The following guidelines cover important aspects for making our courses accessible. “Accessibility” means making our courses usable and welcoming welcoming to all our students. These guidelines are best practices that apply to online, hybrid, and onsite courses.
It is particularly important to consider accessibility in online classes because student disabilities can be masked or invisible to instructors who are trying their best to optimize learning opportunities. Different learners need different affordances to achieve learning objectives. What’s more, if course design is inaccessible, in any way, we are creating a disabling and unwelcoming environment for our students.
These guidelines are in three parts: Part 1 focuses on the nuts and bolts of accessibility and universal design for learning principles. Part 2 investigates ways to accommodate different learning styles. Part 3 challenges us to present access as a topic and practice in our classes so that our students can reflect on it as they compose their own texts. A core principle of writing instruction is examining the relationships between reader, writer, text, location, and modality. Paying close attention to the needs of potential audiences is important rhetorical training.
Part 1: How to make your documents accessible
Accessibility really just means practicing a few good habits. The first habit you should practice is checking the accessibility of your Canvas course.
Here’s how to check that your assignments are accessible: as you edit an assignment, you’ll see a little person symbol (by the red arrow below). Click on the person symbol and Canvas will tell you if there are accessibility issues.
Description: The picture shows a screenshot of an assignment on Canvas. A red arrow indicates the accessibility checker, which is the symbol of a person.
- Use Word > Heading Styles in documents and Google Docs.
- Make sure your PDF is more than just an image. Scanned documents are images (the Student Disability Center can convert those for you).
- Add captions to videos. Consider describing in your text what is happening visually in the video.
- Use Layouts in PowerPoint.
- Add alternative text (Alt-text) to images.
- Use description links instead of URLs. Also, hyperlink the whole phrase rather than a word (Ex. "prompt for the literature review" rather than just "prompt").
Adapted from Online Accessibility at Texas Tech.
Specific ways to make accessible syllabi and prompts
- Use a 12–14 point sans serif font (e.g. Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, Tahoma). Serif fonts, which have feet on the characters, can blend text together for some readers.
- Divide the page into two columns so that each line contains between 6-9 words.
- Use 1.5 line spacing.
- Break up text into smaller paragraphs of between 2–4 sentences.
- Avoid black text on a white background, which can produce glare. Instead use another dark font color on a light colored background, such as navy on light gray.
- Opt for bold over italics to emphasize text—the jagged lines can wash out text.
- Align text to the left. Centering makes it difficult to find the next line, and justified text looks like one overwhelming block. (“Text”)
- Table of contents summarizes items for quick navigation.
- Internal hyperlinks connect to locations later in the document.
- Headings differentiate sections and create hierarchy.
- Bulleting and numbering organize points into lists.
- Tables compactly show multiple dimensions of data.
- Text boxes block together related information.
- Bolded or underlined text emphasizes key points.
The Accessible Syllabus is another excellent resource.
More resources on Universal Design
Universal Design for Learning is the creation of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. UD is a very useful theory to support accessible design in our classes.
The intent of UD is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and to build environments more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.
- The UDL Guidelines apply the principles of Universal Design to improve teaching so that all learners can be successful.
- AccessCollege provides a detailed explanation of the principles of Universal Design and how they benefit all students.
- Quick factsheet to check the accessibility of our class activities.
Part 2: How to accommodate different learning styles
Allow for alternative ways to complete the work
All students learn differently, and accessibility is a great mindset to allow all of them to be successful in our courses.
Allow for alternative ways for students to show their work in your class. For example:
- Allow for different communication and collaboration options (e.g., allow online discussions to count as participation).
- Allow alternative formats and modes for students to use to demonstrate their learning.
- Present content in multiple ways.
- Allow work to be turned late when it does not affect the work of others.
Resources for different learning styles
The Student Disability Center has a lot of great resources (some of these are not advertised on their website, but you can request them):
- Scanned PDFs can be converted into Word documents through a link on the SDC website. PDFs can also be converted to audio.
- Otter.ai is a notetaking service that writes down what you say in real time and keeps a transcript. Students with autism have found this service particularly useful.
- ClaroRead Plus is a program that reads documents out loud. It is installed in all computer labs on campus and students can request to have it installed on their home computers. Students with dyslexia have found this resource particularly useful.
All of these would be helpful to all of our students, regardless of disability.
Have an Inclusive Learning Statement
Here’s a sample one from Womack’s article “Teaching is Accommodation”:
Your success in this class is important to me. We will all need accommodations because we all learn differently. If there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or that form barriers to your inclusion, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies that can enable you to succeed in the course. I encourage you to visit the Office of Disability Services to determine how you could improve your learning as well. If you need official accommodations, you have a right to have these met. There is also a range of resources on campus, including the Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Academic Advising Center
Here are some more examples of statements.
Part 3: How to bring in accessibility as a topic and practice in your writing class
As we make our own texts more accessible, we should also help our students consider accessibility when they craft their own documents. Unfortunately, disabled audiences are often ignored in Composition Studies. One solution is to make disabilities part of the conversation in class.
Possible activities to help our students think about accessibility
- Wave is a web accessibility evaluation tool that checks the inaccessible content of any website. Use it to check the websites you assign to students, or use it in class to demonstrate all the potential inaccessible content that we usually do not think about.
- Create class activities that encourage students to discuss accessibility and accommodations. "Where We Are" is an article with a lot of great ideas.
- Here is an accessibility rubric for students so that they can check their own texts for accessibility issues.
- Question language and policy choices, consider social and environmental barriers, critically analyze media, discuss disabled people’s history of oppression and the history of the Disability Rights Movement.
- Include readings from disabled authors.
- Investigate the differences of person-first versus identity-first language; avoid euphemisms (“special,” “handicapable,” etc.).
Miscellaneous and more resources
- The Keep Teaching website has information about accessibility (but they focus mostly on exams)
- Resources for accessibility in the time of Covid-19
- If you’re ready to go beyond the basics of accessibility, Accessible TPC lists how-to links for all sorts of strategies.
- EDUCAUSE Review helps you make sure your online course is ADA compliant.
- Here is a video covering 20 strategies for making an online course accessible.
- "Physical and Learning Disabilities in OWI" is a book chapter that goes over the theory and research on accessibility in online teaching.
- Anne-Marie Womack’s article “Teaching is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi” is worth looking at in detail. It offers many suggestions on welcoming design and language use for our syllabi and prompts.
- The Web Accessibility Initiative helps you check web accessibility.