get better at their jobs. We’ll want to bake that level of equity into this project plan. Are you good with that?’ That’s a lot harder to say no to.”
Get more practical tips for helping employees learn without limits and watch the full ITK episode with Diane Elkins and host JD Dillon.