Accessibility Seen by an Instructional Designer

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As an instructional designer who also teaches in higher education, I am in the unique position to fully understand the constraints of and empathize with faculty who are faced with the task of redesigning courses to make them accessible.  It takes time, can incur costs, seems like an enormous amount of work, and requires learning a lot of new skills in the process.

Photo: AFP Michelle McLoughlin.

At the same time, it is also part of my job to inform faculty about the law and to assist and encourage them to meet accessibility standards. My message is often met with resistance, but over the years, I’ve discovered some tips and tricks that can make this process seem less daunting and that secure better cooperation from faculty. First, identify and use an Accessibility Checklist.  There are plenty of them out there.

 An Accessibility Checklist helps instructors identify potential accessibility areas of concern and provides easy solutions while instructors are building course content. 

When instructors prepare a document for distribution online, whether it is submitted in the learning management system (LMS) via email or on a website, following an accessibility checklist helps to ensure they are meeting Section 508 guidelines.  Some of these guidelines include using standard font styles and headers; color contrast; alternate text; and a course organization structure that is easy for students to navigate.

Second, be proactive not reactive.  Instructors need to be proactive about creating accessible content because more students with disabilities are entering higher education than ever before.  They are coming from high schools where they received services into universities and colleges where it is up to them to self-disclose and many of them do not.

Additionally, more online videos and multimedia are used in educational programs than ever before.  More and more online courses are being offered by institutions making accessible content extremely important. Just one complaint can put your institution on notice. There have been recent lawsuits against universities and colleges for insufficient accommodations (Lewin, 2015). These accommodations could have been as simple as providing equal access to materials in a timely fashion. Planning and doing ahead is necessary because, most of the time, it’s not realistic to redo online course content on the fly while simultaneously teaching the course.

Third, take baby steps.  If you are an instructional designer, provide a list of doable items for instructors that will make the task seem like just making simple adjustments to existing documents. There are simple things that can be done during the winter or summer breaks and once a course is built out, it can be copied forward from semester to semester. Five key pointers I share with faculty are:

1. All images need title and description text (alt text). When inserting an image in the LMS, it will prompt you to add these.  All images that convey meaning should have alt text.  Images that are purely decorative and have no meaning can be left blank.  Images inserted into Word, Excel or PowerPoint should also have alt text, as should PDFs.

2. Use headers for dividing content. Students with vision impairments use screen readers for navigating content.  The screen reader will call out the headers so students can tab through them to get to the content they need.  Use the built-in header styles in your LMS or within Microsoft Office documents with any documents you upload online.

3. Use appropriate colors. Make sure there is good color contrast between the background and foreground text.  Colors should not be used to solely convey meaning (use bold, caps, italics to do this).  Do not use too many colors.  Keep it simple.  Ensure good text/background contrast (example: don’t put yellow letters on a white background).

4. Find a captioning solution for videos and audio. This could be anything from a homegrown solution (auto-captions in YouTube) to purchasing a solution – either way, ensure videos are captioned. Talk to the disability services provider on campus or to the deans/department heads.  They may have funds to help cover the costs.  Your institution may already have a captioning solution.  If they don’t, consider using student workers to help with some of the load.

5. Use the Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Office Accessibility checker. Microsoft Office products and Adobe Acrobat Reader Pro both have a built-in accessibility checker that will run through your documents and flag areas of concern.  Scan your documents before uploading them to your LMS or online. This tool is very helpful and beneficial to both instructional designers and to faculty as well.

So how do we convince faculty of the need for accessibility? Remind them that it’s the law and that, based on what we know today about learning, it makes sense. According to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, everyone should have access to the same educational experiences (OCR) and the ability to learn in ways that best suit them. Student A learns in different ways from Student B. Accessible design is universal design, a concept in which faculty design and compose learning spaces (including online) so they can be accessed, understood, and used by all regardless of age, sex, disability or learning style (NDA).

Accessibility benefits all – not just students with disabilities.  Think of ESL students. They may not fully understand lectures while in class, but if PowerPoints or class notes are provided, they can be reviewed. The same is true of captioned videos which have both text and audio. Instructors must be mindful and make learning spaces (both face-to-face classrooms as well as online classrooms) as access-friendly as possible.

As an instructional designer, I know that it can be challenging working with faculty who are already overloaded.  They don’t have time to go back through all of their materials and it’s frustrating to them.  I completely get it. That’s why I try to allay their concerns and let them know that we are here to help them. Many times, it is just a subtle mind shift that needs to occur along with a lot of hand-holding before faculty are comfortable flying on their own. I have faith that they all will get there with our help and support.   


Lewin, T. (2015, February 12). Harvard and M.I.T. Are Sued Over Lack of Closed Captions. Retrieved from NY Times:

NDA. (n.d.). Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. Retrieved from NDA:

OCR. (n.d.). Protecting Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education:


AFP Michelle McLoughlin.

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