Accessibility in eLearning – David Berman

“Because we can, we really must” sums up David Berman’s view on our social responsibility to plan accessibility into all our learning content, regardless if in-person or if we tackle the challenges of accessibility in eLearning by combining graphic design with universal learning principles and technology. In this interview with David Berman of David Berman Communications, we dive into what accessibility is and how we can achieve it – a step at a time.

This interview is relevant for anybody developing learning content or virtual content, regardless of the media selected. It opened my eyes to considering accessibility as a sub-set of usability. Join me in this highly valuable interview experience.

About my guest:

David Berman

David Berman, FGDC, RGD, CPACC  helps organizations get great things done, through the motivation and techniques he provides for applying strategy, design, ethics, and creative branding and communications to business problems. He has over 30 years of experience in inclusive design and strategic communications. As an internationally-acclaimed expert speaker, communications strategist, graphic designer, typographer, and ethics chair, his thought-provoking keynotes and workshops have brought him to over 50 countries. David is the author of Do Good Design which is available in 8 languages including braille. He has been hired by governments and organizations around the world to speak and advise on how to translate accessibility standards into their business practices. 

More information about David Berman Communications:

Find out more about the next workshop.

Find out more about accessibility standards.

Find out more about accessibility.

Transcript on Accessibility in eLearning

Petra Mayer  00:01

Hello and welcome. My name is Petra Mayer of Petra Mayer and Associates Consulting and I am super thrilled to have with me today, today’s guest, David Berman of David Berman Communications. David is an E accessibility expert with over 30 years of experience, helping make learning experiences more inclusive for people living with disabilities in ways that benefit all learners. He is the vice chair of the International Association of accessibility professionals, and holds all the available major certifications. He’s an advisor to the federal government, as well as many of your favorite learning platform vendors. Welcome David, I’m so thrilled to have you here today.

David Berman  00:44

Thank you so much, Petra, I’m jazzed to be doing with you and I’m eager to have a good chat with you about how we can make e-learning work better for everyone.

Petra Mayer  00:54

And and that’s the goal here. We want to learn more from you. And let’s start with something really simple. Accessibility is a word that we hear all over the place. But what is a simple definition for accessibility?

David Berman  01:09

That’s a great question Petra, and there’s all kinds of people have attempted to answer it. The way I like to look at it, though, is that accessibility is just a  subset of usability. You know, when we’re talking about creating learning that works for all learners, Universal Design for Learning, we talk a lot about usability. Just think about accessibility as the extreme cases, within making the experience work for all modalities of learners.

Petra Mayer  01:39

And is that then in all spaces, like we’re talking a lot about virtual, but I think that would probably also apply to the non virtual space, the in person training.

David Berman  01:49

Absolutely. When we think about e-accessibility, we’re thinking about any, we’re taking about websites, we’re thinking about documents, we’re thinking about apps. However, when we’re talking about learning spaces, and of course, even more so because of this darned pandemic, we’ve learned that we think about the accessible experience within the live classroom, with the remote learning, as well as the hybrid situations. So not only are you right, but we also need to unpack it from both the real time events and the asynchronous events. There’s a lot of there’s a lot of lenses. But it all comes back to the same idea. We want to make sure that everyone can have not just an accommodation. But we want to delight everyone, we want to keep everyone engaged, no matter the format.

Petra Mayer  02:39

Awesome, great. Now, I would have always thought that accessibility is something that is a topic for the technical team. But you have a graphic design background. So how did you get to work in this space?

David Berman  02:54

Oh, it’s, it’s really it’s true that people often think about accessibility as a technical challenge. And indeed, an awful lot of it can get quite nerdy, involving devices and software and overlay all kinds of things. However, really, it’s a design challenge. We’re bringing together all that software, all that hardware, all those potential alternate modes of sharing knowledge, as an aspect of designing a better experience. So my background is indeed in graphic design. But at a certain point in my career, I realized that including everyone was perhaps the most attractive design challenge of our time. You know, perhaps there’s been 7000 generations, Petra of humans, Homo sapiens, I should say. And we really live in the first perhaps second generation, where it’s truly possible that everyone can be included. And I feel because, because we can do that, we must do that. So I figured being a designer in this particular age, the most impactful thing I can do is work on how we can make sure that everyone shares in knowledge and learning.

Petra Mayer  04:05

So it bridges between the technology, but it also bridges, the graphic design, but also instructional design to really think through the challenges that individuals may have, who have different abilities. And they all come to the same learning environment. And now we need to bridge across that.

David Berman  04:23

Exactly. I think you’ve nailed it. And Petra, when you think about how to make sure that making sure that you’re creating a space where everyone can succeed in their learning outcomes, what’s what’s your key takeaway to make sure that everyone’s included?

Petra Mayer  04:40

Mm hmm. So we spoken about accessibility in the real world. We were talking about the training event that is an in person event, and also in the virtual world, the asynchronous learning, let’s look deeper into what accessibility means in the virtual world. What do organizations have to pay attention to?

David Berman  05:03

Well, I think what I think one of the most important things is that sometimes people make the mistake of thinking, you can just show up and figure out accessibility in real time and to say, oh, if someone says: Hey, I can’t see or I can’t see so well, we’ll figure out a way to include them or we are someone self identifies as having a hearing challenge. Oh, we’ll turn the captions on. And it’s true that we can kind of get by like that. But we want to really create accessible learning experiences with no trade offs, in a way that when we enhance the design to accommodate everyone, that there’s no trade offs for the typical learner. If there is even such a thing. Then we need to plan ahead. And so I think it’s critical that educators, organizations who educate are thinking way ahead, so that every step of the process involved in creating learning materials, creating an invitation, planning, marketing, intriguing, every step of the way, whether it’s happening in a conference hall, or it’s happening on zoom webinar, that you need to start at the beginning with accessibility in mind.

Petra Mayer  06:19

Yeah, I think that that makes a lot of sense what you’re saying there, particularly when we’re thinking about asynchronous learning, because you don’t know who is going to show up sometime later on in the in the process. So planning in for individuals who have different challenges in receiving the learning makes a lot of sense to me. Now, there is many acronyms about accessibility standards. Can you dissect for us what we need to focus on when it comes to these various acronyms that are available?

David Berman  06:51

There’s lot of abbreviations that can be overwhelming. The one that comes up probably the most is the is something called WCAG. This is the leading standard globally for the technical guidelines for creating accessible, started off as websites but now it’s applied to all sorts of frameworks, LMS, instructional design tools, PDF files, everything, trends back towards some interpretation of WCAG, or what the cool kids called “WIC egg”. So WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. And they’re published by the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, who’s responsible for 99% of the standards we use on the internet, everything from SMTP to www all that. They also publish WCAG.

Petra Mayer  07:44

And when we’re thinking about going to a specific design or specific standard, how would an organization understand what that actually means in practical terms? You know, yeah, there is a long website, and you can read about standards. But what does it actually, how do we translate that into practical actions we have to take when we’re building out learning content?

David Berman  08:10

It’s challenging, and in fact, it can be quite intimidating. You know, I’ve taught organizations on five continents, on how to create more accessible events and I understand it when someone or an instructional designer, or a meeting planner, begins that journey, understandably, it can be a bit terrifying. I remember 25 years ago, when I first got into this, you’re thinking, well, I might, even if I do all these things, am I going to come out and say it’s accessible, and someone else is going to come along and say, You think done successful, you call that accessible? That’s nothing. So it’s not just a matter of getting, understanding what the problem is, and then designing a great solution. But then having the confidence this level of mastery where you can truly feel confident and step out and declare, this is what we’ve created. And this is how accessible it is. And that’s why I love these international standards, because although they can be quite nerdy, they give us a way of measuring. So we can say we’ve either met or exceeded that technical standard in all aspects. Now, we can always go beyond and the ideal is that every event, every classroom, every piece of learning material is available, is perceivable, is understandable to everyone at any bandwidth or any platform, at any level of learning, in any modality, at any intersectional. There’s so many things. That’s an ideal and we will never get there just like you’ll probably never published a learning guide with no typos in it. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t publish it. So the beauty of the of WCAG and other international standards is that it gives us a bar and we can say oh if we’re if we meet or exceed that bar, then we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem. And so the first goal is to get there. Now later, as you become masterful of this, you can say, oh, we’re gonna blow past that, as we become more masterful of it. But first, I want people to get to the point that they realize that it’s never going to be perfect. You don’t have to be. And, and the mastery will come later. But now you’ve got a way of measuring if something’s is is great, but even though it could be greater. Is that helpful?

Petra Mayer  10:33

Yeah, it’s very helpful. David, I think what I hear you say is, don’t get too intimidated get started. So So if we’re thinking about it that way, what would you, what would you say is the first thing to to get started with? Like, what would make the biggest impact for an organization who wants to publish learning content? What does make the biggest impact with maybe the least amount of effort for those organizations to incorporate into their learning content?

David Berman  11:06

Well, for starters, I think a realization that there’s often a fear that also this is going to take more time, this is going to be more expensive. And so I’ve yet to meet an organization where we couldn’t get to a point where we could discover that the investment we make in accessibility actually has a dividend. In fact, you know, during that pandemic, a lot of our clients were saying Kylie, saying, Oh, now I get it. Now that all our people are working remote, and they have all of these temporary disabilities, we realize the value because in the end, we find if you invest in accessibility, it’ll actually more than pay for itself. But only if we only if we do it in a way that there are no trade offs. So we’re always looking for interventions and techniques that are either will be completely neutral to the typical learner, or presenter, or will improve the quality of the event for everyone. That’s always what we’re looking for. So for example, in a zoom meeting, Petra, you know, we can have captions. And that’s whether that’s, that’s helpful. For someone who can’t hear, it’s helpful for someone who steps away to the go to washroom and comes back and wants to know what they missed. It can be done in a way where each learner can choose to have them on or off, change their colors. But it’s up to them, they can control that we’re accommodating multiple modes, modalities, as per universal design for learning. So I want people to throw away the idea that this has to cost money that we’re going to do this just we got to do this. No, rather, we’re going to be able to open up our products to more people. And once we get the habit of building accessibility in from the start, and including people living with disabilities, in the design of our products, we will actually discover the dividend is more than pays for itself. Now the first time it’s going to be trickier I understand. And some things like an audio description of a video does take extra effort. But in total, we find that when we add this framework, this discipline, we get better learning outcomes for everyone.

Petra Mayer  13:13

Yeah, and I think the discipline is I think the big piece that you’re speaking to, once you get started, stay with it and continue working on maybe layering the next level up with the next level up.

David Berman  13:26

It’s true. And it depends, you know, some organizations have a regulatory mandate that they must make things conform to the standards. Other organizations are doing it because they don’t have to, but they want to because they can see the benefits of many layers of benefit, not just the social responsibility benefits. So if if you’re in an organization where it’s up to you, what pace. You can choose one thing so Petra, you’re asking, for example, what’s an easy thing that everyone does? Well, classic, like the poster child for accessibility for visual content is often to make sure that every image, every photograph has alternative text. So for example, right now we’re looking each other on over video. But we’re going to make sure that if I were for example to hold up a puppet of a badger, I would make sure that I’m describing the fact that I’m holding up a puppet of a badger so that even if you weren’t hearing, even if you weren’t seeing what I’m doing, everyone is listening to the audio track knows that there’s a badger now making silly faces at David and now leaving. So in that way, what I do is they incorporated the audio description in a fun way right into the video? And therefore we don’t have to come back and add an audio description track for anything, that’s a matter. So the same thing if I were to put a photo up behind me during a PowerPoint presentation, I want to make sure that there’s alternative text that would say, let’s say a photo of Petra Mayer, because it’s important to the learning because we’re learning about “Name a Mayer”, let’s say. And so, but we can also make sure that in a live, live presentation, our presenters will learn that to describe anything that’s that matters in the visual material they’re sharing as they go.

Petra Mayer  15:13

That is visible. So I think you’re speaking to a number of things we’ve spoken about closed caption, you spoke about kind of diversity in the imagery, but also the imagery alt text, that we’re actually describing what we’re seeing. So that that already is, you know, serving some individuals in improving their learning experience. So what are if we wanted to bring it together, what are three things that a learning and development team really must pay attention to in your views?

David Berman  15:50

Well, I’ve already mentioned this idea of coming up with no trade off solutions, we don’t want to decrease the quality of the of the event for the majority of our learners in order to be able to accommodate everyone. I believe there’s always a way to find the no trade offs solution. And we should always strive for that. The second is that especially in instructional design, and on online learning platforms, people talk a lot about the audience, but they forget to talk about the presenter. So for in a learning environment, we want to make sure that everyone involved in the product development and in the delivery can also be someone who’s living with a disability. So we want to think about how we choose our LMS. We choose our our presentation platform, we choose our classrooms, we design them in a way that people living with disabilities can be the presenter, as well as the audience member, or even the administrator of the LMS doing the backend work. And and I guess if you’re asking for three things that, you know, I mentioned, I mentioned planning ahead. So I’ll let that go. But I think it’s really important that we recognize that accessibility is an emotional topic. No, it’s not like we’re talking just about, let’s say how to make better desks. We’re talking about people. We’re talking about, including everyone. And we’re recognizing the remarkable diversity that everyone learns in a different way. Even the idea of a typical learner really is an idea in a box. When we look at the universal design for learning principles, we recognize that when we provide multiple modes of sharing knowledge, we’re actually benefiting all learners, because everyone’s got their variances of how they prefer to receive information, how they prefer to record it, how to remember it, and then how to assess their own their own experience. And so when we commit to the idea of bringing information in on multiple channels, we’re, we’re pretty well benefiting everyone. Like if I can go down Petra, you know, for example, it’s no, it’s no, it’s no surprise that the majority of learning, we tend to focus on the eye, because for the majority of H Homo Sapiens, to largest bandwidth pipe into the human brain is through the eye. So why wouldn’t you use that? And at the same time, though, for some people, that’s not their primary way of getting information. So that does not have to be one or the other, we can decide let’s fill all the channels and let people combine them and reinforce them.

Petra Mayer  18:32

Now, you mentioned LMS, or learning management systems. So for an organization that needs to, that is perhaps in the process of securing an LMS, implementing an LMS that they they don’t have one yet. What is it? Where would you think they need to put attention to, to ensure that their LMS that they’re choosing is going to support their accessibility priorities?

David Berman  19:00

It’s a huge, it’s a huge decision. Because of course, accessibilities should get a vote not a veto in terms of making a decision as large as which LMS or which group of LMS is, will work in a certain business environment. However, that’s where we come back to the value of these technical standards again. This is a big topic, we could have a whole nother thing on on accessible LMS and procurement of them. But the key idea, Petra, is that because we have clear technical standards, there are also international standards on how you describe and certify the accessibility of an LMS or an instructional design platform or a textbook. And so the most typical standard that’s used in the industry is something called a VPAT something developed by the Americans and the Europeans in tandem. And it’s a formal declaration one can make about the accessibility of a web based or web based module, such as an LMS. So all of the major LMS is tend to have published this thing called a VPAT. And it will make declarations as to what conformance level they’ve reached in terms of the international standards. Getting a little nerdy, maybe for another day. But the key is that it starts with making sure that we educate our procurement teams on making sure that accessibility is a mandatory requirement for anything that they’re sourcing. Because it’s way too late. Later on, we discover: oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, on that particular instructional design platform, we can’t do that. What are we going to do now?

Petra Mayer  20:42

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a really good point that you’re bringing up there: understanding upfront, where the requirements lie, and really maybe in in, particularly in the era of accessibility, maybe even shoot higher than what you personally can deliver right now. So that you can grow into it. Because as we said before, don’t get scared, get started, and then start building building one after another. And so they the system needs to provide you with the ability for you to grow into into those things. So, great point

David Berman  21:11

I agree. And better, you know, if someone doesn’t know that much about this, and is just getting started. The good news is they’ve they’ve they’ve timed it perfectly, because, for example, eight years ago, 10 years ago, if someone came to our introductory course, where they got to know like, what are we should these WCAG  success criteria? What do we have to do to meet them? That was a two day introductory course that marched through all those things. And now, in a half a day, we can take, we can take a group and get them to the point of feeling intimidated, curious, wondering how much is this going to cost, etc. How long is it going to take, we can get to the point that they have at least enough of an orientation of the topic, that they can set clear goals, that they can have an idea of budget, and that they can even walk away with some, some basic things they could start doing tomorrow, which are going to save them time and make their products better.

Petra Mayer  22:06

So you mentioned money a few times, if we needed to take existing training to make it more accessible, or build accessibility into new training that we’re developing, it can be justified the additional cost or how can we justify the additional cost? And how much do we really need to add, roughly to our development cost? You have some numbers.

David Berman  22:31

Well, from a regulatory perspective, you know, if you’ve got to get something done, you got to get something done. And I I never like that to be the main driver for someone to make their products more inclusive. However, I love to make the argument of how being inclusive actually drives down costs. Let me give you an example. Right here in Canada. When you call the Canada Revenue Agency, at tax season, you pick up the phone, and you have a question. We learned this while we were doing the web strategy for the Canada Revenue Agency, it costs $26, every time they pick up the phone to answer a question. That’s 26 of our taxpaying dollars are being spent. But if someone can self serve online, it cost them six cents. Six cents! So if you you can save millions of dollars, if you can drive people to the point that they can take care of themselves, plus, they can do a 24/t plus they feel more independent, etc. So or think about search engine optimization. And I know this is going beyond e-learning. But imagine everyone wants better search. And the Google search algorithm, it has perhaps the cognitive ability of maybe a three year old, it’s getting better all the time. But I’ve had cases where making products accessible paid for itself in search engine results alone, because when we make a product, when we organize it in a way where assistive technologies can understand how things are organized and what they’re about it’s no surprise that SEO, the search engine tools can say oh, I have higher confidence that I got a hit. I have higher confidence that these people are telling the truth. And so that can pay for it. I’ll give you one more example. When we we worked on the accessibility of the of the census in Canada, you know, there was a time you couldn’t fill in your census online. And well imagine how much it drove down the costs of the census, when instead of, of a herd of humans having to transcribe all these handwritten scribbles, they figured out, oh, we’ll get people to fill in the form for us. We don’t have to transcribe it at all. Well, guess what? That’s just a matter of that’s just a massive accessibility project that hit your 26 million homes. So I’ve got a bucket of examples of how we can actually drive down costs by embracing accessibility but only if we go deep only if we truly understand it, before we get in, and then we get to this point where we’re not just sleeping better at night, we discover it more than paid for itself.

Petra Mayer  25:06

Awesome. So what is one thing that you would want all organizations to pay attention to?

David Berman  25:14

I’d want them to really think about the idea that there was a time. There was a time when there were no, there was there was a time when there were there were no curb cuts on the sidewalks in our cities. And people said, Well, why should we spend millions of dollars putting those curb cuts in? There’s, there’s no one with disabilities wandering around anyway? Well, of course, it’s because they weren’t coming. You know, people weren’t coming on matches because they couldn’t navigate the city. And then once the curb cuts were in place, well, guess what everyone with a suitcase or a stroller or someone, you know, dragging stuff, where you’d never get the they never get to take the curb cuts away, was very similar online. At first, it’s like, oh, every time I put a photo into this into a learning module, I have to write alt text. Well, before you know it, you’re you’re just doing it by habit and becomes part of how you work. And then you discover, isn’t it handy, that I have descriptions of all my photos already ready to go to the translator, you just start discovering that all of these small things start to pay off and you got to start somewhere. So the more we make things accessible, we’re more we’re finding that people are… expectations are rising, and understandably so and we get better outcomes for everyone. Why wouldn’t we want that?

Petra Mayer  26:31

A beautiful reframe! And also I like the comparison that you’re bringing with the curb. And then you know, on the internet how, how the same thing happens, you know, where taking the curb away. So it’s it’s a great comparison. So you mentioned earlier, you do you offer courses, you offer training? Obviously you offer consulting and, and other services. So where can our listeners find out more about this fascinating topic?

David Berman  27:00

Oh, if I’m allowed to make a shameless plug. In my organization here in Ottawa, we basically, we do three things we consult and help people come up with a strategy to make the experiences of their products more accessible. We do a lot of work where we study people’s products and help them discover where the gaps are, what needs to be fixed so that we can coach them through and then we can give them a third party validation. Indeed, you’ve done it, this is this is me beats the accessibility standards. And we do a lot of training, we teach people how to do it. So we’ve got a, we’ve got a half day course coming up the afternoon of November 18, which is a great introductory way of getting to know this topic, and knowing that you know what you need to know. And so that’s a, I think that’s what, yeah, kind of blathering a little Petra.

Petra Mayer  27:51

No, that’s awesome, because I will put the information about the event on the 18th of November, below. Now, should somebody listen to this video after the 18th of November? How often do you run this?

David Berman  28:05

So the URL is And that’s always gonna send you to our next public course, because of an easier way of saying this

Petra Mayer  28:22

is a very easy way of saying it. So I will put that under under this video, you will find that there. I really appreciate your time today, David, as you said, Maybe we will find a time to just dissect learning management systems and accessibility in LMSs one day in a in a talk of a future that I think would be really helpful to my audience. If you’re open to that, I invite you to come back to the show. And we’ll talk about that one.

David Berman  28:51

I’ll be happy to Petra. But if this is the only chance I get to share with your audience, I think the most important thing I want to share because I appreciate them to even take 20 minutes to to spend with us now. It’s that we just happen to live in this first generation where it’s truly possible to include everyone. We live in one of the… Canada and North America lead the world at this endeavor. And we get and we’re involved in teaching people stuff. So I really feel because we can put all that together we really must. It’s our quest. And so I am delighted to anyone you work with Petra, who chooses to join this quest. That’s that’s that’s just awesome. Thanks for letting me share some thoughts about that today.

Petra Mayer  29:39

Yeah, and thank you very much for your time. I know it’s very valuable. And I know that this is going to be really interesting content from my audience. I really appreciate it. And I thank you for your time. Thanks, everybody.

David Berman  29:50

You’re welcome. Thanks for having me Petra.

Petra Mayer  29:52

Thank you.

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About the author 

Petra Mayer