Eastern Connecticut State University Knowledgebase

Module 7: Accessibility - How can I help my students who use assistive technology?

Article ID: 605
Last updated: 29 Jun, 2020

Accessibility: How can I help my students who use assistive technology?

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. After completing this module, if you have any questions regarding accessibility please contact accessibility@easternct.edu.

Learning Objectives

Designing for accessibility from the beginning will save you time and stress when a disability accommodation is necessary.  In this module, we discuss the whys and hows of making your materials and your course more accessible. By the end of this module we hope you will be able to:

  • recognize why it is important to make a course accessible, and
  • start working on strategies to enhance accessibility in your course.

Table of Contents


Accessibility for Online Courses

Why is accessibility so important?

In the context of online courses, accessibility means making it possible for all students, regardless of physical or developmental impairment, to use all course materials and tools. A course is accessible to the degree that every student can get to, perceive, and navigate course content and assignments; submit assignments; and successfully use all course tools. Accessible design is often included under the larger umbrella of “universal design for learning (Links to an external site.),” because it considers all possible users.

Accessibility of online courses is important because:

What challenges do people with disabilities face working online?

There are four major categories of disability, and each type has different types of problems accessing online courses. These disabilities can be permanent or temporary, and may result from genetics, disease, injury, or age-related changes. 

Visual

Visual disabilities include blindness, low vision, and color blindness (White, Goette, & Young, 2005, p.5 (Links to an external site.)). 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.

The following video (Smith, 2012) demonstrates how people with disabilities access online courses. (Watch from the 2-minute mark until the 8:28 mark.)

Transcript - Keeping Web Accessibility in Mind (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article

Hearing

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

Cognitive disabilities (White, Goette, & Young, 2005, p.32 (Links to an external site.)). 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

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.

What do I need to put in my syllabus?

Here is an example statement regarding accessibility that you could include in your syllabus:

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Every attempt will be made to accommodate qualified students with disabilities (e.g. mental health, learning, chronic health, physical, hearing, vision, neurological, etc.) You must have established your eligibility for support services through the appropriate office that services students with disabilities. Note that services are confidential, may take time to put into place and are not retroactive. Captions and alternate media for print materials may take three or more weeks to get produced. Please contact your campus adaptive educational services office as soon as possible if accommodations are needed.

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Improving Accessibility in Your Course

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 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 headings and other built-in style features

Using built-in styles and layouts improves both the usability and accessibility of Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Blackboard content areas, 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.
  • 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" is problematic.
  • "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 Blackboard, 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.

Open the IUB Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center 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").
Map of eastern North America displaying how warm water travels up the coastline

Informational Images

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

Decorative/Redundant Images

  • The image is redundant to the text or conveys no information.
  • Use alt=”” for the alternative text.
This is an 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.

 How well do you understand alternate text? Try this Self-Check: Alternate Text to put your knowledge to the test!

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 such as YouTube 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 is common you will need to review the captions and make corrections. 

Improving accessibility and usability at the same time

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

Accessibility in a course you didn't design and can't change

The best case scenario is to work with the faculty member or committee that designed the course to improve accessibility. When you review the course for usability, it is a good idea to document potential accessibility concerns such as document and page formatting, textual images, non-captioned video, and links without meaningful text, as well as use of additional tools that may not be accessible for students with visual, hearing, or motor disabilities. Bringing accessibility concerns to their attention is the first step toward getting them addressed. If you have a student who has requested accommodation in your class your campus accessibility center will contact you and may connect you with the appropriate individual to provide materials, assignments, and assessments in a way that is accessible to that particular student. 

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

Although the three simple practices described above 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-Blackboard integrated, third-party tools - especially those with known issues like Adobe Captivate, Adobe Presenter, Articulate Storyline, and Quizlet
  • 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.) 

Thinking About Accessibility Options

Planning for accessibility doesn't automatically mean creating multiple versions or discarding activities, assignments, or content up-front because it could be inaccessible for certain students.  It means having thought through what you would do if a student for whom that activity was inaccessible registered for your class.

Are you ready to support students needing accommodation for disabilities?

Review the activities and assignments in your online (or to-be-online) course and pick one that may provide challenges to students with visual, hearing, or motor disabilities.

  1. What specific parts of the activity/assignment may be problematic?
  2. How could you potentially revise the activity/assignment to improve accessibility?
  3. What might an alternate version of the activity/assignment look like that would still meet the learning outcomes but eliminate the accessibility issues. 

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Accessibility: Resources

Additional Information

Universal Design for Learning Resources

Creating Accessible Word Document

Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations

Creating Accessible Excel Documents

Creating Accessible PDF Documents

Creating Accessible Multimedia

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Article ID: 605
Last updated: 29 Jun, 2020
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