Designing an Accessible Online Course

An Introduction to Accessible Design

What is Digital Accessibility?

Digital accessibility is the practice of designing and developing websites, applications and documents such that their presentation, content and functionalities are understandable and operable by as many people as possible. In some cases, accessibility makes things possible that would otherwise be impossible for people with disabilities. Accessible design isn’t just nice to have, it’s necessary.

What Does it Mean to Create an Accessible Online Course?

A well-designed course is more usable for all students. The design also takes into consideration that not all students navigate or access the online environment in the same way. You want your course and course content to be intuitive, perceivable and navigable.

Communicate Your Commitment to Access and Inclusion

You are probably already providing an accommodations statement in your syllabus, however, it is also a good idea to include a statement that informs students who might experience barriers that you are committed to creating an accessible and inclusive online course. The emphasis that this sentiment is coming from you, their instructor. Here are a few options for you to consider, but always feel free to add your own personal touch.

Example 1:

Students with Disabilities: If you anticipate issues related to the format or requirements of this course, please contact me. I would like us to discuss ways to ensure your full participation in the course. Together we can plan how best to remove barriers and coordinate your accommodations. You are also welcome to contact disability support services by calling 405-974-2516 or emailing at

Example 2:

Usability, disability and design: I am committed to creating a course that is inclusive in its design. If you encounter barriers, please let me know immediately so that we can determine if there is a design adjustment that can be made or if an accommodation might be needed to overcome the limitations of the design. I am always happy to consider creative solutions as long as they do not compromise the intent of the assessment or learning activity. You are also welcome to contact disability support services by calling 405-974-2516 or emailing at to begin this conversation or to establish accommodations for this or other courses. I welcome feedback that will assist me in improving the usability and experience for all students.

Share Accessible MS Word Documents

Sharing content with your students in Word documents is a common practice and can be simple and effective. As you design these documents, make sure you are taking accessibility into account.

Implement the following practices to make your Word document more accessible:

  1. Use real headings to provide structure and ensure they are used in a logical and meaningful way.
  2. Add alternative text to images.
  3. Use true numbered and bulleted lists.
  4. Create links by using meaningful text descriptions.
  5. Create tables to have a clear structure and mark table headers.
  6. Ensure there is sufficient color contrast between text and background.
  7. Avoid the use of SmartArt.
  8. Avoid adding text boxes.
  9. Avoid putting important information in headers and footers.
  10. Use Word's built-in accessibility checker to identify any issues with your document.

Additional Resources: Accessible MS Word Documents

Share Accessible MS PowerPoint Presentations

PowerPoints are commonly used in a face-to-face environment when giving presentations or lectures. The following information can help you create and share accessible PowerPoint presentations in the online environment.

  1. Use MS PowerPoint's built-in slide templates.
  2. Choose a design template that offers good color contrast.
  3. Avoid starting with a blank slide and adding text boxes. Instead, choose the layout that fits your slide design.
  4. Add alternative text to describe images, charts and graphs.
  5. Ensure every slide has a unique title.
  6. Check the reading order of each slide and make sure it is logical.
  7. Create links by using meaningful text descriptions.
  8. Use PowerPoint's built-in accessibility checker to identify any issues with your presentation.
  9. Create an accessible PDF version of the PowerPoint for students to download. This version will be more accessible to screen reader users.

Additional Resources: Accessible MS PowerPoint Presentations

Share Accessible PDFs

PDFs can provide an accessible way to provide content. If not created correctly, though, they can be totally inaccessible to people who use screen readers. 

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Start with an accessible source document, such as MS Word. A document created in Word should contain almost all the information necessary for an accessible PDF when created with accessibility in mind.
  2. Save the MS Word document to PDF by choosing, Save as PDF rather than printing to PDF.
  3. Simple documents should convert pretty well from MS Word to PDF. More complex documents may need to be checked for accessibility and even remediated for accessibility.
  4. If you have a Professional version of Adobe Acrobat, you can run an accessibility check.
  5. Avoid using scanned PDFs. Scanned documents are converted to an image which are completely inaccessible to screen reader users. Special steps must be taken to make these documents accessible.
    1. You can now use Ally to help you convert scanned PDFs. Visit the article Use Ally to OCR and Tag a Scanned PDF for more information.
  6. If you need assistance with making sure your PDF documents are accessible, please submit a service ticket request and select the box labeled "Course Accessibility" under the prompt "I need technical support".

Additional Resources: Accessible PDFs

Create Accessible HTML Pages

Digital text is the most universally accessible format available because it can be converted into all of the other useful sensory formats (e.g., text-to-speech, Braille, audio).

D2L offers accessible HTML templates that can be uploaded to your course. If you are unsure how to do this, contact IT by submitting a service request ticket

The following best practices will help you create accessible HTML pages in your course:

  1. Use proper headings for content structure.
  2. Use true numbered and bulleted lists.
  3. Create links by using meaningful text descriptions.
  4. Add alternative text to images.
  5. Create tables to have a clear structure and mark table headers.
  6. Ensure there is sufficient color contrast between text and background.
  7. Use D2L's built-in accessibility checker before publishing your content.

Additional Resources: Accessible HTML Pages

Create Meaningful Links

Hypertext links are used for many purposes, such as directing students to articles, videos, additional resources, etc. Making these links accessible is one of the most basic and most important aspects of accessible design.

If a student using a screen reader is in your course, they have the option to scan links to find what they need. If links are not described adequately, scanning the course in this way is not productive

Our eyes are drawn to links, so in addition to well-written link text helping screen reader users, it will make your content and course more usable to everyone.

Links are more useful when they make sense out of context. In addition, links do not need to include the word "link" in the link text, because all users already know that the link is a link.  Avoid non-informative phrases, such as:

  • click here
  • here
  • read more
  • more
  • info
  • link to [some link destination]

Your link text should give the user an indication of the purpose of the link.

Additional Resources: Meaningful Links

Share Accessible Videos

Video content can be much more engaging than more static content, adding great benefit to an online course. At the same time, if access is not considered, video content can present barriers for many students. So what needs to be considered to make sure video content is accessible?

  1. When embedding video, the video player itself needs to be accessible by keyboard and the controls labeled properly so that a screen reader user can access all of the video controls. 
  2. The video will need to be captioned.
  3. Ensure visual content is described.
  4. Provide a text transcript.

In order to be fully accessible to the maximum number of users, multimedia should include both synchronized captions AND a descriptive transcript. 

Additional Resources: Accessible Videos

Share Accessible Videos – Captions

Captioning is a very important part of the video production process at UCO. All videos used in UCO online courses should be captioned to keep us in compliance with ADA and Section 508 guidelines. Additionally, captioning makes videos more accessible to all of our students. Many students utilize captioning for watching videos in places where it may not be appropriate to play the audio, reading along, or saving the transcript to reference it later. All in all, captioning videos makes for a better learner experience for everyone. 

Visit the CeCE eStudio website for more information on captioning, watch video tutorials on how to upload your own video to D2L and the different types of captioning options.

Provide Accessible Video Conferencing

Whether you are using Webex, Zoom, or another web conferencing tool, there are a few things to keep in mind to make the experience more accessible to your students.

  1. Provide students with accessible versions of lecture documents in advance.
  2. If you are showing slides, announce when you are moving to the next slide.
  3. If using a digital whiteboard, make sure that you verbally describe what's written or drawn on the whiteboard.
  4. If a captioner is joining to provide captioning, make sure the captioning is working properly before beginning your lecture.
  5. Record your lecture so that students who lose Internet connection can access it later. This will also be beneficial for students who are unable to attend at the provided lecture time.
  6. Avoid flashing or strobing content in video conferencing or other multimedia. Flashing and strobing content can cause seizures. If you do have content that flashes or strobes, ensure you have a warning in place before the content is played. 

Additional Resources: Accessible Video Conferencing

Implementing Accommodations in an Online Course

A highly accessible online course will remove many barriers that students with disabilities may face, as well as reduce the need for many accommodations. If you take the time to follow the suggestions in the previous sections, students with disabilities will be included proactively. In fact, sometimes in a well-designed online course, students with disabilities participate seamlessly and do not even need to connect with the disability resource office. 

Common Accommodations in the Online Environment

  • Additional Time on Exams
  • Captioning
  • Sign Language Interpreters
  • Alternatives to Inaccessible Course Content/Components

Although not a comprehensive list of accommodation needs, these are seen most often in online courses. If a student reaches out to you with an accommodation need and you are unsure how to meet that need, contact Disability Support Services (DSS) as soon as possible in order to provide the accommodation in a timely manner. You can reach DSS by phone at 405-974-2516 or by email at

Source: Adapted from Explore Access: Tools for Promoting Disability Access and Inclusion. Copyright © 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021. University of Arkansas Partners for Inclusive Communities. All Rights Reserved.


Article ID: 112067
Tue 7/28/20 8:35 AM
Mon 5/9/22 10:46 AM

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