Ideas About Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning

Keyboard with icons people with limited mobility, hearing, and sight.

I. Introduction

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) assures that online courses are accessible to everyone, including people who learn differently than others. Assuring that all students can take advantage of a course’s educational material is not only fair, it represents one of HotChalk’s core tenets: “Every mind matters.”

1. Key Concepts and Terms

Becoming familiar with concepts related to accessibility is an important first step in creating courses available to all types of learners. The following glossaries present key ideas and provide useful vocabulary for talking about disabilities and how to accommodate them:

2. Understanding the Value of Accessibility

What follows reiterates some of the most important ideas from a course on UDL provided by Instructure, the makers of the Learning Management System (LMS), Canvas. It also aims to engender collaboration among the members of HotChalk’s Learning Design Team and beyond. By sharing our knowledge of accessible design, and by helping to make UDL an integral part of instructional design practice, we can not only respect the legal obligations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but can also take steps towards meeting our ethical obligation to make our services available to all students.  Moreover, even in the absence of disability, accessibility is good pedagogy, since accessible courses provide learners with a variety of ways to interact with materials, thereby increasing opportunities for student engagement.

To practice UDL, you must understand one of the basic aspects of disability itself, namely, that it is a social phenomenon. Disabilities have been (and still often are) conceived of as an individual’s inability to do something because of a physiological or psychological condition that limits activities or senses. A disability is more productively understood not as a limitation of the individual, but instead as a social issue, caused by an environment that inhibits the person who is disabled.

The social model of disability confirms that, in the right environment, many disabilities become simply differences. For example, a person who is blind cannot read a book without raised print; given a text in braille, however, many who are blind read as fast as their sighted peers. Provided with the right tools and environment, a disability can even become an advantage.  Athlete, model, and advocate, Aimée Mullins is a good example of someone who has used her physical differences to excel. Although her legs were amputated soon after birth because of a genetic defect, Mullins has used prosthetics to make herself taller and faster, both significant advantages for her professional activities.  As she herself argues in her TED talk, The Opportunity of Adversity, disabilities are caused by an inappropriate environment, not by an inappropriate person. Viewed as such, adversity can create opportunities for ingenuity and transformation, which is a way of looking at the world from which anyone can benefit.


II. The Basics of Universal Design for Learning

Although the ADA was passed in 1990, amended in 2008, and updated in 2010, it does not currently include information about web-learning in its Standards for Accessible Design. This does not mean, however, that educators and those who provide educational opportunities (like HotChalk) are not legally obligated to make their materials accessible. As numerous recent lawsuits have demonstrated, students have an unquestionable right to accessible materials, despite the inadequacy of policies or laws.

Making content accessible depends upon appropriate practices at all strata of an institution’s hierarchy. At an institutional- or company-wide level, best practices include the following considerations:

  1. There should be policies and procedures based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) that clearly outline expectations and requirements for accessibility.
  2. Since universities and their industry partners are responsible for the materials they provide, they should regularly conduct accessibility audits of both courses and student services.
  3. Institutions and companies should designate staff to monitor accessibility and enforce policies. Doing so might mean training the people involved in the quality assurance process to look for problems with accessibility.

For those of us designing and building courses, UDL has both guiding principles and basic practices, neither of which is hard to incorporate into our work. When creating online learning materials, instructional designers should strive to include in their courses:

  1. Multiple means of representation: Providing more than one way of understanding the material will accommodate a variety of learning styles. Course writers and designers should strive to include textual, visual, and auditory opportunities for learning in their courses.
  2. Multiple means of engagement: Linking material to students’ lives and experiences will not only reach a greater variety of students, it will also allow them to incorporate what they have learned into their own lives, thereby helping them to apply that knowledge.
  3. Multiple means of action and expression: Providing a variety of assessment strategies, whether written, visual, or auditory, allows students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that capitalize on their strengths while minimizing the impact of their disabilities.


III. Practical Strategies for Creating Accessible Learning Materials

Although creating materials that are accessible to all learners may seem daunting, much of the technology commonly used both by HotChalk and the educational industry as a whole already contain tools to facilitate the creation of accessible webpages.

1. Screen Readers and Accessibility Checkers

One of Instructional Designers’ primary concerns should be the legibility for screen readers of the pages they create. Although most browsers have built-in screen readers, they are not generally as capable of relaying all information on a page as tools specifically created for the task, such as the widely used NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader. Even sophisticated tools depend upon correctly constructed pages containing meta-information easily interpreted by the screen reader.

The WAVE Accessibility Checker, a free extension for the Chrome browser, is a good way to become familiar with the way screen readers navigate a page. As the screenshot below shows, Wave identifies the elements of a page used by a screen reader, and signals problems and ambiguities. Using it as a proofreader to check both page structure and accessibility provides another means of improving the quality of our work. Designers can then go a step further by actually testing their pages using screen readers like the aforementioned NVDA.

Object Lessons blog scanned with the WAVE Accessibility Checker

Many modern LMSs, like Canvas, now have accessibility checkers built into them. Although they do not review pages as comprehensively as WAVE, they are an easy way to spot major accessibility problems in any page.

2. Basic Design Principles

Once a designer understands how screen readers interact with online text, it is easier to create pages that do it well. Hierarchical organization in the development and presentation of ideas is essential to comprehensibility. Purdue University’s resource on the Four Main Components for Effective Outlines (i.e., parallelism, coordination, subordination, and division) is a good reminder of how to create logically sound outlines.

IV. General Advice for Creating Webpages

Once your material has been properly organized, there are some basic principles of UDL to keep in mind when creating documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, and webpages in general:

    1. Use headings to give your document structure. (Canvas headings are document reader compatible; MS Word has a similar feature.)
    2. Use layout tools like margins, tabs, and styles, to format your text. Extra spaces and paragraphs are not effective layout tools and can cause problems with screen readers.
    3. Use alternative text (aka Alt Text) to attach titles and descriptions to images for people who cannot see them.
      1. Review How to use Alt Text to learn the best practices for doing so.
      2. Note that purely decorative images can be left without descriptions, which will cause them to be skipped by the screen reader.
    4. Identify the language of your document; screen readers can often read aloud in more than one language, if it is identified.
    5. Do not use color to convey information; it isn’t communicated by screen readers.
    6. Choose appropriate fonts:
      1. Favor high-contrast fonts, and consider using unorthodox color schemes, like white text against a black background, which is easier to see.
      2. Use 12pt or larger.
      3. Avoid fancy fonts, including seraph fonts, which are harder to read for people with limited sight.
      4. Avoid special formatting, like underlining or bold, or at least use it sparingly.
    7. Set up tables properly, because they can be a challenge for screen readers to decipher.
      1. Use them sparingly, and keep their formatting simple.
      2. Identify headers, whether for rows or columns.
    8. Explain all acronyms or abbreviations.
    9. Use explanatory hyperlinks, rather than presenting the link itself, which will be incomprehensible when pronounced by a screen reader. For example, it is better to write, “Visit the course homepage” with an embedded link, instead of “Visit the course homepage:

Advice for Creating DOCs, PPTs, and PDFs:

  1. Using templates in Microsoft products creates documents that are already set up to work well with screen readers.
  2. PDFs created from scanned documents are not compatible screen readers, since they are merely an image of a document. Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) can create legible documents, although it often is highly inaccurate and is likely to require editing. Word processing documents are generally preferable to PDFs.
  3. Add tags to PDFs to identify headings, alt text, lists, and tables.

Advice for Creating Pages in Canvas

Using Canvas’ rich content editor correctly can help make a page screen reader friendly. Instructure’s course on UDL includes specific recommendations for taking advantage of features built into Canvas . Other good practices include the decision to:

  1. Limit the number of navigation links on left menu. Reorder them so that the most important are first.
  2. Organize text by using headers (Header 2, Header 3, etc.) to structure the information on your page hierarchically.
  3. Create smaller discussion groups, especially in larger classes, so that threads are easier to keep track of.
  4. Extend time for quizzes and tests, if necessary, using Canvas’ ability to apply different rules to different users or groups within the class.
  5. Give a variety of assignments that address all styles of learning.
  6. Add transcriptions to video/audio content, if not already provided.
    1. When creating your own video, consider using a script; they often result in better videos and also provide a ready-made transcript.
    2. Although YouTube automatically generates captions, they are usually inadequate and must be edited. (Note that YouTube captions don’t contain punctuation.)

Taking the time to observe the best practices of UDL is well worth the effort. Not only will it help students with disabilities to succeed, it will also make courses easier to understand for everyone.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Ideas About Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning

by Tom Armbrecht