Presentation Summaries

Technology Accessibility Specialist Terrill Thompson presents on accessible online learning.

Overview of Accessibility Issues for Online Learning for Different Stakeholders (e.g., designers, instructors, administrators, students, …)

Presented by Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington

Educational institutions across the nation are under scrutiny for failing to offer accessible online classes and resources. Many civil rights complaints have been made because information technology (IT) is not accessible to individuals with disabilities—including uncaptioned videos, unreadable PDFs, and inaccessible websites and information kiosks. The legal basis for these civil rights complaints is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and its 2008 amendments, and local and state laws (e.g., Policy #188 in Washington State). Policy #188 on IT accessibility helps guide us as we work to comply with federal laws and collaborate in our efforts to ensure that the IT we develop, procure, and use is accessible to all faculty, students, staff, and visitors, including those with disabilities.

Ability exists on a continuum, where all individuals are more or less able to see, hear, walk, read print, communicate verbally, tune out distractions, learn, or manage their health. Most disabilities are invisible and many students and staff don’t report their disabilities to disability service offices. Regardless of where a person falls on this continuum and whether they request accommodations, we want to ensure that they have access to the classes we teach and resources we share.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, “accessible” means “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

There are two approaches for making our campuses accessible: accommodations and universal design. Accommodations are reactive and allow us to address the inaccessible features of a product or environment to make it more accessible to an individual who finds it inaccessible (e.g., captioning a video when a student with a hearing impairment requests it). Universal design is a proactive approach to create all aspects of a product or environment as accessible as possible as it is being designed. A building that is technically accessible would have a separate ramp for people with wheelchairs, while a building that is universally designed would have one entrance that is accessible for all. Universally designed technology builds on accessibility, is flexible, and is compatible with assistive technology.

I taught my first online class in 1995. This was a class on adaptive technology for people with disabilities. I taught the class with a professor, Dr. Norm Coombs, who is blind. We took steps to make it as accessible as possible to showcase that it was possible for any student to take an online course. I still do this in the online classes I teach today.

While educators may not have the choice in their learning management system (LMS), they do have the choice to create accessible instructional materials and teaching strategies. Educators should consider if everyone can gain knowledge, interact, and demonstrate their knowledge. The first step towards this is creating an accessible syllabus with structure and key information, including a statement on accessibility and disability-related accommodations. A good place for educators to find guidance in where to begin making a course accessible is in DO-IT’s publication, 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course.

Another resource for leaders in online learning programs is the Ten Indicators of Distance Learning Program Accessibility web resource, which tells how distance learning program administrators nationwide can work toward achieving fully accessible distance learning programs. The Distance Learning Program Accessibility Indicators can be used as a checklist for documenting programmatic changes that lead to improved accessibility of the courses of any distance-learning program.

Web and Video Accessibility

Presented by Terrill Thompson, University of Washington

When we’re creating digital content such as web pages or online documents, we may envision our typical user as an able-bodied person using a desktop computer. In reality, users utilize a wide variety of technologies to access the web, including assistive technologies and mobile devices. Everyone has a unique combination of levels of ability when it comes to seeing, hearing, or using a mouse or keyboard; there is a wide variety of technology and software tools that people use to access information online. But are courses always accessible to or usable by students or instructors using assistive technology? In order to ensure our digital resources are accessible, designers, developers, and content authors must understand that users are technologically diverse, and familiarize themselves with a few simple accessibility standards, tools, and techniques.

For content, plain text is not always the most accessible format. Simple structure like headings and lists can allow people with or without assistive technology to understand the information provided. Most tools for providing content allow for structural coding. Since the World Wide Web was invented, HTML has included the option to add alternative text to describe the content of images, proper heading structures, and other accessibility features. The W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 aims to make all web content accessible to all users. WCAG 2.0 follows four main principles; information should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these principles is defined by more specific guidelines, and those are further defined by specific success criteria, each assigned Level A, AA, or AAA. Level A success criteria includes the most critical issues for accessibility and requirements are fairly easy to meet when compared with Level AA and AAA. In resolution agreements with postsecondary campuses and the U.S. Department of Justice and the OCR, WCAG 2.0 Level AA is typically the accepted level of website accessibility.

Using accessible tools and design strategies will help make all web content more accessible. Using accessible themes in WordPress and Drupal is an easy way to spread accessibility across campus, when those themes incorporate accessibility features such as keyboard accessible drop-down menus and proper headings. If websites include rich, dynamic content (as opposed to static documents), ensuring their accessibility will likely depend on use of Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), a markup language that supplements HTML with attributes that communicate roles, states, and properties of user interface elements to assistive technologies. Creating an accessible online course could be simplified into the following five steps:

  • Use headings.
  • Add alternate text to images.
  • Caption and audio-describe videos.
  • Upload accessible course materials.
  • Ask questions about accessibility before selecting other features or tools:
    • Don’t ask “Is this accessible?” Closed questions yield too little information.
    • Instead, ask them to describe what they’ve done to ensure their product meets WCAG 2.0 Level AA requirements.
  • Ask them to demonstrate their technology without a mouse or using assistive technology such as a screen reader.

For more information about web accessibility, check out these resources:

Accessibility of Canvas and Creating Accessible Documents

Presented by Dan Comden, Hadi Rangin, and Gaby de Jongh, University of Washington

Learning Management Systems

There are two layers of accessibility issues, the application framework layer and the content layer. In an LMS, both layers must be accessible to have provide good user experience. We have collaborated with major LMS vendors including Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, and Desire2Learn and helps to improve the accessibility of all these LMS’s.

All these major LMS vendors have invested significant resources into accessibility. They are not perfect in this regard, but they are much better than they were at any time in the past.

Regarding accessibility approaches to content, we have two options:

  • Reactive approach: You let your campus disability services office provide accommodations to a specific student or instructor.
  • Proactive approach: You provide equal and real-time access to all learning materials by creating accessible materials and teaching strategies during the design process and providing real-time learning experiences for students that are similar to that of their peers.

The proactive approach can save time and labor in the long run by avoiding expensive accommodations, as well as providing equal access to students in a timely manner.

Since the LMS can typically be accessible, instructional designers and faculty just need to focus on content accessibility, as well as accessibility issues as they select specific tools and employee teaching strategies.


In 2016, Hadi Rangin began and continue to lead a focus group called Canvas Accessibility Testing and Evaluation Project (CATE), which includes several higher education institutions. We conduct accessibility tests and share accessibility challenges with Instructure, the developer and distributor of Canvas. Instructure was very receptive to our input and has addressed most reported issues by fixing them or partially redesigning the relevant components/functions. Canvas has demonstrated a solid commitment to accessibility since we have been collaborating with them. There are four non-negotiable criteria supported by the Canvas leadership according to the Canvas product lead: global, scalable, secure, and accessible. Their accessibility features include solid ARIA landmarks, keyboard accessibility, good navigation within courses and modules, accessibility in new or recreated components (to-do lists for students, calendar, gradebook, discussion forum), and the Accessibility Checker. The Accessibility Checker allows content creators to check for accessibility of the content they create and allows them to use the Canvas rich text editor to remediate the issues. At this time the Accessibility Checker checks for 11 known accessibility problems. Canvas has open-sourced this extension and the community is welcome to add new features to it.


HTML is always the most accessible format for content. It has a comprehensive set of semantic tags, includes fully accessible forms, accessible math via MathML, accessible videos and a wide variety of other accessibility features. Next, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have a variety of accessibility features, including stylistic accessibility tags, alt text for images, simple accessible tables, accessible math via the MathType plugin, and an accessibility checker, and are well-supported by assistive technology. However, accessibility in Word has some limitations compared to HTML, for example with forms and complex tables.

With Microsoft products, there are some basic steps to make an accessible document:

  • Use built-in heading styles (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) You can change the look of a style via the “Modify Style” dialog in the Styles panel. For lengthy documents, create a Table of Contents from the heading styles.
  • Use tables wisely. Identify row headers and keep your tables simple.

For PowerPoints, use built-in theme templates. If you need to change a template, edit the master slide, but don’t uncheck the title or footer boxes.

  • Check your reading order of slide contents. Go into the Selection Pane and verify your content goes in order from the bottom to the top. Also title slides differently from each other.
  • Make hyperlinks accessible. Use smart links by highlighting text that should be linked and using the Insert Hyperlinks dialogue box to insert links.
  • Use alt text for visuals. Alt text can come with some limitations and challenges, especially for science information. Consider the effective practices for Description of Science Content.
  • Use the built-in accessibility checker. It finds errors, warnings, and tips in .docx, .pptx., and .xlsx.
  • When you export your Word, PowerPoint, or Excel document to PDF, preserve the structure to keep it accessible.

The most widely used format for sharing documents in online courses is PDF. PDFs come in three types: inaccessible image, a document with text but no structure, and a “tagged PDF,” a document with an underlying tag structure similar to HTML. A well-structured, tagged PDF can be fairly accessible, and Adobe Acrobat includes an accessibility checker to help authors check and fix accessibility problems. However, PDF has some limitations: It does not support accessible math, accessibility in forms is extremely limited compared to HTML, and its accessibility features are only supported by screen readers in Windows.

There are a few basics you can use to create accessible PDFs. WCAG 2.0 Level AA is the standard for accessibility, the PDF/UA is the standard intended to make the content within a PDF available for accessibility, and the PAC 3 validates for accessibility. PDFs are usually created by a source document, either from an authoring tool or a scanned image. Always make sure to use the accessibility features in the original authoring tool (e.g., Word or InDesign). It is always easier to create an accessible source document than remediating a non-accessible document. If working from a scanned document, you can use Adobe’s built-in optical character recognition (OCR), but OCR is imperfect and may result in inaccurate text, particularly if the scanned page is skewed or includes markings.

Always consider the hierarchy of tasks for a new PDF document:

  • Is it a scanned document? Use OCR.
  • Does it have form fields? Add the form field controls using Acrobat.
  • Does it have hyperlinks? Add links using the Create Links tool.
  • Does it have multimedia? Add the multimedia tools and include alt text, captions, or video description.

The latest version Adobe Acrobat Pro has the ability to fully remediate a PDF. It can convert a scanned image to text, autotag a document, and make it accessible via the Action Wizard. All of these steps should be double checked and confirmed. You then use the Touch Up Reading Order tool via the Order Panel, where you can manually add and clean up tags ( You should always review that lists, images, tables, links, and forms are tagged properly. You can use the Acrobat accessibility checker to confirm these as well as remind you to manually check color contrast, reading order, and document language.


Microsoft Accessibility

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC

InDesign Accessibility Basics