5 Inclusive Design Reminders for L&D Professionals in Honor of Disability Pride Month

Disability Pride flag, which is a lightning bolt made up of green, red, white, yellow, and blue bands over a black background.
For my first post of Disability Pride Month, I’d like to focus on ways we in L&D can be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

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Did you know that July is Disability Pride Month? Although it has yet to be officially recognized by a U.S. President, many people around the world celebrate the month of July as a time to honor individual uniqueness as a part of human diversity.

For my first post of the month, I’d like to focus on ways we in L&D can be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

1. Create Accessible Materials

I’ll start with the “no-brainer” tip that everyone should know but far too few actually put into practice. We need to build accessibility into everything we create from the beginning. If you’re wondering whether something you’re creating should be accessible, here’s a handy flowchart to help you decide. 

Flowchart titled, "Does My Content Need to Be Accessible?" See text version link below the image.

Are you sharing the file with anyone?

  • Yes
    • How will you share it?
      • I'll publish it to the web, OR
      • I'll share it electronically.
        • The file should be fully accessible with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
      • I'll print it.
        • Full accessibility is a best practice. At a minimum, make sure to use:
          • Sufficient color contrast
          • Logical organization, with headings and chunking of content
          • Plain language
  • No, it's just for me.
    • Are you SURE no one else will ever need the file?
      • Really, it's just for me!
        • Accessibility is still a best practice. Anyone can develop a disability at any time—even you!
      • Well, someone else might need it someday.
        • How will you share it? (Decision tree repeats.)

Many instructional designers think about accessibility only in terms of captions and alt text. If you’re doing those things, fantastic! But there’s more to designing learning experiences that are accessible to everyone.

Start with applying the POUR principles, and get familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Susi Miller just released a wonderful book that translates the guidelines for L&D professionals. (A link is in the summary.)

When you’re designing for accessibility, be intentional in word choices, remembering that not all learners experience the course the same way.

2. Be Anti-Ableist

You may be familiar with the following quote by Angela Y. Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist.” That means we can’t sit passively by and ignore discrimination, content in the knowledge that we ourselves aren’t being discriminatory. The same rationale applies for ableism—discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities. We must be anti-ableist.

If a coworker told a racist joke, you’d call them out for it, right? Likewise, if your workplace planned a company picnic at a men-only golf club, you’d probably have something to say about sexism. Yet ableism is alive and well in our workplaces and often goes unchecked.

People routinely tell jokes at the expense of disabled people—particularly those with mental illness—and it’s not uncommon for companies to plan outings without considering whether the venue is wheelchair accessible or whether other necessary accommodations are in place. 

[Ableism] is one of the last "isms" that is still widely socially acceptable.

3. Include Disabled People in the Development Process

One of my favorite fiction books is Small Great Things by Jodi Picout. It’s about racism in America, and it tells the story of an African American nurse who is sued by a white supremacist because, against instructions, she intervened in a medical emergency. Picoult, a white author, has stated that even though she’d wanted to write about racism for decades, she hesitated because she didn’t feel it was her story to tell. When she finally did write the book, she did so with the help of sensitivity readers—a group of African American women who read the book and provided feedback to ensure that the voice and story details were authentic.

We should use a similar approach when designing learning experiences. Whenever possible, we need to involve members of the target audience in the development process, including the design stage and user testing. That sampling of learners needs to represent the diversity of the full audience, including those with disabilities.

4. Avoid Ableist Language

Ableist language is everywhere, and it might even be in your courses, documents, conversations, and emails. Consider this (completely made-up) eLearning scenario. How many ableist terms can you identify? (Leave your answer in the comments.)

Mike is a new instructional designer who has been thrown into a high-stakes project with a crazy timeline. Lately, he’s been feeling like his creativity is being crippled by the insane pace and stringent client expectations, and he’s come to you, hysterical, asking for help.

“What can I do to keep up? The SME has been so OCD with his comments, nitpicking every little thing and changing his mind every other week. He’s so bipolar! I think some of the changes are out of scope, but the project manager has turned a blind eye.”

What advice will you give to Mike so he knows his concerns haven’t fallen on deaf ears?

Blond Caucasian man wearing a blue gingham button-up shirt and pressing his fists to his forehead, with a worried look on his face

Okay, that example may be a bit over the top, but chances are, you’ve seen, heard, or used many of the ableist terms in that example in the last week. Ableist language perpetuates ableist behaviors, stereotypes, and stigma.

I’d bet we’re all guilty of using ableist language at some point. Last month, I wrote a post about applying the POUR principles to create accessible documents and presentations, and I mentioned the importance of empathy, saying it was easy. I didn’t consider the fact that some disabled people aren’t capable of feeling empathy, through no fault of their own. I’ve since edited the post to remove the ableist language, and I apologize for my ignorance. The lesson here is, when you know better, do better. I am still trying to rid my speech of ableist language—so I hope that my readers will call me out when I slip up.

EDIT: I originally shared a Twitter thread here titled “non-exhaustive guide to ableist language to avoid.” However, the thread caused some unintentional harm (due to over-generalization in its interpretation) and has since been removed. So rather than posting a list of terms to avoid, I’ll share the very general advice to be more mindful of the language we use, considering how certain words might make others feel. 

<climbs on soapbox>

Also, please remember that “disabled” and “disability” are not bad words. Don’t replace them with euphemisms like “handicapable,” “differently abled,” or “special needs.” In addition, some people prefer person-first language (e.g., He has Down syndrome), and some people prefer identity-first language (e.g., She’s autistic). When in doubt, ask!

<steps down from soapbox>

5. Use Inclusive Images and Characters

Representation matters. It’s important for every learner to be able to see a reflection of themselves in the courses we create. Yet most stock photos are limited to young, abled people (who also happen to be ridiculously good-looking). In last week’s post, I shared a couple of free stock image sites that have photos or illustrations of disabled people. Here they are again, along with a few more (not necessarily free) places to get authentic and inclusive images:

When you write scenarios that include characters with disabilities, be careful not to fall into the trap of creating “inspiration porn.” This is a phrase meaning the objectification of disabled people to inspire and motivate abled people. It was coined by Stella Young and discussed in this excellent TEDxTalk. My favorite moment is when she mentions a meme that says, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” and responds with, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”


Follow these five tips to help make the world a more inclusive place for people with disabilities:

  1. Create accessible materials
  2. Be anti-ableist
  3. Include disabled people in the development process
  4. Avoid ableist language
  5. Use inclusive images and scenarios

I’ll be writing about accessibility throughout the month—including some practical step-by-step guidance for creating accessible materials—so stay tuned! What would you like to learn more about? Leave a comment below!

Want to Learn More?

Don’t miss TLDC’s FREE Accessibility & Inclusive Design Conference coming up this Friday, July 9! Sessions start at 10 am Eastern (7:00 am Pacific). I’ll be hosting a panel where you can learn from people with disabilities about accessibility challenges they face and their advice for L&D professionals.

As an Amazon Affiliate, I will earn a small amount if you purchase Susi’s book from the above link. It doesn’t affect your price.

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  • The empathy things is not quite as straightforward as that Twitter thread implies. In fact, I’ve seen several autistic people I follow say that that particular Tweet was, in itself, ableist. Autistic people do feel empathy; many autistic people consider it a harmful stereotype that they don’t. However, they may experience empathy differently than NT people. They may lack in cognitive empathy (understanding how other people think), but they may actually have heightened affective empathy (feeling concern for others). Autistic people may also express that empathy in ways that don’t look like NT people expect caring and compassion to look.

    In short, you can use the word empathy without worrying about it being ableist. There are specific contexts where some more nuanced understanding of empathy is required.

    You can read more about it here:

    If you’re looking for more on this, let me know. I can reach out to some of my connections for more info.

    • Thanks, Christy! I appreciate the article. I still use the word empathy, and I didn’t mean to imply that it’s always ableist to do so. My original statement that empathy is easy seemed ableist to me, because it isn’t easy for everyone. I agree with you that it’s unfair to characterize all autistic people as not being able to feel empathy. My daughter is autistic and is one of the most empathetic people I know.

  • In regards to your example about the ableist language, certainly using words such as: crazy, insane, deaf, blind, etc, will be seen as terribly insulting to people with those disabilities. I think a lot of people use those words without a second thought. Not so many in a few short paragraphs but they certainly are common words. Thanks for another good post about instructional design best practices.

    • Thanks, Lorraine! I find myself using some of those terms in my everyday speech and am really trying to be better. For example, I catch myself saying “crazy” when I mean “ridiculous” or “intense.” I’ve begun stopping and correcting myself. Those words are so ingrained in our culture—which is ableist to its core. They can be hard habits to break, but I’m determined!

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