Text Accessibility typed on retro typewriter

Creating Accessible Content for Digital Learning Spaces

Care needs to be taken when building our digital learning spaces (including within our LMS, the digital content we share with students, any publisher content and more)–just as much thought and purposiveness, as we take in designing our physical spaces!  The basic principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) give us a framework for how to start developing these spaces, but many people don’t know where to start when it comes to creating course content and materials that are accessible.

Get to know your accessibility checkers & tools

The word processing programs we use at UMPI are Microsoft Office and Google’s GSuite for Education tools, both of these have accessibility checkers you can utilize:

Best practices across any type of content:

We have looked at the advantages of creating different types of content, to engage learners–now let’s look at how we can keep all the different kinds of content we create accessible!

Headings allow learners with visual impairment to understand and navigate the logical structure of the and to make sense of the content. Unfortunately, if the page headings are only made of bold text or large font size, a screen reader cannot make sense of the hierarchy or help the users quickly go to the section they wanted. Every page should have an H1 heading (this may be the page title), then H2 Heading as the major section headings, followed by H3 for sub-sections, then H4, etc. The headings also need to be used in the correct order (think of the structure as an outline–because it is in fact and outline).  Let’s take a quick look at this process in Word:

Once you start utilizing the heading features to format, you may notice that you are able to use that structure you created to create an interactive outline of your document in Microsoft Word and Google Docs.  Other formatting tricks, to design accessibly and create a better reading experience for your entire audience include utilizing the footnote feature (instead of just placing an “*” for example) and utilizing a sans serif font for digital text.  Don’t forget to utilize the headings feature in the LMS as well!

Lists convey a visually hierarchical content structure–which helps many readers group content in meaningful ways and can break-up long paragraph text. However, if you do not utilize the list-formatting tools, then screen readers do not read your listed items as a list AND you may be setting yourself up for formatting errors as you try to copy and paste your content from one place to another.  Luckily listing formatting tools (like bullets and numbers) in Word and Docs makes it a snap–let’s look at Docs:


You can also check out the list-formatting features in Word and the LMS!

A table contains columns or rows that display related data in the grid. A sighted user may be able to quickly make a visual association between the data and the row/column headers. The challenge those who cannot see, is they to make the visual associations–so they cannot rely on color variation and bold-face alone to determine headers or reading order. Luckily, with some savvy formatting, a screenreader will be able to navigate the cells, rows, and columns in a way that makes you data make sense. For an even more detailed explanation, please see the article WebAIM – Creating Accessible Tables.  Let’s look at creating accessible tables, and checking the reading order in Word and Powerpoint:

Even though Google Docs editing is a bit more limited, they also have tools to create tables accessibly.  The LMS also has the ability to create accessible tables.

The most common accessibility issue is images that do not contain alternative text (alt-text). Alt-text is read by a screen reader in place of the image, which allows the learners with visual impairment to access the information. This can be especially problematic when the images we are utilizing convey learning information that a student may not be able to access–one example of this is the use of content-heavy infographics, informational charts, and data-heavy graphs.

Alt-text should be a brief, concise yet accurate description of what the picture is conveying.  The University of Leicester has some great how-to guidance to get you started if you are new to descriptive text writing.

There are some quick and easy ways to add alt-text to images (wherever they may be), and once you get in the habit of building these ‘tags’ in as you go, it will be no trouble at all!  Let’s look at the process of adding alt-text to images to a Word document:

The ‘how-to’ added alt-text to a word document is also the same process as adding alt-text to images across all of the Microsoft Office products.  You can also add alt-text to GSuite products like Docs, and directly in the LMS’s content editor.

If you are struggling with creating meaningful alt-text for your complex data-rich images, please see the comprehensive e-book, Complex Images for All Learners

When utilizing hyperlinks in your content to link to a website, article, or document, instead of simply copy/pasting the URL, insert the link using an “insert link” tool and give the link a meaningful title (preferably the name of the website, article, or document, or a description of what it is). Having a long web address in the middle of your content is not only unpleasant-looking, but it is also inaccessible and meaningless to screen readers and sighted readers alike. Giving your link a title, not only makes your document look more professional and organized, but it allows users (and all readers) of assistive technology to search a page for certain links more effectively.  This process will be the same throughout all of you digital content, whether through Gsuite, Office, emails, the LMS and more!

Let’s look at an example of this in action, from Portland Community College:  

Studies show that about 8% of men worldwide have some sort of color-blindness or color-vision deficiency. In areas of predominately Caucasian populations, that can increase to 10-11%.  The most common type of colorblindness affects the red-green spectrum. In the images below, you can see the contrast between what someone with the ability to see on the full-color spectrum sees, compared with someone who has red-green color-blindness. Notice that those with colorblindness may see these colors in a grayed-out version of varying hues that might be very difficult to distinguish–this is essential when creating color-coded text or graphic displays (because a color-blind student may not be able to distinguish color-cues alone). 

red and green apples displayed with a color-bland filter

By Bluestring – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9923599

Because of this, it is important to not use color alone to convey information. For example, if you need to create a bar chart using different colors, have the bar also be textured too. This way if someone can’t distinguish the color, they can distinguish it by texture. If a line chart, have dashed and dotted lines to accompany the color. If you use colored text for emphasis, bold or italicize it too. Color is okay as long as it is used in the right way.

Keep in mind that color contrast between background colors and text colors (or even an image or clipart) needs to be sufficient as well. Avoid dark fonts on a dark-colored background and light fonts on an overly light-colored background.  If you are unsure, you can use a color contrast tool (linked below):

  • Check your color contrast with Monsido
  • Check your color contrast with WebAIM
The combination of text and video makes an incredibly powerful duo. And while we typically think of video as an audio-visual medium, text can also create another (supportive) way for all viewers (not just those with sight impairments) to access the content.  Transcripts of audio captions can also be utilized to serve as a study aid, or for your own content analysis.

Kaltura is our system-supported video streaming service, which means that if you DO get an accommodation request for professional captions, you will be able to collaborate easily with the Disability Services office and CTL to get your videos captioned.  Kaltura also makes it very easy to fix your captions and obtain transcripts:

Fixing captions in Kaltura:

Getting and editing transcripts in Kaltura:

Use Kaltura

Kaltura is our only fully supported video hosting platform for the University of Maine System.  Whenever possible, stream your video and audio content in Kaltura.  If you get an accommodation request for professional captions–Kaltura is the service that Disability Services works with to order your video captions.  

A note on PDFs

PDFs, when scanned, generally register as image–not text, which makes them completely inaccessible.  If you are in the process of scanning text to upload to a PDF–you are responsible for the remediation to make it accessible.  Start by selecting the OCR setting in the ‘advanced settings’ of the scanner, and then open the document in Word or Google docs, to fix any formatting or omission issues.

Be mindful publisher data

Just because it is so great, and maybe even free, does not mean it’s accessible.  Check out the useful Guidelines From PCC:

Have a back-up plan

Remember, that the content we collect and curate are teaching tools–and sometimes those tools are fantastic, but they should not be the end-all, be-all of our courses.  Keep your purpose in mind, and always have a handy alternative in case you need to swap out a piece of content for an accommodation request.