Skip to Main Content

Keeping our campus healthy and safe

More Info »

Accessibility in Online Courses

You can significantly improve accessibility in your course by following three relatively simple practices as you design course materials and by keeping accessibility in mind as you think about activities and assessments. Designing for accessibility ensures that your course is ready if any disability accommodations are required and makes your content clearer for all students.

What challenges do people with disabilities face working online?

There are four major categories of disability, and each requires different considerations when designing online courses. These disabilities can be permanent or temporary and may result from genetics, disease, injury, or age-related changes.


Visual disabilities include blindness, low vision, and color blindness. Individuals with visual disabilities may:

  • need to use a screen reader and the keyboard to access what’s on a computer.
  • not be able to use a mouse.
  • not be able to tell one color from another.
  • need to enlarge text and illustrations in order to see them.


Hearing disabilities include partial and complete deafness. Individuals with hearing loss may not be able to hear the audio in podcasts, voice-over PowerPoints, videos, and other online media.


Cognitive disabilities include learning disabilities and other disorders that make individuals especially distractible or unable to focus on, process, or remember information. Individuals with cognitive disabilities may:

  • have trouble reading text or interpreting illustrations.
  • need to use a screen reader to help them understand text.
  • be confused by complex layouts or navigation schemes.
  • have trouble focusing on or comprehending lengthy sections of text, audio, or video.


Motor disabilities include paralysis and limited fine or gross motor control. Individuals with motor disabilities may:

  • not be able to access content that requires a mouse.
  • need to use assistive technologies like head wands and voice-recognition software to access a course.
  • have slow response time.
  • become easily fatigued by movements that wouldn’t be tiring for most people.

The following video Keeping Web Accessibility in Mind (Smith, 2012), demonstrates how people with disabilities access online courses.

(Transcript – Keeping Web Accessibility in Mind

What can I do to improve accessibility?

By employing a few simple techniques when creating your courses and materials that maximize accessibility, you won’t be scrambling when a student needs an accommodation because you will have done most of the work already. Many accessibility problems in instructor-created course content can be prevented by three relatively simple practices that will significantly improve accessibility for your course.

Use video with Closed-Captioning and/or Transcripts.

Panopto and YouTube have Auto-Captioning that is created when you record your videos. But these are not at the 100% required level of accuracy. Choices are to supply a transcript along with your video, or to Correct Auto Captioning.

Use headings and other built-in style features

Using built-in styles and layouts improves the both the usability and accessibility of Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Canvas courses, and other files. As you create these files:

  • Use headings (e.g., Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3) to format and mark headings and indicate the organization of the content. Headings help everyone recognize ordinal and co-ordinal relationships between topics and enable those using screen readers to skim the page and find what they need. Here are instructions for using headings in Microsoft Word (Links to an external site.).
  • Use built-in bullet lists and numbered lists instead of trying to create them using tabs and spaces. The built-in lists provide a navigational structure for those using screen readers.
  • Use built-in layouts in PowerPoint rather than building your own with text boxes. The built-in layouts include mark-ups, similar to the headings described above, which ensures that information is presented in the correct order for those using screen readers.

Write concise and meaningful link text

If link text is meaningless or too long, students using screen readers have trouble figuring out where the link will take them. Keep link text concise and make sure that it makes sense out of context.

  • “Click here” by itself is problematic because it doesn’t describe the link’s destination.
  • “Contact your advisor” is better than “Click here to contact your advisor” or “Link to academic advisors.”
  • Use URLs as link text only if the URL is very short and meaningful.
  • If an image serves as a link, the alternative text of the image serves as the link text, so make sure that it follows the guidelines for links.

See WebAIM’s page on links and hypertext (Links to an external site.) for more information.

Provide a text alternative for images where appropriate

Alternative text (also called “alt text”) is invisible text attached to images. It is read aloud by a screen reader, enabling someone who can’t see the image to access the meaning of the image. Programs such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint enable you to add alternative text to images. In Canvas, you add alternative text to the Image Attributes when you add an image.

Alternative text is required for all images, and writing it can be tricky, so the WebAIM “How to Write Appropriate alt Text” (Links to an external site.) tutorial is highly recommended. (You can skip the parts about HTML.) To get you started, here are some basic guidelines for writing it, depending on whether the image is active, informational, redundant, or textual.

Alt Text

Image of ID Team Website

Active Images

  • The image serves as a link or button. Clicking it or hovering over it causes something to happen.
  • Use alt text that conveys the function of the image (for example, “View map of Antarctica”).
  • Use alternative text that conveys the same information as the image.

Informational Images

  • The image is not active but conveys information that is not given in a caption or the body of the content.

Decorative/Redundant Images

  • The image is redundant to the text or conveys no information.
  • Use alt=”” for the alternative text.
example of a textual image

Textual Images

  • The image is of text.
  • Use alternative text that is the same as the text in the image.

Improving accessibility and usability at the same time

In addition to the items listed above, both usability and accessibility can also be improved by:

  • using easy to read fonts. Using san-serif, non-italicized, monospaced (fixed-width) fonts especially improve readability for students with dyslexia (Links to an external site.).
  • making sure any pdfs of articles or other documents not created by you are actual documents and not just images of journal pages. This assists both students using screen readers and students who like to be able to search the content of an article or document to find and review information.  Using Adobe Acrobat Pro, you can run optical character recognition on any pdfs (Links to an external site.).
  • using scripts when recording presentations. Scripts can then be provided as transcripts to students with hearing difficulties or for whom English may not be their primary language.

What about video captioning?

Even if you don’t have a student with hearing difficulties in your class, captions can be quite helpful to other students.  Students for whom English is not their primary language, students with certain cognitive challenges, and students watching your videos in noisy environments can all benefit by the addition of captioning.

Some video services offer mechanical captioning using speech to text technology. If you have a strong accent, if there are multiple people in the video, or if you are in a field where use of terms not commonly found in everyday conversation, it is likely that you will need to review the captions and make corrections.

Panopto Video offers a closed caption view as well as transcripts. We urge all faculty to use Panopto for lecture recordings and uploading video into Canvas.

When should I ask for help to ensure my course is accessible?

Although the three simple practices described on the previous page are rather easy for anyone to do, some practices that improve accessibility are more difficult or time-consuming and will likely need professionals trained in accessibility accommodation to implement. The following are a list of “triggers” for you to contact your campus accessibility center:

  • You are using non-Canvas integrated, third-party tools – especially those with known issues like Adobe Captivate, Adobe Presenter, Articulate Storyline, and Quizzlet
  • You are using third-party tools offered by your text-book publisher – especially those with known issues like Pearson Mathlab or ALEKS from McGraw Hill
  • You are linking to many different websites which you want students to read/watch/listen to the material.
  • You are presenting a large amount of material that is highly dependent on a single sense (e.g., multiple images; a lot of music; data visualizations that are highly dependent on color)
  • You are requiring students to use a specific software tool or package (e.g., SPSS, ArcGIS, etc.)

Additional Resources

Universal Design for Learning Resources

Creating Accessible Word Documents

  • WebAim Tutorial: This tutorial describes how to use headings, add alt text, create links, and use Word’s Accessibility Checker to identify accessibility problems. It also explains how to convert Word to HTML.
  • Microsoft Accessibility Tutorials: A series of short videos from Microsoft

Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations

  • Microsoft PowerPoint Accessibility Information: This tutorial provides best practices for creating accessible PowerPoints (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and online). It also provides instruction on how to insert and use alt text for graphics, hyperlinks, and accessible design tips.

Creating Accessible PDF Documents

  • WebAim Tutorial: This tutorial describes how to convert documents to PDF, to evaluate, repair, and enhance the accessibility of PDFs, and to create accessible PDF form.

Creating Accessible Multimedia

Creating an Accessible Syllabus

Syllabus Template: Use this face-to-face syllabus template created by the Instructional Design Team. It’s set up to be highly accessible and usable for students.

Online syllabus Template: Use this online syllabus template created by the Instructional Design Team. It’s set up to be highly accessible and has additional information for online students.

Creating Accessible Canvas Content

Canvas Accessibility Design Guidelines:  This page lists best practices for creating accessible content in your Canvas courses.

Canvas Accessibility Checker:  Use the built in accessibility checker to see if there are accessibility issues in your Canvas pages, announcements, etc.  The interface provides quick and easy solutions to accessibility problems.