For some instructional designers the accessibility standards of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act can become a source of confusion, frustration, and anxiety during eLearning course design. If web accessibility issues for disabled users aren’t accounted for and addressed at the outset of the design process, the back end of a project can morph into an imposing labyrinth of alt-text, tabbing, transcript, and template color contrast nightmares. However, designing and developing eLearning content that is accessible to individuals with hearing, vision, cognitive, or other disabilities doesn’t have to be a scary thing.

Section 508 compliance requirements apply specifically to Federal agencies, but the overarching theme of offering inclusive and equally-accessible content to individuals with disabilities also aligns well with the interests of most private sector groups, professional associations, and organizations. I suspect the majority of instructional designers have had to deal with 508 compliance concerns, even if they haven’t designed courses for governmental agencies. Most private companies still want to make a good-faith effort to deliver courses and products that are as accessible as possible.

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Introduction to Section 508 Compliance

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended in 1998 (PL 105-220), sets the minimum level of accessibility for electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by Federal agencies. Under the Act, Federal agencies must ensure that this technology allows:

  • Federal employees with disabilities to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency, and

  • Individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities.

Unless you’ve worked for a Federal agency or an eLearning vendor contracted with one to provide deliverables that meet 508 technical and accessibility standards (or the related “equivalent facilitation” standard under 36 CFR 1194.5, which focuses on functional outcomes that provide “substantially equivalent or greater access to and use of a product for people with disabilities”), designing courses to meet these requirements may feel a bit intimidating. Beyond the legal requirements, you also need to understand the barriers and limitations individuals with hearing, vision, and other impairments face, as well the accessibility-related software or peripheral devices these individuals may use to access content.

There isn’t an “easy button” solution or a magic software package that can address these concerns for you automatically. Even the tools specifically designed to determine compliance aren’t necessarily reliable when it comes to evaluating your efforts. But this doesn’t mean designing for 508 compliance is an impossible mission.

A Section 508 Web Accessiblity Success Story

The National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) is an organization of state administrators of unemployment insurance laws, employment services, training programs, employment statistics, labor market information and other programs and services provided through the publicly-funded state workforce system. The Information Technology Support Center (ITSC) is an organization within NASWA, established as a national resource by the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA) to assist all state unemployment insurance agencies in the area of unemployment insurance information technology.


The DOL and NASWA contracted with WCW to have our team of instructional designers build 508-compliant eLearning courses to replace a week-long in-person training seminar. The 11 online courses we developed and delivered using Articulate Storyline will become the main focus of NASWA-ITSC and DOL’s unemployment compensation education program—which also includes supplementary webinars with experts on unemployment compensation law.

We created these 508-compliant courses using an extensive set of technical specifications and best practices developed for the project. Here are a few examples of how we incorporated 508 considerations throughout our design process:

  • Color contrast for color blind accessibility: At the outset of the project, our graphic artist tested the initial course template and our example in-course graphics for adequate foreground and background color contrast to make the content accessible to learners with color blindness (see below for a discussion of tools you can use for testing contrast). This work helped us streamline our course development and avoid any serious structural issues later in the process.
  • Tabbing for screen reader accessibility: Our instructional designers learned how to use the Jobs Access with Speech (JAWS) screen reader to test accessibility of content for visually impaired learners. This allowed us to build complex interactivities and graphics that held a logical flow for screen reader tabbing and maintained overall accessibility through keyboard commands alone. Furthermore, we grouped certain items not vital to a learner’s understanding to limit tabbing to essential items and retain practical structure for keyboard accessibility.
  • Alt-text for screen reader accessibility: Our instructional designers and production staff members worked together to keep alt-text tied to images we created and purchased for use in the project. For complex interactivities the instructional designers drafted longer descriptions that captured the meaning of the graphics.
  • Voiceover for vision disability accessibility: We recorded voiceover content to help explain complex conceptual issues and maintained transcripts of the audio to include on every related page in each course.
  • Accessible PDFs: NASWA and DOL provided accessible versions of downloadable PDF with proper tags and readable text (no scanned text or images).


Section 508 Compliance Tips and Considerations

The basic 508 rule of thumb is that you should strive to provide multiple ways to access content that do not depend on a single sense or ability. Here are some general tips on how to design for accessibility without sacrificing creativity.

(1) Locate Your Audience on the 508 Continuum

For instructional designers working for private sector groups, it’s important to acknowledge an informal continuum when it comes to 508-style compliance. Strict compliance can be expensive, and may not represent the optimal solution for your company.

Do certain professional licensure requirements effectively make learners with particular disabilities ineligible to take your online certification program? For example, military members are screened for a wide range of abilities. Will your course on over-the-phone customer service training be offered to deaf learners? In some situations you may be able to prioritize accessibility demands to meet the needs of the intended audience.

For non-governmental groups, a good-faith effort to design accessible and inclusive eLearning often comes down to good preparation and thoughtful instructional design.

(2) Test Your Color Contrast and Template Theming

Don’t use color-coding as the only means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element. That’s a big no-no in the world of 508 compliance. But you can still create cool template designs, eye-catching graphics, and interesting activities for learners.

Our graphic team always starts by testing accessibility in template items and images using tools similar to these free online sites offer:

These tools allow you to plug in hex color codes for foreground and background to check color contrast for three color blindness conditions: deuteranopia (insensitivity to green), protanopia (insensitivity to red), and tritanopia (insensitivity to blue). Take the time to test your color combinations early in the design process.

(3) Provide a Transcript for Voiceover Audio

If you plan to include an audio webinar recording from an annual conference, or an explainer video for a topic, be sure to also provide a written transcript or synched closed-captioning for learners who are deaf or have hearing impairments. If you’ve already scripted the voiceover content, it’s a simple process of keeping the script up-to-date and providing it as transcript text. If you’re working with pre-recorded content, consider creating a text-only page.

(4) Create Alt-Tags and Descriptions

You should provide a text equivalent—via alt-text (“alt”), long description (“longdesc”), in-element content, etc.—for every non-text element. This goes for images, graphics, buttons, and even hyperlinks. When it comes to hyperlinks, avoid using generic terms such as click here, read more, or for more information. You don’t want users to have to follow a link to determine its meaning or destination. Take the raw URL for a link and add in alt-text users to help them figure out where the link sends them.

Charts, graphs, and tables can be particularly problematic for a screen reader—content is hard to read in a logical order, and it’s easy to get lost in a maze of keyboard tabbing. A long description can be used to convey the contents of a chart to learners with visual disabilities. For a complex data table, format the top row as the header, activate the “Repeat Header Rows” condition, and check the table for a logical flow.

The Word, PDF, PowerPoint, .mp3, .wmv., files you provide as resources should also be designed with compliance in mind. Just because you convert that Word file into a PDF doesn’t mean it’s compliant. You need to include tags on a PDF in Adobe Acrobat Professional using the “Add Tags to Document” function and then check for compliance using the “Full Check” function. You can even use this plugin to generate a page-by-page, element-by-element report for PDF compliance.

(5) Consult Government Agency 508 Checklists

If designing for 508 compliance still feels overwhelming, be sure to check out the excellent resources and checklists provided by various Federal agencies. These checklists are a great way to keep you on track and help you identify key compliance considerations during the design process. For example, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has created specific accessibility checklists for PDF files, Word documents, Excel documents, PowerPoint documents, HTML files, and multimedia files. The U.S. General Services Administration has provided additional tutorials and guidance documents on these issues and much more.

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