12 Accessibility

Accessibility is a measure of how well any person can access, engage with, and benefit from the learning materials and activities found in a course. The term is most frequently associated with making sure that students with mental or physical differences can fully participate. Several pieces of federal legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), prohibit discrimination against these students and require equal access to technology in educational settings. Therefore, failure to design accessible courses not only result in poor learning experiences but may also constitute noncompliance with policies and potentially result in legal action against the institution.

Many of the same design practices used to accommodate students with disabilities have been shown to optimize learning for all students—particularly those with language differences, less familiarity with technology, limited access to the Internet, or “temporary” or “situational” disabilities (such as a broken arm or challenging study/work conditions). Therefore, designing for accessibility can be considered within the broader framework of universal design for learning (UDL): design that prioritizes accessibility benefits everyone.

Although not exhaustive, the following list outlines some places to start when engaging in accessibility and UDL design.

Optimize student choice

Providing students with multiple options for learning materials, activities, and assessments enhances engagement, promotes student ownership of learning, and allows students to navigate courses in ways that fit their personal needs without necessarily having to request special accommodations.

Caption video and transcribe audio

Captions are text versions of the spoken words presented within multimedia. Both open (always present) and closed (may be turned off) captioning can be accessible. Most guidelines for captions indicate that captions should be equivalent and synchronized to audio content.

Learners should also be provided with downloadable transcripts of any audio components of a course. Transcripts do not have to be verbatim reproductions of the spoken words; supplemental information or descriptions of nonverbal sounds are welcome additions. Read more about captioning and transcripts from the University of Michigan.

Design with assistive technologies in mind

Many students use assistive technologies, such as screen readers, to navigate online spaces. To prepare screen reader–friendly materials, consider the following:

  • Use semantic elements. Consistent use of hierarchical content organizers (i.e., preformatted or HTML headers) enables students who use screen readers to skim materials quickly by jumping from header to header.
  • Use meaningful hyperlink text. Just as screen readers can jump from header to header, they can also jump to hyperlinks. Students benefit from this capability only if the text that is linked is meaningful beyond the immediate context (e.g., “video transcript” instead of “click here.”)
  • Limit use of bold or italics for textual emphasis. Since screen readers do not read these emphatic elements, they are lost on a blind or low-vision student (unless it is used in conjunction with a semantic element).
  • Confirm that your PDF files are readable. Historically, screen readers treated .pdf files as unreadable images. However, text recognition options are now available for making such files readable. This University of Louisville webpage on creating accessible Word and PDF documents can help you confirm readability or convert your documents to readable file types.
  • Use alt text. Alt text (alternative text) is a description of an image that can be read by screen readers (and also by students with slow or limited Internet access). However, alt text only works if the descriptions you provide are accurate and meaningful. This WebAIM article and Diagram Center tutorial describe best practices for alt text creation.

Check color contrast and limit any movement on the page

Use a colour contrast checker to confirm that the contrast between your text and background colour facilitates easy reading. Additionally, since flashing or moving items can distract learners, make sure any animations that automatically start can be stopped.

Research any embedded tools or apps

Although widely used learning management systems are designed for accessibility, not all embeddable tools, plug-ins, or LTIs are. For example, tools that use Adobe Flash are rarely accessible and therefore are not recommended for general use in educational contexts.

Take advantage of accessibility checkers and simulators

Microsoft and Adobe have built-in accessibility checkers, and Google Drive documents can be checked with a free Grackle Suite add-on. Colour Oracle is a free colour-blindness simulator tool.

Additional resources


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