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Designing for

It is essential for course materials to be accessible to all your students. For something to be accessible, it means that individuals with disabilities can access the same content as those without disabilities, with similar ease and speed. By prioritizing accessibility in the creation of course materials, instructors can reduce barriers and make their materials more inclusive for all students.

Adding universal design principles like flexibility, simplicity, and clarity into the creation of course materials can make the materials more accessible to all students, including students with various disabilities. Use of open education resources (OER) can also improve accessibility and reduce the need for students to request accommodations.

Taking a proactive approach to designing for accessibility can have a significant impact on student learning and success. By designing for accessibility, incorporating principles of universal design and utilizing open education resources, instructors can ensure that all students have equal access to the course materials they need to succeed.

While our aim is to make classes more accessible from the start, students with disabilities may still require additional or different accommodations. For any questions about how to ensure accessibility for specific students’ accommodations, the course instructor should contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC). The DRC also provides this Faculty resource page and FAQs for faculty.

Accessibility Team

The Accessibility Team is a group of skilled and knowledgeable student workers who can provide assistance to instructors seeking to make their courses proactively more accessible for all students. From document remediation to captioning assistance, this team provides flexible services to help improve the accessibility in your course for all students without the need of accommodation.

We can help with the following:

  • Caption creation/editing/review of your pre-recorded lasting materials — we’ll work with you to create captions, or to review/edit existing captions.
  • Review of material(s) for accessibility and document remediation — we’ll review individual course materials.
  • Review of existing courses for accessibility — we’ll holistically review your existing course(s) in Canvas for areas where accessibility can be improved.
  • Consultation for designing for accessibility — we’ll meet with you to discuss designing courses to make them maximally accessible.

Email for more information.

How to Design for Accessibility

Designing courses for accessibility often takes less time than after-the-fact remediation, so start with accessibility in mind. All of your students benefit!

Incorporating accessibility in your courses can include: using Universal Design for Learning principles to design your course assignments; creating an accessible syllabus with accessible course policies; ensuring that group work in an active learning classroom is accessible and inclusive to students with disabilities; and ensuring that all course materials follow “best practices” for accessibility. If you’d like more help with accessible course materials, contact the Accessibility Team.

Use the Universal Design for Learning Framework

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework can guide all aspects of course development and delivery to maximize accessibility and reduce barriers to learning. It’s a research-based framework that assumes learner variability and difference is the norm, rather than the exception, in any learning environment. Importantly, it’s a proactive framework: because we can assume that learner variability is the norm, we don’t have to wait to learn about a particular student’s need for DRC accommodations to design accessibility into our courses. While using UDL does not mean that students with disabilities will no longer require accommodations, it does allow us to create courses that are more accessible to more students, from the start.

Essentially, the UDL framework invites educators to consider how we can provide students with:

  1. multiple means of representation (the “what” of learning, including access to course readings, presentations, slides, and more; the section on “course materials,” below, can especially support you with this element of the framework);
  2. multiple means of action and expression (the “how” of learning, including providing options for how students demonstrate their learning on assignments);
  3. multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning, including supporting students to see the relevance of what they are learning in their daily lives, and increasing their agency by giving them some choices in their learning).

UDL On Campus: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education is an excellent site for getting started with, or extending, your UDL practices. We especially recommend the following pages:

Design an Accessible Syllabus

You can design your course syllabus to be accessible to students with disabilities by considering the following:

  • Text. Understand that text-heavy syllabi with long text blocks can be inaccessible to some students with disabilities. Using concise text with bullet points and hyperlinks can reduce barriers to understanding important course information.
  • Image. Use visual representations to help break up text and create a more friendly reading experience for students, such as images (with alt-text) that relate to course content and graphics for grade distributions. 
  • Rhetoric. Ensure the tone of your syllabus promotes accessibility for learners by using inviting language rather than punitive language. Punitive language undermines learning for many minoritized students, and small changes in tone can promote student help-seeking behavior and sense of belonging in your courses.
  • Policy. Some traditional course policies can exclude learners with disabilities, including rigid deadline and late work policies. Since extended deadlines are common accommodations for learners with disabilities, we can rethink some of our deadline policies to include more learners from the start.

Learn more about how to implement these four categories at Accessible Syllabus, which also provides concrete examples for each category.

Promote Accessible Group Work

Instructors who use active learning to increase engagement in their courses often use collaborative activities and assignments to support peer-to-peer learning. Group work can benefit many minoritized students because it can build positive interdependence in the classroom, provide the opportunity for students to receive social support and grow their peer networks, and increase students’ ability to access diverse perspectives. At the same time, group work can introduce new challenges and barriers to students, including to some students with disabilities. In fact, “alternatives to group work” is an accommodation that some students with disabilities may require. Instructors and TAs alike can plan for more accessible and equitable group work that maximizes the benefits we can gain from using it in the classroom.

Best Practices for Course Materials

Use Accessibility Checkers

Accessibility Checkers can help you find ways to make content more accessible; they look for things like proper headings, alt text for images, and color contrast. Microsoft products like Word, Powerpoint have an Accessibility Checker; there’s also an Accessibility Checker in Canvas.

Keep things simple and short

Use easy-to-read fonts over ostentatious ones. Use colors consistently. Don’t overload a slide with too much text. Remember that we can only take in so much information at a time, especially in a new domain of knowledge. Your content speaks for itself: don’t obscure it in overworked styles or formatting.

Styles for headings and lists

Think of a newspaper or website: headings help readers get a sense of the page’s organization and structure with a quick skim. Screen readers can navigate through headings, skipping to sections or pulling a list of all headers: it is invaluable to navigating content with assistive technology. In 2017, WebAIM asked how screen reader users preferred to find information on lengthy web pages and almost 70% of respondents said they preferred to use headings on a page. For the curious, here’s a video of a screen reader using headings for navigation.

Headers are a specific style and are not a result of increasing the font size or bolding text. The distinction is important because of the underlying code associated with text formatting. It’s not to say that you can’t make your section titles in a large purple font if you want — just make sure to apply a heading level first before changing the format.

Once you use a heading style, subsections should follow logical order: don’t skip from heading level 2 to level 4 without a level 3 somewhere.

Similarly, use appropriate list styles for numbered or bulleted lists. It is not sufficient or helpful if lists are manually typed out with digits, dashes or symbols. Screen readers can announce list styles, making comprehension of the upcoming list items easier.

Learn more about how to use these styles:

Clear formatting and punctuation

Make reading and decoding words, numbers, and symbols easy for all readers so they can focus on comprehending the meaning of content, not making sense of the format. Individuals with learning disabilities may have trouble manipulating letters numbers or words, and some assistive technology like screen readers might not understand or correctly read aloud the sentence as intended.

  • Avoid using Roman Numerals as these can confuse readers and likely are read incorrectly by screen readers or text-to-speech tools.
  • Use punctuation correctly to ensure any assistive technologies read it as written. Avoid using symbols to decorate or call attention to headings or subsections, like “**Lesson 1**”.
  • Use a dating format that can be read and understood in any culture. 03/05/2021 can either be interpreted as “March 5th 2021” or “May 3rd 2021”. Writing out the month in words can avoid this confusion.

For more guidance, visit this W3 page: Use Clear, Unambiguous Formatting and Punctuation.

Make links descriptive

Use descriptive links instead of pasting website URLs into documents. This video powerfully demonstrates how screen readers encounter pasted URLs this in less than a minute. Assistive technologies can also pull a list of links to browse more easily.

Tips for writing good descriptive text for links:

  • Identify the purpose or function of your link, do not use “click here”. Compare these examples: “Click here to read the article” vs. “Read more about teaching online.” The second example better informs the reader about the context and relevance of the included link before clicking it.
  • Keep link text visually distinct from non-linked text with consistent formatting. Linked text is usually underlined and shown in blue text. Normally, text editors in Canvas or emails will do this automatically.

Learn more about the screen-reader experience or here’s instructions for making links in Canvas.

Colors have good contrast

Colors should provide enough contrast between the text and its background so that it can be read by people with moderately low vision. If contrast is too subtle, it might be difficult to read the text or page. Use WebAim’s browser-based color contrast checker or try searching for a color checking browser extension.

Colors do not convey meaning

Approximately 4.5% of the population have some form of color blindness and can have difficulty differentiating colors, particularly red-green colors. Also, screen readers do not read out formatting like colors, bold or underline. Instead of relying on color or formatting to convey meaning or significance, add labels or use lists.

Images have alternative text

Alternative text (‘alt text’) describes the appearance of an image on a page. Alt text is read aloud by screen readers or displays in place of an image if it fails to load. Including alt text with your images ensures all users, regardless of visual ability, can understand what images are being used and their context to other text.
When writing alt text for images, it’s best to omit “picture of” or “photo of” and keep it brief. Learn more about writing good alt text and how context can also play a role in describing images.

Caption everything

Captioning increases accessibility for all learners, especially for deaf or hard-of-hearing students or non-native English speakers. Captioning can also help people focus on the content, improve comprehension and increase engagement.

If you have a student with an accommodation, the Disability Resource Center will work with you to facilitate captioning.

YuJa has auto-generated captioning which can be edited; the Accessibility Team can provide caption correction for reusable videos (more information above in this page).

A Rising Tide: How Closed Captions Can Benefit All Students

For PDFs: text is selectable

It’s likely your beloved scans of articles past are PDF images and not recognized text. If a PDF is just an image, a screen reader won’t be able to read it at all. 

Perform this quick check: try to select a portion of text as if to copy/paste. If you are not able to do that, and only area-based selection is available, the text is not usable with assistive technology and inaccessible.
Start first by trying to obtain a better version of the document elsewhere on the web or from the university library. Remediating PDFs into something more accessible is possible. For the interested, Creating Accessible PDFs course is a good place to start (Staff HR provides access to LinkedIn Learning). Otherwise, Accessibility Team can help with remediating (more information above in this page).

Consider using OER

Accessibility is also about ensuring access to course materials for all of your students. Take a look at the UCSC guide on Affordable Textbooks. The first two tips—considering Open Educational Resources and library-licensed e-books—are especially helpful.

Provide students with materials to help them self-assess and review (or catch up) on prerequisite knowledge.

More accessible Zoom meetings

Use live transcription in Zoom meetings

Zoom’s automated captions (also known as live transcription) feature can provide automatic captioning through closed caption settings. Participants can enable captions at any point; hosts can also preemptively enable them from the Captions button in the Zoom meeting menu. Note that captions need to be re-enabled if moved to a breakout room.

More information about Zoom Live Transcription.

Read chat questions out loud before answering

When someone asks a question in the chat, read the entire text of the question out loud before answering it. This is critical, especially for recorded meetings where the context or entirety of the question may be lost or missed.

Consider these different responses: 

  • “Yes Sammy, it will be included”
  • “Sammy is asking if chapter three is going to be on our exam — yes, it will be included”

Describe images

Describe any images in your slides. This helps students who are blind or low-vision and it might also serve as a good way for you to describe the context of the image or how it is relevant to the slide or discussion overall.

Last modified: Feb 22, 2024