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Your Course Accessibility Checklist

Yes, it's possible to embed accessibility into the course creation process, without expending too much time or effort. Here are things to consider during each development phase.


"If you are teaching an online course, the chances are you have a student with a disability," according to Jason Khurdan, department administrator in the Office of Disability Services at Rutgers University (NJ). Regardless of whether a university considers accessibility a priority now, he said, "eventually they will because it is becoming an issue that is more apparent in society as a whole."

Khurdan spoke about accessibility issues at a Rutgers-hosted online learning conference in New Brunswick, NJ, this past January. He started his presentation by giving a live demonstration of the struggles a student would have using an NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) screen reader on a typical syllabus he found online. "Attendees saw how difficult it was to work through this document. Images weren't tagged. It was difficult to find the accessibility statement," said Khurdan. He noted that one survey of online distance learning Web pages found that only 23 percent of pages were accessible.

Like other universities around the country, Rutgers has ramped up its efforts to make both online and traditional courses accessible. In an interview with Campus Technology, Khurdan described how faculty members can embed accessibility into their course creation process — without having to become experts or devote inordinate amounts of time to the effort. He breaks that process up into four distinct phases, each with a checklist of recommendations.

1) Research Phase

Meet with campus experts. Developing a course takes many groups of people and skill sets, pointed out Khurdan. He recommends that faculty members set up meetings with the following groups:

  • Office of Disability Services: The staffers here can provide you with great insights into how to make items more accessible. And thanks to their firsthand experience working with students and other instructors, they can help troubleshoot problems you may encounter.
  • IT/LMS management: The folks who manage your learning management system know it inside and out, and chances are the problems you encounter are not unique. Working with them will help you better design your course for all students.
  • Libraries: Libraries are essentially warehouses of information, and librarians have spent countless hours sifting through and collecting those pearls of wisdom.
  • Classroom Support: Support personnel can help you understand what audio options are available, as well as WiFi. Students who use CART (communication access real-time translation) may rely on that connection to view the live stream on their laptops or mobile devices.

Accessibility Resource

The University of Washington has developed an online IT accessibility checklist along with extensive how-tos: As the site notes, many of the items in UW's checklist apply to Web pages and Web-based applications; electronic documents in Microsoft Word, Adobe PDF and other formats; and other products and services that are not specifically Web-based.

Consider academic standards. Khurdan said faculty members must ask themselves what the academic standards are for a course, because those will be used to determine whether an accessibility accommodation is considered reasonable. For example, the use of a calculator will clearly violate the standards of an Algebra I course where students are expected to memorize multiplication tables. This may not be true of a psychology course that requires students to apply appropriate statistical principles.

2) Development Phase

Put together a required reading list.For students who need their books in alternate format text, it's a good idea to publish your required reading lists as soon as possible. If you are posting things online, try to use accessible versions of text whenever possible.

Include an accessibility statement in your syllabus. An accessibility statement provides information on where students with disabilities should go if they need assistance. Encourage students to speak with you in private about any accessibility challenges they may be facing. Keep the conversation focused on challenges they may be having accessing information.

Are course documents accessible?Font type, color and size can all have an impact on a document's accessibility.

  • Use readable fonts such as Arial, Verdana and other sans serif fonts. Try to avoid ornate, cursive-type fonts that may be difficult for someone with a visual impairment to read.
  • Bigger is better. As we get older we all have trouble reading, so avoid using small font sizes.
  • Stick to black on white. Some individuals may have a disability that makes it difficult to see contrast. To check if your foreground and background colors are accessible, try passing them through a color contrast checker on the Web.
  • Avoid using color on its own to represent meaning or distinguish between items. When possible, combine color with shapes or use written content to distinguish between items. For example, a line chart may have two series listed on it: one with round markers along it, and another with diamond markers along it.
  • Style guides can help. The style guide function in Word is a simple way for faculty to incorporate accessibility into documents, suggested Khurdan. "Documents have structure. Start building structure into everything you do, so that people with visual impairment can follow along."

3) Design Phase

Pay attention to navigation. Can a student with a disability navigate your course materials with the same ease that other students can? A variety of tactics can help improve accessibility:

  • Use consistent navigation on all of your pages;
  • Make navigation items easy to understand;
  • Make sure that course materials can be navigated with a screen reader and with the use of the keyboard or other assistive technology;
  • Avoid iframes, as screen readers have a difficult time processing them; and
  • If you are a developer, use ARIA landmarks to clearly define navigation sections.

Ask the host of your LMS:

  • Can students access and navigate my site easily with a screen reader? Have you tested it with a screen reader?
  • For students who need to use CART services, is there a module available to plug captions into the course?

Include captions. If you use video, take steps to have the video captioned or provide a transcription of the video if applicable. If you are posting audio, include a transcription file along with it.

4) Implementation Phase

Communicate up front with students. On Day 1, as you go over the syllabus, let students know that if they have or believe they have a disability and need assistance, they should speak with their Disability Services office.

Remember exams. Work with your IT department and LMS management team to ensure that any exam is accessible with a screen reader. If a student presents you with a letter for extended time, you should also work with him or her to help you determine how to make those arrangements online. If faculty members approach the Office of Disability Services about these issues during the research phase, Khurdan noted, they can head off problems before they come up. "If you let us know the day of the exam, it doesn't do us a whole lot of good."

Accessibility Auditing

At George Mason University (VA), an effort to streamline the development of new distance education courses has accentuated the importance of integrating accessibility into course design — and making sure accessibility can be audited across the whole university.

According to IT Accessibility Coordinator Kara Zirkle, new distance education courses at George Mason used to go through a yearlong "4P" process (proposal, production, pilot and portfolio) that included an accessibility section. But the lengthy process was holding back course development. "We just weren't able to push out as many courses as we would have liked to from Distance Education's perspective," she said.

So instructional designers moved to a program called the Online Course Development Institute (OCDI) that shrinks the process down from a year to only six weeks. Faculty members focus on creating just one module rather than their whole course. Accessibility issues take up one of the six weeks. Faculty members have to take one of the documents they created and make it accessible, as well as add captions to their videos.

"We have a checklist we use as an audit document," Zirkle explained. Items on the list include: Do you have the most up-to-date disability statement in the syllabus? Do you have the accessible document structures and tables? If you are providing links in the course, do you also provide a PDF version of that link? In addition, Zirkle said, "The OCDI process introduces faculty members to our office and its services. We provide free captioning and free document conversion."

Once the course material goes through an audit, if the issues are minor, some faculty members address them themselves while others require more help or ask to learn how to make changes on a regular basis. "One of the biggest issues we saw in early reviews involved videos not being captioned," Zirkle said. "Well, we offer that as a free service, so that is an easy fix." Another common issue involves the supplemental applications offered by textbook companies, she added.

Since September 2015, George Mason has made the course audit process available to the whole university (not just distance education) through its Assistive Technology Initiative. Still, Zirkle said, distance education courses are usually the most difficult to figure out how to make accessible. "If you can figure out how to make that online course accessible, that trickles down to all other courses," she said.

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