Ten Ways to Open the Gate to Accessibility

Ten Ways to Open the Gate to Accessibility

Symbols of accessibility

According to the United States Census Bureau, over 57 million Americans, nearly one in five people in the U.S. population, report living with a disability. To make certain all your students can have a successful learning experience, it is important to take steps to make the online learning environment accessible. Find below ten strategies for making your online course space accessible to all users.

Top Ten Tips

  1. When possible, keep your course structure consistent and create a weekly routine that aligns with your program's standards. This will help all students, but especially students with learning and cognitive disabilities, to navigate the course. As an example, all of your modules might have the same six pages (Overview, Readings, Presentations, Discussion, Knowledge Check, and Summary, in that order) and you might post two announcements a week (one on Monday, in which you preview the content for the upcoming module, and one on Thursday, in which you share a related article or blog).
  2. Minimize interaction cost and click fatigue. Students with cognitive and motor impairments may encounter an undue burden if content or materials are difficult to access. Reduce the amount of scrolling and clicks required by organizing materials consistently (making navigation more intuitive); thoughtfully employing headings (allowing learners to navigate to relevant sections more easily); and clearly identifying if resources are required or optional/supplementary (ensuring that students don't misallocate their time and energy).
  3. Avoid using images of text. Use plain text when adding content to your LMS and course documents to allow screen readers to relay the content effectively to students. For instance, do not include images of formulas; instead, write out the formulas using an equation editor.
  4. Do not use color alone to convey meaning. If you want to use color to categorize or differentiate text, use an additional marker, such as bold or italics, for users who are colorblind or have low vision.
  5. Use accessible color combinations. Color contrast needs to have a 4.5:1 ratio to be accessible. WebAIM's Color Contrast Checker allows you to test your colors before including them in your course materials. To use the tool, enter the hex codes of the text and background colors into the calculator—the calculator will determine if the combination meets accessibility standards. (See Canvas Community's Resources for Hex Colors for a helpful discussion about identifying hex codes.) You might also want to experiment with the Color Blindness Simulator, which enables you to view images as they might appear to people with different types of color blindness.
  6. Confirm that the purpose of all links is clear. Don't hyperlink generic expressions such as "here"; instead use the precise title of the document or webpage you are linking. If you are concerned about the accessibility of the external links and webpages in your course, enter the URL in WAVE, which will assess any inaccessible features on an external webpage and generate a report.
  7. Avoid using vague terms in audio narration. Vague directions are often inaccessible to visually impaired users. Instead of using phrases such as "like this" or "as you see here" while gesturing with your mouse, describe the specific item you are talking about, using labels, titles, and visual characteristics as appropriate.
  8. Provide alternatives to audio-only content by adding captions and transcripts. Any audio provided to students, whether recorded yourself or curated from online sources, must contain a text alternative. At a minimum, videos should provide synchronized closed captions; ideally, they should also provide a downloadable version of the transcript. For audio-only content such as podcast episodes or self-recorded audio narrations, a text transcript must be provided. Most video streaming and recording platforms provide mechanisms to create, upload, configure, and/or edit captions. Be sure to find out which programs or services are available at your institution.
  9. Provide alternatives to visual-only content by adding alt text. Images are commonly used in course materials, but not all students can access images visually. Alt text refers to the description that can be added to an image in most authoring platforms; adding alt text enables users to hear the image description read aloud by assistive technology. For a detailed overview of alt text requirements and approaches, WebAIM offers an extensive breakdown of alternative text for images. Because writing appropriate alt text can be harder than it seems, Web Accessibility Gone Wild lists typical “alternative text blunders” to avoid.
  10. Ensure users can zoom their view up to 200% without losing content or function. For visually impaired users, it is important that the content of your course maintains its functionality at high levels of magnification. WebAIM replicates various types of low vision, showing what some of your students may see when they view your course content and underscoring the importance of magnification. To test the legibility of your content in different browsers (or provide a helpful resource to students), see W3C's How to Change Text Size or Colors.

Accessibility Checks

Many apps and platforms feature accessibility checkers you can use to make your content accessible to all learners. If you're teaching in the Canvas LMS, review the General Accessibility Design Guidelines as you build your courses; then confirm the accessibility of your course pages using the Canvas Accessibility Checker. If you're using Microsoft 365, you might also review your course materials with the Microsoft Accessibility Checker. For any other technologies you might be using, be sure to identify which accessibility resources are available to you.