Accessibility is created through intentional design. As content creators and curators, we need to provide text files, images, video and audio files, animations, and other digital resources that are accessible. The goal of this page is to provide an overview of the standards and share resources to help you create more accessible text and multimedia materials.
Note: these tips do not constitute legal advice and will not make a resource 100% compliant. The technology, circumstances of use, and other variables impact whether or not a course material or learning tool meets applicable legal and institutional requirements. This is only a guide to get you started with accessibility.
The gold standards for design are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. You can view a simplified list of the guidelines here. The twelve guidelines are grouped into four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. In short, users need to be able to perceive the information, navigate the interface even if they have limited mobility, understand how to operate the interface, and the design needs to be robust enough to work with a wide variety of assistive technologies.
For each guideline there are success criteria that can be tested or observed, and a website can earn either level A, AA, or AAA ratings for the guidelines. Most companies and institutions aim for the AA level.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) components resource explains how browsers and assistive technology overlay and mediate the content for users. Even if you are not a web developer, it helps to have a general understanding of how your content is displayed to help you make the user experience as accessible as possible.
As a content creator or curator, you will find that many of the accessibility tips provided by software companies and instructional designers relate back to the WCAG principles.
Included below are handouts, videos, and links to additional resources with tips covering how to make your text, visual, audio, or other multimedia materials more accessible.
Making your course or content more accessible can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when faculty have limited support on campus in creating or revising materials. Start with one assignment or course material, and build from there.
Remember that well-designed courses are built over years as an accretion of research, assignments, and practices we discovered through experimentation and talking with our students. Making your course more accessible will be an ongoing process too.
There are some best practices that are applicable to virtually all documents and materials you may create:
- Writing simple, straight-forward language benefits all users.
- Consider providing content in a variety of formats. This aligns with Universal Design for Learning principles and gives users choice in how they engage with the information.
- We tend to focus on vision and hearing disabilities. Remember that individuals can have a variety of disabilities: for example, individuals with traumatic brain injuries, cognitive disabilities, or with limited mobility will also access your content. In the latter case, can they navigate without a mouse?
- Use text colors and background that are high contrast for readability.
- Remember that many people have color blindness, so color should not be the only feature or element that distinguishes critical information for users.
- Use bold or italics for emphasis; do not use underlining for emphasis of text because it can be confused with hyperlinks.
- Create meaningful or descriptive hyperlinks rather than sharing the URL itself. One exception is for a document that will be shared in print form only (not digital) where URLs need to be visible.
Tips for Text Documents
Use headings in your text documents. Headings are styles that are built into the text document and identify where sections of the text begin and end. This aids navigation by assistive technologies, but it also creates an outline of the document that anyone can use for navigation.
- There should only be one H1 heading per document; this is usually the main title.
- Headings range from H1 to H6. Usually each succeeding heading represents a smaller level of significance for the information.
- Headings are like an outline: there is a thesis or title (H1), main points (H2), sub-points to a main point (H3), etc.
- It is best to use headings in order, for example do not skip H1 and H2 and only have H3 headings in a document.
- You can format the style, font size, and color of headings if you do not like the auto-generated format.
These resources provide guidance for making Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or PDF files more accessible:
- How to add headings in Microsoft Word
- University of Washington’s Creating Accessible Word Documents
- Note: styles work similarly in Google Docs as with Word.
- PDFs are a unique problem because they require you to save or export files in specific ways to retain hyperlinks and accessibility information. There are excellent explanations here:
Tips for Tables and Charts
The most common chart-style element is a table inserted into a text document. These can be difficult for assistive technologies to convey to a person with a disability if not designed with these five tips in mind:
- Use column headings.
- Do not skip any cells when entering data. If necessary, write “blank” and change the font color to white so that it is not visible but still contains a value for a screen reader.
- Do not merge cells. Keep columns and rows consistent.
- Avoid inserting images into a table. Instead embed images in the main document and wrap text to control the layout of the page.
- If it is a data visualization, chart, or graph, provide alternative text.
These resources provide tips on accessibility for embedded tables in Word documents and Excel or Google Spreadsheets:
- How to insert a table in Microsoft Word
- How to add column headings in Microsoft Word
- How to wrap text in Microsoft Word
- Creating Accessible Microsoft Excel files
- New (August 2021) Excel Navigation Resources for Accessibility
- Note the five tips listed above work as best practice for Excel and Google Sheets files as well.
- In Excel and Google Sheets, make sure to give each spreadsheet a unique name (across the bottom). Delete any empty spreadsheets.
- If you include a chart or data visualization on one of the spreadsheets, make sure to provide alternative text descriptions of that graphic.
Images and Adding Alternative Text
Providing alternative text for all visual objects is critical. Here are tips for crafting your description and where to go to edit the image information.
- You can mark images as decorative when there is no information or experience the user needs to gain from that item.
- If there is any information a user needs to know–including an conveying an emotion or spatial relationship–alternative text is required.
- Useful alt text descriptions include a succinct and clear description of all information or experiences you want the user to gain from the visual object.
- They are usually a sentence in length, and sometimes just a few words.
- Useful alt text will vary by context; an art class will analyze a painting in more detail than a painting used to show a historical figure in a history class.
- If you are asking users to analyze a visual object, provide all of the information from the visual object in a logical way. This does not have to ‘give away the answer’ but provides any detail users might need to consider and then either use or discard in their analysis.
- There are limits on alt text length in Microsoft Word. If a detailed description is needed, provide the alt text as a short paragraph below the image.
- Tips for writing good alt text
- Harvard University provides examples of useful alt text descriptions based on context.
- How to add alternative text in Microsoft Word
- Video demonstration of adding alt text in Microsoft Word
Audio & Visual Learning Objects
These resources address tips for making animations, videos, podcasts, recordings, and other multimedia files more accessible:
- Animations and gifs can be more accessible when alt text descriptions are provided.
- Many podcasts have great content for education but are not accessible. You can transcribe a portion of any recording to help make the content accessible, or provide the same information in an alternative format.
- The most effective audio-visuals have simple text or images paired synchronously with narration.
- The ‘sweet-spot’ for video length is 8-10 minutes or less; consider breaking larger lessons into 10 minute segments to maximize learner attention and add engagement questions with tools like EdPuzzle.
- Auto-generated captions in videos are not accurate enough for use. Always create your own captions or use a professional captioning service. In a service like YouTube, you can begin with captions automatically generated for your video and edit the captions for increased accuracy.
- It is difficult to hear speech over music; consider only playing music in the background at the start and end of a video rather than throughout.
- How to add subtitles and Captions in YouTube (for content you own)
- Guidelines for Writing Accurate and Effective Captions
Using Accessibility Checkers
Internet browser add-ons, websites that check other websites, and built-in accessibility checking within software applications like Word do exist. It is important to use them as a way to double-check your work rather than as the sole means of making something more accessible. They are not comprehensive. Here are some options:
- A “bird’s eye view” Accessibility Quick Guide for common educational technologies
- Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker
- WebAIM Contrast Checker
- WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (for websites)
- Siteimprove (Chrome browser extension)
- Google Lighthouse (for websites, aimed at web developers)
Note: You can check the accessibility of a website that you want to use in your course. If there are major issues, you can decide if you want to replace that resource entirely or provide the information in alternative formats.
Evaluating Conformance Statements
If you are requiring students to use an external website, app, or tool, it is best to check out both the privacy statement and the WCAG Conformance Statements. You want to be sure that you are not asking students to sign-up for a platform that might abuse their private information or that they may not be able to use at all. A few tips to keep in mind:
- A WCAG 2.0 Conformance Statement is all or nothing; all the guidelines must be met for a website or product.
- A Section 508 VPAT statement is a Voluntary Product Accessibility Statement that records features that are both accessible and not accessible for that website or product. It does not mean that product is fully accessible.
- Ideally a website, app, or product we use has a WCAG 2.0 conformance statement or at the least has a VPAT statement that clearly shows they are aware of accessibility issues and are working to fix them (and this does not affect the features you are using–in that case, provide alternative ways for students to access or experience that part of your course).
Remediating Existing Content
You may be able to remediate existing content even if you are not the author or owner of the item. As the subject matter expert, you can decide if the content or experience is unique enough to warrant remediating the item or if you want to find or create something else instead. Steps you can take to make an existing item more accessible:
- Contact the author and ask them to correct an issue, for example adding closed captioning to a YouTube video to replace auto-generated captioning.
- Select a portion of the video or podcast and transcribe the content so that you can provide a text transcript to students.
- Create a second resource that provides equivalent content and learning experience for students that cannot access the original.
- Provide alternative text for images, graphics, or other visual cues not described in the original by giving students a text file with that information.
This page will be updated regularly; last updated 7 Apr 2022.
Cite this page: Cannon, J. A. (2021, August). Accessibility Resources. https://drjacannon.com/access/