Presentation Summaries

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. 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 and policies—e.g., Policy #188 in Washington State. Policy #188 on IT accessibility can help guide postsecondary institutions in complying with federal laws 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, and manage their health. Most disabilities are invisible and many students and staff do not report their disabilities to disability service offices. Regardless of where a person falls on this continuum and whether or not they request disability-related 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 US 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 campus offerings, including online learning, accessible: accommodations and universal design (UD). Accommodations reactively 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 who is deaf requests it). Universal design is a proactive approach for making all aspects of a product or environment as accessible as possible as it is being designed. A UD feature is accessible, usable, and inclusive. A building that has a separate ramp for people who use wheelchairs is accessible and usable, but a similar building that is universally designed would have one wide, sloping ramp for the 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. The tools are more advanced, but the basic principles of UD remain the same.

While individual instructors may not have a choice in what learning management system (LMS) they can use, they do have the choice to design accessible instructional materials and teaching strategies. Educators should provide multiple was for students to 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 further guidance to begin making a course accessible is in the publication 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course.

A resource for leaders in online learning programs is the Ten Indicators of Distance Learning Program Accessibility, which tells how program administrators can work toward achieving fully accessible distance learning programs. The 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 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 hardware and software tools (i.e., assistive technology) that people with disabilities use to access online content and applications. But courses are not 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 familiarize themselves with accessibility principles, guidelines, tools, and techniques.

In presenting content it is important to use a text format (in contrast to a scanned in document that is actually an image) so that it can be read by a screen reader that gives audio output, technology commonly used by individuals who are blind or have dyslexia or other reading-related disabilities. Screen readers also allow individuals who are blind to understand the organization of a document when they include headings and lists that are structured. Most tools that present 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 World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) aims to make web content accessible to all users. WCAG are built on four basic principles; information should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these principles is linked to specific guidelines along with 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 named as an 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 promote accessibility across campus; such themes incorporate accessibility features such as keyboard accessible drop-down menus and proper headings. If websites include rich, dynamic content (as opposed to static content), ensuring their accessibility can be accomplished by using 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.

A place to start in creating an accessible online course could be to take 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?” because it could yield too little information.
    • Instead, ask what the developer has specifically done to ensure their product meets WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines.
    • Ask them to demonstrate their technology without a mouse or using assistive technology such as a screen reader.

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

Ally and Creating Accessible Documents

Gaby de Jongh, University of Washington

A significant number of documents are created by UW faculty each quarter and many of these erect barriers to students with disabilities. During Winter Quarter 2018, 3817 classes were offered in the Canvas LMS, using a total of 349,058 documents (an average of 91 documents per class). Winter 2018 also had the following statistics:

  • Scanned with no optical character recognition (OCR): 17,498
  • Contrast issues: 57,345
  • Untagged: 51,213
  • No headers: 38,134
  • Images without alt text: 36,781

The average number of pages per quarter (not including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics content!) is 3,207,315; the average number of hours spent fixing inaccessible documents at DRS is 32,073 hours, which costs an average of $481,097 per quarter.


  • Many Washington State campuses, including the UW, have licensed Blackboard Ally, an LMS plugin created to identify inaccessible documents and other features of an online course.
  • Ally can also convert PDF documents to text-based documents, but is not capable of ensuring proper structure for full accountability.
  • This tool can be confusing at first, so it is important to offer training to instructors, content creators, administrators, librarians, and others when it is adopted by a campus.

The UW rolled out the first Ally feature, Alternative Format Download for students in October of 2018. This tool allows students to convert documents in a variety of alternative formats including, Tagged or OCRed PDF, HTML, ePub, MP3 Audio, and Electronic Braille. Ally’s full features were deployed to volunteer instructors in  December 2018, to serve as a mechanism for additional feedback. Survey results from instructors indicated that they liked the tool, found it simple to use, and considered it important to flag accessibility issues. The campus-wide release took place in March of 2019, for Spring Quarter.

Creating Accessible Content

HTML is considered the most accessible format for online content. It has a comprehensive set of semantic tags, can be used to create fully accessible forms, and has a wide variety of other accessibility features. Next, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have a variety of accessibility features, including styles for headings, alt text for images, and an accessibility checker.. With Microsoft products, there are some basic steps to make an accessible document.

  1. 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, you can create a Table of Contents from the heading styles.
  2. Use tables wisely. Keep your tables simple and Identify row headers.
  3. 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.
  4. Check the reading order of slide contents. Go into the Selection Pane and verify your content goes in order from the bottom to the top.
  5. Title slides differently from each other.
  6. Make hyperlinks descriptive. Use smart links by highlighting text that should be linked and using the Insert Hyperlinks dialogue box to insert links.
  7. Use alt text to describe content in images.
  8. Use the built-in accessibility checker. It identifies errors, warnings, and tips in .docx, .pptx., and .xlsx.
  9. If 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 when it comes to accessibility and inaccessible PDF documents can be difficult to remediate.

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 of 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

Grackle Suite for Google

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC