Getting started with accessibility

A guide for faculty

Most faculty don’t think of themselves as developers of digital curriculum. But when you create digital resources for your students, that’s effectively what you’re doing. And, like any provider of digital curriculum, you must make sure that any resources you provide will be accessible to your students across a wide range of use cases.

It’s a given that students will view content in a variety of browsers and devices. We all learn pretty quickly what works well and what doesn’t (some PDFs, for example, are a real struggle on phones) and take pains to ensure that assigned material will be viewable by all students, whether they’re using Internet Explorer on a Windows desktop or an iOS app on an iPad.

It’s just as important to make sure that the content meets accessibility guidelines. The definitive standards for most schools come from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The WCAG Overview is quite clear, but it can also be a bit overwhelming.

The good news is that there are some relatively easy steps you can take to dramatically improve the accessibility of your content with minimal effort.

Learning management systems

Your learning management system (LMS) is likely the first way students will connect with you and your content; for many faculty, in fact, the majority of what they provide is authored and shared through the LMS. Unless you happen to be on the team adopting a new LMS, you don’t need to get bogged down in determining just how accessible it is. What you’re looking for are any tools the LMS provides to help you check the accessibility of the content you create. Here are some examples:

It’s worth noting that tools like these offer a convenient way to check the basics, but many aspects of accessibility cannot be evaluated programmatically. So don’t be surprised if you successfully pass the auto-check but still have a student pointing out other aspects of the material that could be made more accessible.

Microsoft applications

If you are creating student resources with applications outside your LMS, then you’ll want to investigate the software’s accessibility tools and their output. MS Word documents, PowerPoint slideshows, and Excel spreadsheets are among the most commonly shared resources. Microsoft has made substantial improvements in recent years to give document authors the ability to create accessible documents. But these tools rely on us, as authors, to provide value.

Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and others each have a built-in Accessibility Checker, and Microsoft provides instructions on using these tools to create accessible resources (such as this guide for Word).

NCDAE cheatsheets

Of course, your LMS and Microsoft Office are just a start—you may well be creating PDFs or YouTube videos, or seeking guidance on electronic content in general. In that case, you’ll be glad to know that the National Center on Disability and Access to Education offers a handful of one-page documents to guide creation of each of these formats. See the NCDAE Cheatsheets for more.

Purdue’s course accessibility guidelines

Where the WCAG is comprehensive and the above resources focus on tool or file formats, Purdue University provides an excellent checklist for evaluating the accessibility of your course as a whole. It covers everything from accessibility statements and audio resources to table captions and other technologies. See the Purdue Course Accessibility Guidelines for more.

How to meet WCAG (quick reference)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines remain the definitive standards for web accessibility, and they are revised regularly to keep up with evolving needs. When you’re ready to dive in, their Quick Reference on how to meet WCAG is a great place to start. For each of their 78 standards, they provide a brief description, techniques for meeting the standard, and a list of common failures.