SkillSoft upgrades for accessibility

SkillSoft, which provides e-learning software to government tech professionals, this week announced an upgrade to online courses to further meet accessibility requirements.

The company has enhanced more than 300 information technology skills courses to meet the requirements in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the company plans to improve more than 500 courses by the end of the year.

SkillSoft's government customers include the Veterans Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Army, Internal Revenue Service, Transportation Department and GoLearn.gov, the government online learning center.

The upgrade allows people using screen readers and other assistive technologies to access courses by providing text descriptions for graphics and audio. Classes for people with disabilities offer the same components as those for nondisabled employees, such as mentors and simulations.

SkillSoft has spent more than two years developing courses that are Section 508-accessible, said Karen Beauregard, SkillSoft's product manager. The company first announced compliance in 2001 with its Business Skills Library. The latest upgrade, she said, is the closest it is going to get in the near future for accessibility compliance.

Although it's required by law, not all agencies' e-learning courses and computer applications are compliant, and neither are all products, said Mike Paciello, president of the Paciello Group, which worked with SkillSoft. Procurement rules require agencies to buy compliant products, but often the product doesn't entirely fit the bill, he said.

"By and large, many companies have a lot of good intentions, but don't understand the nature of accessibility to people with disabilities, so the products or the courseware is not accessible," Paciello said.

Companies often try to enhance the learning experience by adding their own proprietary assistive technologies that turn out to not be compliant. However, many companies are trying to ensure their products are accessible, he said.

Agencies rely on a Section 508 coordinator to test the software, but some lack the methodology to ensure compliance while others stick closely to the law's guidelines, Paciello said.

"Unfortunately, as a result of that, you see what appears to be a large level of inconsistency among agencies," said Paciello, who cited the Social Security Administration as a model agency for thorough accessibility testing and compliance.

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